I received this beautiful book from Margarita’s Publisher December of last year and I deliberately postponed writing my review until now that we are celebrating women’s voices and girl power for our current bimonthly theme.
Word Blindness and Words that won’t Keep Still. As a clinician, I am familiar with dyslexia and the struggles that children (and their families) face with this reading difficulty. I have also read a few children’s books that deal with this problem – from the crazy/wacky (Roald Dahl’s Vicar of Nibbleswicke) to the inspiring (Patricia Polacco’s Junkyard Wonders), but this is the first time that it has been perceived from such a poetic vantage and once again, I am smitten.
Word blindness. The doctor hisses it like a curse. Word blindness, he repeats – some children can see everything except words. They are only blind on paper. Fefa will never be able to read, or write, or be happy in school.
Imagine receiving such a pronouncement, a curse really is the word for it, from a medical doctor. The year was in the early 1900s (possibly around 1910-1912) – and the term dyslexia was not coined yet. The book is about Margarita’s own grandmother Fefa (Josefa de la Caridad Uría Peña) as she struggled with words that somersault or even fly off the page – not keeping still. Despite what the doctor says, Fefa’s mother tells her things that her heart longed for:
Think of this little book as a garden, Mama suggests. She says it so calmly that I promise I will try. Throw wildflower seeds all over each page, she advises. Let the words sprout like seedlings, then relax and watch as your wild diary grows.
As Fefa gradually builds confidence and finds comfort in words, falling ever-so-slooowly in love with the sounds, shapes, and textures on the page – she also had to navigate her way around a period in history where bandits were omnipresent figures in most households. In the Author’s Note, Margarita explained:
It was a time of lawlessness, when bandits terrorized the countryside, kidnapping children unless their families agreed to deliver ransom money in advance.
Thus, Fefa’s apprehensions about her own reading skills grew since she felt that she needed to be able to discern which are letters/missives that are threatening as opposed to those which aren’t – somehow she sensed that her survival depended on her ability to recognize benign (or malevolent) words on paper – which proves to be true in the end.
On Verses that Heal. One of the things that made me enjoy this book tremendously was how guess-me riddles and unfettered poetic verses helped Fefa find a different nuance to unwieldy words that won’t keep still on the pages:
My drifts of verse are free words, wild and flowing. The world is filled with things that flow, like water, feelings, daydreams, wind… (p. 41)
Fefa slowly builds a tower of hope as her perception of herself slowly changes – one that goes beyond her [in]ability to read but one with a firm foundation of the way she perceives the world and the poetic tendrils that wound its way around her ever growing wild book.
More than anything, this book has also opened my eyes and made me wonder about what life would be like without words, poetry, my books – to give me breathing space – filling my soul with both radiance and darkness, profound joy and unbearable pain – my eyes moving quickly across the page, eating the words up hungrily like an intoxicated lover. Reading has transformed me into a multi-layered being – the same one that has allowed me to reach out to Fefa across time and space to share with her that the struggle of capturing those squirming words – is worth the free verse – and the jungle that is her wild book.
About Margarita Engle. I am truly excited about the fact that I will be meeting Margarita very soon as she is one of our invited guest speakers for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content here in Singapore this May. Finally, there shall be poetry in our annual festival. :) Expect more posts from me about this as May draws near.
Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. Her books include The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor book and winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the Américas Award, and the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award; the Poet Slave of Cuba, winner of the Pura Belpré Award and the Américas Award; Tropical Secrets; The Firefly Letters; and Hurricane Dancers. She lives with her husband in Northern California (taken from the jacket flap of the book – click here to be taken to Margarita’s official website).
The Wild Book by Margarita Engle. Harcourt Children’s Books, 2012. ARC provided by publisher.
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