The Wild Book by Margarita Engle. Harcourt Children’s Books, 2012. Currently Available.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Poetry
Face Value: The colors are beautiful, evocative of the setting and the wildness of Fefa’s imagination. The girl on the cover is visibly Latina, and the other images hint at details in the story without giving anything away. This is a beautifully done middle grade cover.
Does it Break the Slate? Fefa is absolutely a Slatebreaker. Unwilling to be deterred by her mocking brothers and sisters, disparaging doctors or dyslexia itself, Fefa determinedly figures out who she is and tackles reading, despite the odds. Bonus points for her mother, who refuses to indulge the idea that reading might never be something that Fefa can achieve.
Who would we give it to? This would be an absolutely terrific book for older elementary students struggling with reading. All of Engle’s books are, actually, because the sparse poetic style gives an impression of maturity while still leaving plenty of comforting white space. Plus, Fefa’s struggles with reading are given sincere weight, while still showing progress and success in the long run.
It’s such an evocative, and slightly terrifying term. That’s the diagnosis that Fefa gets from a disaffected doctor in 1912 Cuba. Modern readers will recognize that she’s dyslexic, but imagine the fear that would come with that phrase, being handed down to you like an ultimatum. How could reading ever become something fun or meaningful, if you’ve been condemned to a lifetime of “blindness” to the meaning of the written word.
That’s what happens to Fefa, at the beginning of this book. Set in 1912 Cuba, Fefa’s challenges with reading are diagnosed with curse
“Fefa will never be able
to read, or write
or be happy
“It sounds like an evil wizard’s
And why wouldn’t it? She’s basically been condemned to fail. But luckily, her mother doesn’t believe in this curse. Instead she gives Fefa a blank book (the wild book of the title) and encourages her daughter to
“Think of this little book
as a garden,
Throw wildflower seeds all over each page…
Let the words sprout
then relax and watch
as your wild diary
Over time, Fefa fills her wild book with scrawls. She contends with cruelty from classmates and siblings. She has to deal with the emerging fear of kidnappers, and the overwhelming terror that she might be handed a ransom note that she is not able to read. But she’s still able to find moments of joy, like this one, when she’s dancing:
“Everyone says I am
a fine dancer!
Suddenly, I feel drumbeat,
I am dance-smart
when my feet
forget to worry
about the rhythms
that I know
how to tap
There are layers of complexity hidden in Engle’s short sentences. Over the course of the book, Fefa becomes confident in her abilities, takes charge of the things that frighten and deter her and takes charge of her own experiences. The afterward gives us even greater insight into her Slatebreaking status – the character is based on Engle’s grandmother who grew up to be not only a brilliant, and accomplished woman, but one who wrote beautiful letters all her life.
Reviewed from library copy.