I was recently honored to have a chance to read MORNING STAR HORSE by Margarita Engle, who has won a huge list of the most prestigious kid lit awards for her previous books: the Newbery Honor, the PEN USA Award, the inaugural Walter Dean Myers Award, three Pura Belpré Awards, and on and on and on.
MORNING STAR HORSE is a historical verse novel with a sprinkling of magic realism. It immediately engaged me with its beautiful imagery, gripping settings, and fascinating historical moment. Since I have bilingual kids, I was delighted to see it is available in English, Spanish, AND bilingual editions. I’m thrilled to be able to ask Margarita a few questions about her newest book.
JOY: MORNING STAR HORSE is a very unique blend of the historical and the fantastical. On the historical side, I was fascinated to learn about the Raja Yoga Academy, which I had never heard of (though I grew up very near Point Loma!). It’s a fascinating setting for a middle grade novel. And before the main character arrives at the academy, she lives the first few years of her life in a cave and then emerges to explore the island of Cuba. Can you talk a little about how setting informs your work, and how the verse format plays into your use of setting?
MARGARITA: Thank you! The settings come straight from history. Entire armies hid in caves during Cuba’s wars for independence. It’s a limestone island, underlain by enormous networks of caverns. The Point Loma setting is historical also, since the Raja Yoga Academy was a real school. Admittedly, I added the magical horse, and perhaps I exaggerated the bioluminescent glow of beaches in the tropics, but that glow actually does occur, and it’s amazing when you see a flying fish leap out of a wave, illuminated by radiant water. These naturally poetic images are inherently suited to verse. I chose free verse because of the rhythmic flow. While I was writing, a horse walked, trotted, cantered, and galloped through my imagination.
JOY: Also with regards to the format of verse, middle grade is my favorite age for verse novels. Why do you think verse is such a good fit for middle grade readers? Is there anything verse allowed you to do with this story that you might not have been able to do in a prose novel?
MARGARITA: If modern American children—with all their electronic distractions—are ever going to fall in love with poetry, it is probably in the middle grade years. Verse allows me to show emotions in a way that might seem melodramatic in prose. Verse also allows me to distill complex historical events down to their emotional essence. For instance, instead of showing grisly details of the chaotic post-war situation in Cuba, these simple poems invite readers to imagine how it felt to live in that time and place.
JOY: One of the things I really loved about the book was the portrayal of Estrellita’s anger. Girls in our culture are rarely given the permission to express their anger, and I think it’s powerful for young readers to see when a character’s anger is respected. In a poem called Reflections, it says,
Now, all I do is wonder—
will there ever be a place
where this much sheer rage
That really speaks, to me, so much of being a girl, and it’s something I think present day readers will connect with a lot. Estrellita has a LOT of reasons to be angry. And at first she lets her anger consume her enough that she shifts from being bullied to being a bully. I think sometimes writers are worried about allowing their characters—female characters especially—to be “unlikable.” When really, it seems to me that allows kids to see themselves in all their complexity. Can you talk a little about Estrellita’s anger and why portraying that was important to you?
MARGARITA: Thank you! All my female characters have moments of rage, and most of them are historical characters, not fictional. Even though Estrellita is not based on a specific real person, she suffers from all the normal feelings of every child, including anger, envy, shame, joy, and above all: hope. Rage just happens to be the stumbling block that eventually leads her to an understanding of hope.
Oh I just love that. Rage as a stumbling block that leads her to an understanding of hope. That alone should convince readers to dive into MORNING STAR HORSE!
Congratulations, Margarita, on the release of MORNING STAR HORSE and thank you so much for taking the time to chat with Project Mayhem!
Project Mayhem readers, what are some of your favorite middle grade verse novels? And what are some of your favorite middle grade moments of rage? Do they lead to hope?