Margarita Engle is the national Young People's Poet Laureate and a Cuban American poet, novelist, and author. Her many verse novels include The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor Book, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Hurricane Dancers, The Firefly Letters, and Tropical Secrets.
We spoke to her about her latest book set in Nepal, A Dog Named Haku
The spark was when I listened as Amish Karanjit, my son-in-law, told a fascinating story from his childhood, about searching for a stray dog to feed during the festival. He is such a wonderful oral storyteller that I kept suggesting a written version. As a scientist, he didn't seem inclined to write it on his own, so we collaborated, and with his story, my experience, and my daughter Nicole Karanjit's help, we produced a sweet picture book manuscript intended as a mirror for my half-Nepali granddaughter, Maya Karanjit.
As an advocate of own voices, I am in an unusual, and admittedly awkward position, because I truly just wanted to help Amish publish this story, but I am not Nepali, and I can't pretend to be familiar with any aspect of Nepali culture. It is his story. I just felt certain that without my writing and publishing experience, it would not stand a chance with publishers. It is authentic because it is a story from Amish's own childhood, combined with his family's survival during the 2015 earthquake. They had to sleep outdoors for weeks to avoid aftershocks.
We had finished the manuscript, and we were ready to send it out. Then the earthquake struck. We felt the need to rewrite the book, incorporating the way dogs searched for survivors. I have donated my portion of the book advance to earthquake recovery in Nepal, which is ongoing, even though you never hear about it in the news anymore.
I have a great deal of experience with search and rescue dogs, because my husband has been volunteering with wilderness search and rescue in the California mountains since 2001, and I have spent all those years hiding in the forest so dogs can practice finding a "lost" person.
Illustration is separate from writing. The editor, Carol Hinz, chose the illustrator, Ruth Jeyaveeran. They worked together on visual images. Fortunately, Amish had a chance to see previews and make suggestions. For instance, he requested that temples in Kathmandu be shown as terra cotta-hued, rather than white, because they would not have been authentic without that detail.
Other choices were made by Ruth. For instance, Amish did not feel that the holy men should wear sunglasses, but Ruth did, because she wanted to blend ancient and modern influences. In that case, the editor allowed Ruth to make the visual decision. This is the way picture book illustrations are done. It's teamwork. Everyone compromises.
I love both. When I'm writing a long verse novel, I get lost in the world of the story for one or more years. When I write a picture book, I'm lost in another time and place for only a few weeks, but then I wait at least two years before seeing illustrations, so it's the world's most exquisitely SLOW form of suspense!
CCBC statistics still show the need for an abundance, and a wide variety, of own voice children's books. I hope they will classify A Dog Named Haku as Amish Karanjit's voice, not mine, but I do realize that it is an unusual project, a hybrid of own voice and an experienced voice. During the twelve years since my first children's book was published, the biggest changes I've noticed are a willingness by publishers to offer simultaneous Spanish editions of picture books, and a willingness to publish biographies of people who until recently would not have been considered "famous enough" for biographies.
I'm incredibly grateful for both these improvements, but I do see a critical need for other changes too. For instance, as Young People's Poet Laureate, I have been frustrated while searching for new books by Native American and Asian American poets, so that I can recommend them on the Poetry Foundation website. I find quite a few new African American and Latino poetry books, but Native and Asian are two categories where adult poetry books are in an incredibly exciting stage, but for some reason, those amazing Native and Asian poets are either choosing not to write for children, or publishers are not accepting their poetry. WE NEED DIVERSE POETRY!
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