Review: Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle

Two countries.
Two families.
Two sets of words.

It is impossible not to be entranced by Enchanted Air, a book that is as beautiful and buoyant as it is acutely observant. In this work of memoir in verse, Margarita Engle transports readers back to the early 1960s: Told in short free verse pieces, Enchanted Air follows Engle’s early adolescent years traveling between Cuba and the Los Angeles. When Margarita and her sister travel to see their mother’s family in Cuba, Margarita feels like a truer version of herself than the one who lives in smoggy Los Angeles – as if she had an “invisible twin who never left this island.”

The vacations are curtailed when the Cold War casts fear and suspicion in the United States. With their Cuban mother and Ukrainian American father, Margarita struggles with a profound sense of fragmentation. But in spite of tense sociopolitical relations, Engel shows how hope can always be found in books, writing, travel, and art.

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And of course, since I’m always interested in the connections between literature and the real, lived experiences of immigration, I’ll be connecting this book to the experiences of transnational teens today: specifically, Palestinian American teenagers growing up in the U.S. during the Israel-Palestine conflict, just after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Engle’s book and the accounts of these American teens will hopefully shed light on each other and ever-evolving definition of “American.”

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Representation & the YA Novel

Let’s be clear: Representation matters.

In a 1990 essay on the paucity of representation of children of color in children’s literature, Rudine Sims Bishop wrote of books as windows into others’ worlds and doors into new experiences. Anyone who grew up a lover of stories can attest to this joy, the sparking of wonder in a book.

Sims points out that books are also mirrors. Children can see themselves in positive, empowering light, reflecting their possibilities. But what happens when we consider children of color, who comprise 50% of public school students but who only populate roughly 13%  of children’s stories? Where are their mirrors, and what possibilities do they see?

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