The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

Engle, Margarita. 2012. The Wild Book. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0547581316

Fefa is a young girl growing up with dyslexia on the Cuban countryside in the early 1900s.  Fefa and her mother are told by a doctor that Fefa will not learn to read or write properly and that she will not be happy or successful in school. Refusing to accept this, Fefa’s mother gives her a blank journal and from there the story follows Fefa as she attacks her challenge with the written language head-on as well as some insight into Cuba’s history.

The Wild Book is a free verse novel written by an award-winning author, Margarita Engle. Because this is a novel in verse, the text doesn’t rhyme or have a distinct rhythm. Fefa tells you her story through several different poems that make up this book. Each word is carefully chosen to fit into the story and demonstrate Fefa’s challenges with the written language. The text is arranged in a way to show the challenges Fefa has with reading and writing.

For example,
“When I scramble the sneaky letters
b and d, or the even trickier ones
r and l, Mama helps me learn
how to picture
the sep-a-rate

The text often breaks down to show Fefa’s process like the words “mys-te-ri-ous” or “syl-la-ble”. While the book has no illustrations, the way the book is written gives you a some mental imagery about what is going on in Fefa’s world. The reader can empathize with Fefa’s frustration with her dyslexia and struggle to write in her blank book.

One of the great things about this book is its historical reference. There is an author’s note in the back that gives the reader some background information about the term “word-blindness” and what her grandmother told her about growing up in Cuba in that time.

I don’t particularly like novels in verse or free verse poetry either. This book is no exception. I really enjoy history and am a lover of historical fiction. I would’ve much rather read the story about Fefa as a story and not like this. I think this could’ve been really great but it missed the mark for me.

The Wild Book is a new novel but is predicted to receive several awards in the upcoming year.

“A beautiful tale of perseverance.”—Kirkus Review
“A lyrical glimpse of early twentieth-century Cuba.” -Booklist
“The idea of a wild book on which to let her words sprout is one that should speak to those with reading difficulties and to aspiring poets as well.”–School Library Journal

This book would be an excellent choice for an interdisciplinary unit between an ELA and history class. Margarita Engle’s works would be great in a featured author lesson or in a poetry unit.

*Other novels in verse by Margarita Engle include:
Engle, Margarita. The Surrender Tree. ISBN 0805086749
Engle, Margarita. The Poet Slave of Cuba. ISBN 0312659288
Engle, Margarita. Tropical Secrets. ISBN 0805089365
Engle, Margarita. The Firefly Letters. ISBN 0805090827


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