• Happy birthday Ilse-Margret Vogel (Bad Times, Good Friends), Alice Low (The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches), Irene Haas (A Summertime Song), Allan Ahlberg (Each Peach Pear Plum), Louise Lawrence (Dream-Weaver), and Caroline Binch (Amazing Grace).
  • It’s the birth date of Richard Scarry (1919–1994), Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, and Dr. Franklyn M. Branley (1915–2002), Down Comes the Rain.
  • On this day in 1851, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery serial, Uncle Tom's Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly starts a ten-month run in the National Era abolitionist newspaper. Read Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers by Jean Fritz.

This month marks the beginning of the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico hurricane season. June also marks Caribbean-American Heritage Month. Both events are celebrated in the book of the day, Margarita Engle’s Hurricane Dancers. In a powerful, 145-page poetic novel, Engle presents a fresh and unusual look at Cuba, its history from 1509–1510, and its people.

After winning a Newbery Honor for The Surrender Tree, Engle turned to an absolutely fascinating subject for her next book: the real pirates of the Caribbean. Readers meet pirate Captain Bernardino de Talavera, an impoverished conquistador who has worked the native Indians on his land to death. To avoid debtors prison he steals a ship, takes some hostages, and becomes the first pirate of the Caribbean. One of those hostages, Alonso de Ojeda, had been governor of Venezuela and was known for selling the native people for profit. Another, Quebrado, called “the broken one” claims a Taino mother and Spanish father as his ancestors. Although this makes him an outcast, it gives him the ability to communicate in two languages.

In the first part of the book, “Wild Sea,” Engle re-creates the effect of a hurricane on water. The ship tosses, tears apart, and eventually spills out its passengers and cargo into the ocean. Then the three main characters make their way to the nearest land, off the south coast of Cuba. Although the two conquistadors ultimately are banished, Quelbrado finds a home in Cuba and provides help for two star-crossed lovers, Nairdo and Caucubu.

Engle expertly weaves details of the culture of the native people and sixteenth-century Cuban life into a story that keeps readers eager to find out what will happen. The sparseness of the text and the beauty of the poetry means that every word carries weight and meaning. I didn’t linger over the text on my first reading because I was so fascinated by the story. Only in going back for a second reading did I savor words like these: “So I work alone,/catching silvery marsh fish/in tapered baskets,/chasing swift river fish/into stone traps/and wrapping the sea’s/great gold-belly fish/in nets that fly out/over the waves/like wings.”

In a final note Engle reveals that through DNA testing she learned that she carries the “genetic marker verifying tens of thousands of years of maternal Amerindian ancestry.” Not only does she tell of incidents from history, she explores her own family’s story in the 1500s.

An extraordinary book on so many levels, this brilliantly crafted poetic novel presents subject matter completely absent from existing children’s and young adult books. Hurricane Dancers makes an excellent choice for summer reading, classroom teaching, or book discussion groups. And, of course, if you enjoy talking about books, few plots sound more intriguing than “the real story of the Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Here’s a passage from Hurricane Dancers:


Originally posted June 5, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: 16th Century, History, Hurricanes, Latino, Multicultural, Weather
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Hurricane Dancers


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Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey.

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