Thursday, March 20, 2014

Review: Margarita Engle's Silver People

In her newest free-verse novel, Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal, Newbery and Pura Belpré Award winner Margarita Engle educates us about the digging of the “monstrous ditch” (p. 111) between 1906 and 1914.

Narration shifts amongst various fictional characters, although we mostly hear from Mateo, a Cuban teenager and aspiring artist working on the canal.  In addition, we meet Anita, a Panamanian yerbera (herb seller) who befriends Mateo, and Henry, a Jamaican worker who wants to use his meager earnings to help support his family back home.

Engle also inserts voices of real historical figures like John Stevens, the American Chief Engineer of the project…

…and President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited the Canal in 1906.

Most interesting to me are the poems from the perspective of the original inhabitants of Panama – animals and plants.  The trees speak to us, as do howler monkeys, frogs, butterflies, eagles, and sloths.

Before I discuss everything I love about this book (which is a lot), I have a confession to make: poetry isn’t really my thing.  I appreciate it as an art form and love that people feel so passionately about expressing themselves with it.  Creative writing was my jam throughout middle and high school, so I’ve written a lot of poetry myself (and enjoyed doing so), but when it comes down to it, I’m a prose kind of person nowadays.

HOWEVER!  Silver People really works for me.  First of all, I love history, and Engle – as usual – has thoroughly researched her topic.  Through beautiful language and fascinating characters, she gives life to a series of historical events that I always found boring in school.  In far fewer words than a textbook, she provides us with more information about the Panama Canal than I ever learned in my history classes.  For example, I was surprised to find out that workers were segregated by nationality and ethnicity – Americans and Northern Europeans; Southern Europeans; and Caribbean Islanders – and that the first group was paid in gold, while the latter two were paid in silver.  (You'll have to read it to find out more!)

As you might guess, my very favorite part of the book was the multiple perspectives that Engle presents.  We hear from people from different countries, ethnicities, and class levels.  Because of these diverse points of view and various depictions of racial, social, and economic injustice, Silver People would be a fantastic book to use when teaching older kids about critical literacy.

And not only does Engle share different people’s points of view, but she also gives plants and animals their own voices.  I’ve heard so much in recent years about the need to integrate school subjects and increase the amounts of reading and writing in non-language-arts classes – science and social studies teachers could easily work this book into their lessons about ecology and/or the Panama Canal.

Silver People will be available on March 25th, so go grab a copy!  If you're a teacher or parent, share it with your kids, or simply enjoy it yourself.  I know I did.

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