Hispanic Heritage Month is from September 15th to October 15th, and to celebrate, we are Spotlighting The Lightning Dreamer, written by Margarita Engle, the first Latino awarded the Newbery Honor and the Poetry Foundation’s sixth Young People’s Poet Laureate.A Golden Sower nominee, The Lightning Dreamer also has the unique distinction of being awarded the Pura Belpré honor, an award presented to a Latino/Latina writer who “best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” Inspired by Engle’s Cuban heritage, this title is a historical fiction novel written in verse, following one of the country’s most prominent female writers, feminists, and abolitionists- Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, known here, as Tula.
Slavery was a way of life in nineteenth-century Cuba, and for young Tula, she believes that her future in an arranged marriage would be a similar kind of endless servitude. Cuban women were expected to be quiet and listen to the men rather than think for themselves—something Tula did a lot. And when she begins to read the banned works of abolitionist poet José María Heredia, her ideas grow restless and revolutionary. Breaking from expectations, Tula starts to write plays for the local orphanage, and her open views on abolition inspire her family’s cook to flee from the looming threat of enslavement. But her bold actions are belittled and mocked by her mother and others, and Tula is sent away from home after refusing an arranged marriage. At her grandfather’s estate, she falls in love with a former slave named Sab, who is desperately in love with another girl who will not have him because of his dark skin. His story moves Tula deeply, and as we follow her throughout the years, she becomes more confident and outspoken with her abolitionist and feminist poetry, even though the very act could put her in jail- or worse.
Written for readers in middle grades and up, The Lightning Dreamer serves as an introduction to Avellaneda (Tula) and other great abolitionist Latino poets such as José María Heredia and Jose Marti (a particular inspiration to Engle) and includes short bios and excerpts from Avellaneda and Heredia to tie the reader into the real-life story. While Engle’s depiction of Avellaneda meeting Sab is wholly fictional, the story is not. Avellaneda’s first and most controversial novel, Sab, about an enslaved Cuban boy in love with his master’s daughter, explores the humanity and ethics of Sab against the amoral white characters, a stance unheard of at the time. The novel was banned from her home country of Cuba because of the interracial love story, its critique of marriage, and its criticism of societal norms. While published a decade before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the two share similar backgrounds and critical receptions when read today. Like many of Engle’s novels, The Lightning Dreamer centers around young people who choose hope in hopeless situations, which many may experience today. And Avellaneda put herself at considerable risk to publish Sab and bring hope to her home.
If you’re interested in requesting The Lightning Dreamer for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 8 copies available. (A librarian must request items)
Engle, Margarita. The Lightning Dreamer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 2013