Children, Nonfiction, Young Adult

The Wild Book, by Margarita Engle


It is the early 1900s in Cuba. Fefa (short for Josefa) lives on a tropical farm with her parents and many brothers and sisters. She is somewhere in the middle. She feels it too—being somewhere in the middle. Too young to be the teasing older sister, too old to be the indulged baby. And now she must endure the stigma and frustration of “word blindness”—an outdated term for dyslexia. The local doctor, lacking any sensitivity, has stamped that label on her and she can feel it as strongly as if it was scribbled across her forehead. Giving her reading struggles a name does not make them go away.

Meanwhile, dangers are everywhere. Alligator-like caimans lurk in the tall grasses. Bandits hide behind trees waiting to steal cattle. Kidnappers threaten to steal children at high ransoms. Her parents conceal their worries from the family, but Fefa can read the concern on their faces. Words on a page are challenges, but she isn’t blind to her troubled surroundings. She’s an old soul. A worried old soul.

Her mother gives Fefa a blank book to practice her words, “her wild book.” She carefully writes her observations. The empty pages give her freedom but words do not come easily. She reads them back slowly….syl…la…ble…by…syl…la…ble. The farm manager writes a poem in her book. She looks at him with mistrust, but doesn’t know why. A feeling.

Each sentence is brief. Each thought is powerful.

The Wild Book is beautiful! I found it by accident on our online library site, started it last night, and finished it this morning. It is told in poetic prose through the eyes and ears of Fefa. It yearns to be read out loud to fully display its cadence and vivid imagery. (“Manatees on the beach lounging like chubby mermaids.” What a great sentence!)

Every two pages is a new chapter—a new poem—moving the story forward and exploring the depths of Fefa’s troubled heart. Yet the ending is triumphant. Even better, it is the true story of the author’s grandmother.

This is a book I wish I’d had in my elementary school class library! Younger students will appreciate the rhythm. Older students will recognize its depth. This is a special book that appears deceptively simple, but possesses many layers, just like its young heroine.

Parents, read it to your children. They will have new appreciation for the safety they enjoy.

10/10 Stars

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