When I write a historical YA novel in verse, I tend to use multiple voices. Hoping to portray a historical figure from more than one point of view, I allow secondary voices to flow, reacting to the main character’s influence on various lives. This is especially true if I have been able to find first person accounts from the era. Diaries and letters help take the guesswork out of research. I am especially happy whenever I have access to a firsthand description of emotions. Since my poetry focuses on the personal aspects of historical events rather than the political, I feel free to omit most of the facts and figures. I do need to understand all the background aspects myself, but I don’t want to clutter the poems. I try to present un-crowded pages that will look inviting to readers, even the reluctant ones.
In general, I find it most satisfying to imagine the voices of people I admire. I am attracted to the biographies of people who made hopeful choices during times that must have felt hopeless. The voices of villains are much harder to write, but sometimes it’s necessary. For instance, in The Poet Slave of Cuba, I based the voice of Lieutenant Death on the cold, calculating, brutal diary of a real slave-hunter. In The Surrender Tree, the voice of Weyler the Butcher comes from documented information about Spain’s military leader, who invented concentration camps during the Spanish American War. In Hurricane Dancers, both the pirate and the conquistador are based on sixteenth century historical accounts.
My next young adult novel in verse is The Wild Book (Harcourt, March, 2012), inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood struggle with dyslexia. While this can be thought of as a biographical novel, there was no research at all. It was a unique experience to imagine the youth of someone I knew and loved when she was old.
In the case of picture books, one voice is enough. In order to write Summer Birds, I read everything I could find about Merian’s life, and then I imagined her thoughts. Whether the voice in a biographical poem or story is imagined or documented, it must sound natural, so I tried to imagine the way a young girl would think about scientific observations. I tried to step out of my adult life, and recall my own fascination with butterflies when I was little.
Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a book by a Latino writer. Her other award-winning novels in verse include The Poet Slave of Cuba, Tropical Secrets, and The Firefly Letters. Her most recent books are Hurricane Dancers (Holt, 2011) and The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012).