The Wild Book by Margarita Engle


The Wild Book is a stunningly written free verse novel based upon stories author Margarita Engle’s maternal grandmother, Josepha de la Caridad Uría Pena, shared with her about growing up in the dangerous countryside of Cuba in the early twentieth century.  Early on in the novel, readers learn that Josepha, known as Fefa, struggles with word-blindness (dyslexia).  Despite Fefa’s frustration with the disorder, her mother is her biggest fan and encourages her to disregard the labels everyone has given her.  The disability is quickly put into perspective, however, when Fefa finds out her family may be in danger as wild bandits roam free during this turbulent time in her country’s history. Though she initially experiences feelings of worthlessness due to her disorder and the environmental anxieties, Fefa’s confidence slowly builds, until she is named a heroine in the end when she carefully reads a ransom note and exposes her friend as a fraud.  Fefa eventually comes to terms with her word-blindness when in the end she declares, “So I pick up one of the thick books I used to hate, and I open its gate-shaped cover, and I let my strong eyes travel, slowly exploring.”

Generally, Engle presents her writing in a consistent flow of 5-10 line paragraphs containing an average of four to six words per line.  However, single words are presented cascading down the page when Fefa is working to master reading and writing by slowing her brain down. Examples of this can be found on page 16 and 97.  Single words “Why? !Ay! Why?” also appear throughout the book when Fefa experiences strong emotions.  These elements together create a natural rhythm.

Language is carefully selected and used creatively to create images and emotions within the reader’s mind.  The most prominent imagery is created when describing words and the role they play in Fefa’s life. During her struggle with words, Fefa compares words to frogs that “know how to leap and escape (p 6),” “slippery striped snakes (p 114),” and storm clouds “always ready to explode (p 13).” During each of these descriptions, readers are impacted emotionally as they feel for Fefa.  In the end, language is used to assist readers in feeling a sense of triumph with Fefa as she overcomes many hurdles.  On page 113, she writes, “Flying to the truth of words/ instantly helps me/ feel/ as secure/ as a flower/ with deep roots.”  Voice of Youth Advocates put it best when they state, “Whatever the motivation of the reader, after completing The Wild Book, they will be enchanted by the beautiful words, words with which Fefa struggled, but ultimately, with whom she became dearest friends.”

References to Cuban culture, including traditions, historical events, holidays, and food are sprinkled throughout the book.  As an alternative to selecting a non-fiction book to produce a traditional report on Cuba, teachers and librarians could assign this book in a multicultural unit.

As author Margarita Engle is of Cuban decent and was the first Latina woman to win the Newbery Honor, setting up activities to highlight her life and poetic works would be appropriate to honor Hispanic Heritage month (September 15th – October 15th). These activities would not need to be limited to specific time period in a library but instead could be enjoyed year round. Events could include, but are not limited to, an online chat with the author herself, gathering and displaying her poetic works in an obvious spot in the library, or creating a poster that displays Engle’s biographical information.

The Wild Book has received many honors including 2013 Bankstreet’s Best Children’s Books of the Year, Horn Book’s Guide to 2012 Notable Novels in Verse, and Kirkus Reviews New & Notable Books for Children in 2012.


Books in Print. Texas Woman’s University Library (Accessed October 4, 2013).

Engle, Margarita. 2012. “Books about Latin America.” (Accessed September 29, 2013).

Engle, Margarita. 2012. The Wild Book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0544022751

The Library of Congress. n.d. “Hispanic Heritage Month.” (Accessed October 3, 2013).


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