The Firefly Letters is a story in verse written by Margarita Engle. Based on the diaries and letters of Swedish feminist Frederika Bremer, it tells thThe Firefly Letters is a story in verse written by Margarita Engle. Based on the diaries and letters of Swedish feminist Frederika Bremer, it tells the story of her visit to Cuba in the mid 1850s, and her relationship with Cecilia, a young African slave who serves as her translator. Cecilia and Frederika become friends, and they are soon joined by young Elena, who is the fictional daughter of the wealthy family who hosts Frederika and owns Cecilia. As the book unfolds, Frederika is shocked and disturbed by the realities of slavery, including the sight of slave boats carrying chained African children secretly coming ashore in the middle of the night, and she gives Elena and Cecilia a taste of the freedom denied all women at that time.
The book is a quick read, and by telling the story in verse, Engle is able to carefully choose the right words to powerfully communicate her message. At times, this works beautifully, as when Cecilia recalls If I had known that my father would trade me for a stolen cow, I would have run away into the forest to live in a nest made of dreams and green leaves. At other times, the poems lack any subtlety. For example, after spending several weeks with Federika, Cecilia comments Without even trying to be a teacher Frederika is teaching us, showing how to see things in new ways instead of always thinking the same old tired thoughts that have been passed along by strangers day after day, year after year without any spirit of amazement or wonder. Because the book is based on Bremer’s own diaries and letters, one can presume that it accurately describes Cuban life in the mid-1800s. However, this view of Cuba is filtered through Bremer’s experience and biases. Then Engle adds her own interpretation, so that should be considered. One particular point to encourage readers to think about is the character of Elena. Bremer wrote about Cecilia in her letters, but Engle created Elena for this book. Would a person like Elena really have existed? Would she have done what she did to help Cecilia and her unborn child? What would the consequences of her choices been?
I had never heard of Frederika Bremer before reading this book, and I was interested to hear how she influenced the fight for women’s rights, especially in Sweden. I also liked how this book shows the experience of an enslaved African in a Caribbean country. Often we think of African slaves in the United States, and use the phrase African-American to include all people of African descent. However, many Africans were taken to countries that were colonized by Spain, and their cultural heritage deserves to be considered differently....more
How Tia Lola Learned to Teach is the second book in the Tia Lola series by Julia Alvarez. Set in rural Vermont, the book tells the story of Juanita anHow Tia Lola Learned to Teach is the second book in the Tia Lola series by Julia Alvarez. Set in rural Vermont, the book tells the story of Juanita and Miguel, who live with their mother, and Tia Lola, who came from the Dominican Republic to help care for them. The family is still recovering from the parent’s divorce the previous year, and the children are struggling to find their place in a new town. When the school principal suggests that Tia Lola volunteer at the school to teach Spanish, Miguel is horrified to think of his flamboyant aunt embarrassing him, and Juanita is excited to have her at school. Over the year, Tia Lola uses her special blend of love, energy, and wise sayings to teach the whole family, and the whole community, how to care for each other.
At first, I thought this book was going to be formulaic and shallow, but by the end, I was crying thinking about Tia Lola’s fate as she stood before the immigration judge. The book shows the universal themes of sacrifice, family, and community, but Tia Lola gives it a special Dominican flavor. Spanish is used liberally throughout the book, and we are told that Tia Lola speaks only in Spanish (the author’s note at the end reminds us that she speaks in Spanish, even though the story is written mostly in English). Each chapter begins with a wise saying, and the characters learn life lessons that mirror the sayings. Some are humorous, and distinctly Dominican (“With patience and calm, even a donkey can climb a palm”), while others are more universal (“In unity there’s strength”).
This book would be a great read-aloud, and excellent to use in a bilingual or ESL classroom. It would be interesting to chart the sayings, both English and Spanish, while reading. The book also discusses immigration policy and deportation, and the topic would lend itself well to a critical literacy discussion. For example, "Why do you think Tia Lola is treated differently than Ofie's family?" would be an interesting starting point....more