Acclaimed author Margarita Engle’s forthcoming young adult novel, Your Heart My Sky, is the story of two teens who fall in love while struggling to survive during one of the darkest periods in Cuban history. Engle, the former National Young People's Poet Laureate, has won countless awards for her writing, including the 2019 NSK Neustadt Prize.
Here's how Engle's publisher describes her latest verse novel:
The people of Cuba are living in el período especial en tiempos de paz, the special period in times of peace. That’s what the government insists that this era must be called, but the reality behind these words is starvation. Liana is struggling to find enough to eat. Yet hunger has also made her brave: She finds the courage to skip a summer of so-called volunteer farm labor, even though she risks government retribution. Nearby, a quiet, handsome boy named Amado also refuses to comply, so he wanders alone, trying to discover rare sources of food. A chance encounter with an enigmatic dog brings Liana and Amado together. United in hope and hunger, they soon discover that their feelings for each other run deep. Love can feed their souls and hearts—but is it enough to withstand el período especial?
Your Heart My Sky will be available on shelves at libraries and bookstores everywhere on March 23, 2021. In the meantime, we’re thrilled to reveal its gorgeous cover, which was illustrated by Gaby D'Alessandro and designed by Rebecca Syracuse, and to share our discussion with Engle about Your Heart My Sky—and an exclusive excerpt from the book.
How did you feel when you saw the cover of Your Heart, My Sky for the first time?
When I first saw this cover, I was thrilled by the expressions on the characters’ faces. They are people I felt I knew so well, and the illustrator captured their wistfulness as well as their hopes. Struggling to survive in a time of unexpected hardships, they remind me of the entire world now, with our own wistfulness for the innocence of a few months ago and our desperate need to remain hopeful. The colors are perfect, too, so tropical and yet gentle. The abundance of fruit makes me aware of the characters’ imaginations. It’s magic realism, a true Caribbean reality.
Your Heart, My Sky takes place during a period in Cuban history commonly referred to as “the special period,” an economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, lasted nearly a decade and had an enormous negative impact on the everyday lives of Cubans. What initially drew you to the idea of setting a story in this period?
I returned to Cuba in 1991, after a 31-year absence. The drastic hunger shocked and saddened me. I experienced the surreal survivor’s guilt of possessing a U.S. passport that would allow me to leave, escaping the near-starvation that my cousins were forced to endure. I spent the ’90s traveling often, carrying suitcases filled with food, vitamins and medicine. I wrote about el período especial at that time, but I discovered that most adult readers in the U.S. weren’t interested or didn’t believe me. So now I’ve written about it again, hoping that young readers will be more empathetic and compassionate.
Like many of your books, Your Heart, My Sky is a novel written in verse. Could you recommend some of your favorite poets or poetry titles for readers to explore while they wait for your new book to be published?
A few of the YA verse novelists I admire most are Elizabeth Acevedo, Jacqueline Woodson, Padma Venkatraman and Nikki Grimes. I also hope readers will also give my verse memoirs a try, if they’re interested in my personal experience with Cuban history. Enchanted Air is a verse memoir about my childhood and early teen years, while Soaring Earth is the high school/college companion book.
The tall boy who gazes at me
is even skinnier than the rest of us.
He’s skeletal but appealing
in a days-on-earth-are-numbered
sort of way.
He must be courageous
to skip la escuela al campo!
As soon as that admiring thought
flashes across my mind, I realize that
I’m brave too.
Sometimes it takes a clear view
of someone else
before I can see my own
The girl’s curious eyes make me want
to go home and look at myself
in an effort to see what she perceives:
Bones barely concealed
by skin, my face the same deep brown
as this old mirror’s scratched
The girl has no way to know that I crave
so much more than food—I need freedom
to speak out, demanding my right
to reject silence.
My older brother is already in prison
for the same crime that I plan to commit—
evading the draft by staying away on the day
when I’m ordered to report for military duty.
Our grandfather fought in Bolivia,
our father in Nicaragua and Angola,
enough bloodshed to leave both of us
unwilling to join future battles.
I glare at the mirror.
As if I’m already
in a prison cell.
What if I don’t have the courage
to keep the pact that I made with my brother,
speaking up, explaining to the government
why we need to choose peace?
But this country is not at war right now,
unless you count our constant struggle
Maybe I should let myself be trained to kill,
become a soldier, gun-wielding, violent,
a dangerous stranger, no longer
The dog and I crouch,
in a shallow tide pool,
shimmery bronze faces
rippling as we hover
above pink anemones
and purple sea urchins.
raw, then glance
at ourselves again,
the dog’s hair short and straight,
mine long, wet, and twining
in dark ringlets like tendrils or seaweed.
Our eyes resemble four sleek black planets
floating in the tide pool’s
Do canines understand mirror images,
or can they only recognize themselves
I’ll never know, unless I learn
the ancient language of dog songs.
After a while, we rise and climb
the steep, brightly flowered hills of town,
passing old houses with climbing vines
that enclose wide-open windows and doors,
an invitation for the sea breeze, doves,
perhaps also thieves. . . .
At home in my kitchen,
I check the refrigerator,
finding it empty as usual.
No electricity either.
The singing dog
If he can somehow manage to urge them
toward each other, then neither one will feel
so completely alone, and his unusual instincts
tell him that these two are so perfectly
right for each other that if he fails
to meet his natural goal they will wander
like detached spirits, souls just as starved
as bodies. . . .
The last time a singing dog worked at matchmaking
was in the human year 1519, when a violent pirate
named Hernán Cortés had stolen a ship and anchored
on the island’s southern shore,
recruiting all the Spanish men
of Trinidad de Cuba as soldiers,
then seizing all the native Ciboney Taíno men
as enslaved porters for an expedition
of slaughter and conquest, across the western sea
in Aztlán, land of Moctezuma, ruler of Tenochtitlán.
Only women, children, and singing dogs
were left behind in the village of Trinidad,
along with one guard and one prisoner,
a pacifist called Uría, half Ciboney
and half Canary Islander, a poetic scribe
who loved to write
and refused to fight.
A singing dog led a Ciboney girl called Arima
to the little prison, where she freed Uría,
then helped him escape, and showed him
how to thrive in el monte, wild mountains,
dense jungle, her home.
Now this new boy called Amado is peaceful like Uría,
and the girl named Liana is brave like Arima,
so the modern dog’s task is clear—
just guide these two young people until
they accept each other’s companionship.
Some matches are simply
meant to be.
If you lived in another time and place,
you might think of the singing dog as a winged thing:
Author photo by Marshall W. Johnson