Margarita Engle, the nation’s current Young People’s Poet Laureate and the Cuban-American author of many books in verse, including the Newbery Honor-winning The Surrender Tree and other books inspired by historical figures, takes a different tack in All the Way to Havana, due from Henry Holt’s Godwin Books on August 29. The picture book, a contemporary story that follows a Cuban family’s car journey across rural Cuba to the city, also marks a departure for illustrator Mike Curato, creator of the Little Elliot series, who for the first time worked in mixed media that integrated acrylic paintings, pencil drawings, digital coloring, and photos he took on a weeklong research trip to Cuba in September 2015.
The collaboration was the brainchild of Laura Godwin, who had edited a number of Engle’s earlier books, most recently Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics, and is editor of Curato’s Little Elliot picture book series. “This was a very easy suggestion to make,” she recalled. “Sometimes an editor is lucky enough to have an idea that sparks a flame and takes on a life of its own when the author and illustrator run with it and make it theirs. I knew Margarita and Mike would get along, both being warm, resourceful, and extremely talented people. Margarita always speaks about the Cuban culture and people with such fondness, and with such a spirit of family and connectedness. And I knew that Mike loves old cars and architecture and that he really pays attention to details, and that made him a perfect match for a story set in Cuba.”
In preparation for creating the book’s illustrations, Curato traveled to Cuba with a Spanish-speaking friend who served as translator, and stayed with Engle’s cousins, who supplement their meager income as doctors with a bed-and-breakfast business in Havana. The illustrator hired a car and driver to traverse the country, mirroring the journey of the family featured in the story (but in reverse).
“The car was a 1953 Chevy—the very car that I featured in the book—and it had been in the driver’s family for years,” Curato said. “It was important for me to have the same experience as the story’s characters, and as we drove through the countryside, we stopped at farms and talked to folks, and I took lots of photographs. It was so helpful to get the feel of the countryside, which is so lovely. It was hot and humid, there was no air-conditioning in the car, and the air was filled with diesel fumes—but the authenticity of the experience and my excitement about this project far outweighed any inconveniences.”
Engle was “amazed and thrilled” to see Curato’s art and its accurate portrayal of Cuba and its residents, whose extreme poverty she has witnessed over the decades on her frequent trips to the country. “It was so important to me that the poverty was not masked in the book,” she noted. “Fronts of Cuban buildings are painted bright colors to please tourists, while the backs of the structures, and balconies, are crumbling. And the vintage cars are not a luxury—they exemplify the spirit of the country’s people to figure out how to make do and keep things going, even if it means using a boat engine in a car. There’s a remarkable spirit of perseverance—which is seen in the poor everywhere in the world—that is really about hope and about never giving up.”
The author hopes that All the Way to Havana, which has received four pre-pub starred reviews, including one from PW, will engage kids of all ages. “Younger children can read the book as a simple story about a family going on a road trip and reaching out to neighbors,” she said, “while I hope the book gives older children a true sense of Cuba today. Though [former] president Obama re-established diplomatic relationships with Cuba, which to me was an amazing symbolic gesture of friendship and hope, there is a very long way to go. The financial embargo hasn’t been lifted, and Cubans still cope with dire food and fuel shortages. My hope is that this book will help readers feel empathy for one of the United States’s closest neighbors, and help children believe, as I do, that neighbors should be friends.”
All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illus. by Mike Curato. Holt/Godwin, $17.99 Aug. ISBN 978-1-62779-642-2