Margarita Engle, 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 (Holt/Godwin, Aug.), a contemporary story that follows a Cuban family’s car journey across rural Cuba to the city. The picture book 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.
Curato (who, like Engle, credits editor Laura Godwin for proposing the book’s concept) traveled to Cuba with a Spanish-speaking friend who served as interpreter, 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, mimicking 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,” says Curato. “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 notes. “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 will engage kids of many 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 says, “while I hope the book gives older children a true sense of Cuba today. Though 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 the people of one of the United States’ closest neighbors, and help children believe, as I do, that neighbors should be friends.”
Today, 9:30–10:30 a.m. Mike Curato will sign All the Way to Havana and prints from his upcoming Little Elliot, Fall Friends in the Autographing Area, at Table 14.