Viva Cuba | Focus On

A selection of fiction and nonfiction, memoirs and poetry titles about the island nation of Cuba.
Illustration ©2015 by Rafael López, from Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle. Reproduced with the permission of publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Illustration ©2015 by Rafael López, from Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle.
Reproduced with the permission of publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

After more than half a century of embargo and estrangement, the United States and Cuba are reopening the long-locked diplomatic and economic doors between countries only 90 miles apart. As the two countries redefine what links them, interest piques for American teachers and students eager to learn about their neighbor nation. For anyone not ready to join the rising tide of visiting Americans, the following books and websites aid in building a knowledge bridge.

Cuban American author Margarita Engle has regularly returned to her mother’s homeland since 1991. After an April visit in 2015, she noted, “This year was the first time since childhood that I was able to find transportation for hiking and bird-watching in the mountains.” Engle is prolific, with many award-winning books that draw on her heritage and focus on history and nature. Among her noteworthy titles, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (2008) and The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (2006, both Holt) delve into rarely recognized figures in the island’s history.

While materials to further academic studies and promote pleasure reading for students in grades K–12 are updating, this list covers long-held and recently released titles. Cuban authors are included, but as restrictions on both sides are lifting slowly, access to their translated and bilingual work is limited []. Fiction and literature titles outnumber nonfiction choices here, which reflects availability. So, pack an imaginary suitcase and take your students to Cuba.

1604-FO_CvsNovels, Short Stories, & Folktales

ADA, Alma Flor. Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba. illus. by Antonio Martorell & Edel Rodriguez. S. & S./Atheneum. 2015. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781481442459; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9781481429009. Gr 4-8–Bundling Days at La Quinta Simoni with the earlier short story collections Where the Flame Trees Bloom and Under the Royal Palms creates a 25-title anthology based on the author’s Cuban childhood. Well documented with black-and-white photos and simple drawings, entries averaging three-to-five pages introduce Ada’s family and friends with a smile and a tear. DE ARAGÓN, Uva. The Memory of Silence/Memoria del Silencio. tr. by Jeffrey C. Barnett. Cubanabooks. 2014. pap. $17.95. ISBN 9780982786048. Gr 10 Up–In alternating voices, Cuban sisters, divided by history and geography, work to reconcile the distance. Released in Spanish in 2002, this new bilingual edition gives English readers insights into the painful separation families have experienced following the revolution in 1959. Cover art offers a glimpse of Old Havana. DEEDY, Carmen Agra. Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale. illus. by Michael Austin. Peachtree. 2007. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781561453993; pap. $8.95 ISBN 9781561457878. Gr 1-5–Spanish words are cleverly woven into this humorous folktale about the courtship of Martina, a 21-day-old cockroach. Her grandmother teaches her to spill coffee on the feet of her suitors, a test they all fail until Martina finds love when a mouse turns the tables. Austin’s expressive, double-page illustrations use the somber tones logical for a nocturnal creature. DÍAZ, Enrique Pérez. Letters from Alain. tr. by Simon Breden. illus. by Francisco Solé. Aurora Metro. 2008. pap. $16.95. ISBN 9780955156649. Gr 5-8–Arturo worries when his best friend Alain flees Cuba with his family in a risky boat. After Alain escapes safely, his letters add conflict to Arturo’s confused feelings. Cuban author Díaz considers illegal immigration, the pain of separation, and the fate of those left behind. Solé’s spare, evocative drawings echo themes of loneliness and loss. ENGLE, Margarita. Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music . illus. by Rafael López. HMH. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544102293. Gr 1-4–López’s bright, engaging paintings of real and magical moments shine in this account of the life of Cuban musician Millo Castro Zaldarriaga. Using rhythmic free verse, Engle recounts, as a story, Zaldarriaga’s childhood dreams that led to her groundbreaking career as a female drummer in the 1930s. ENGLE, Margarita. Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. Holt. 2009. Tr $23.99. ISBN 9780805089363. Gr 4-8–Employing spare, moving free verse, 13-year-olds Daniel and Paloma describe their losses against the background of German refugees held on ships in Havana harbor. Covering the lives of a German Jewish boy and a Cuban Catholic girl from 1939 to 1942, this little-known chapter in World War II history will remind readers of current world news. ENGLE, Margarita. The Wild Book. HMH. 2012. pap. $6.99 ISBN 9780544022751. Gr 5-9–A resourceful Cuban girl lives with dyslexia, called “word blindness” in the early 20th century. Written in free verse and based on the life of the author’s grandmother, Josefa’s story is told in simple, expressive images. Her concerns revolve around being one of 10 children on a farm during a lawless period. Uncomplicated pages can inspire dyslexic readers. FLORES-GALBIS, Enrique. 90 Miles to Havana. Roaring Brook. 2010. Tr 18.99. ISBN 9781596431683; pap. $6.99. 9781250005595. Gr 4-7–In the 1960s, Operation Pedro Pan transported children from Cuba to the United States without their parents. After landing in a Florida children’s camp, Julian and his brothers cope with hunger, bullying, and the loneliness of dislocation. Julian’s resilience rises through unexpected adventures and daily struggles. A thoughtful introduction to history and the life of immigrants. GARCÍA, Cristina. The Dog Who Loved the Moon. illus. by Sebastià Serra. S. & S./Atheneum. 2008. pap. $16.99. ISBN 9781442430891. PreS-Gr 3–Pilar loves her birthday presents: pink dancing slippers and her puppy, Paco. Surrounded by her loving family, she’s happy dancing and playing with her dog. But Pilar’s concerned—Paco doesn’t dance, and he stares sadly at the moon. Finally, a kiss from the moon provides a magical solution. Colorful, digital spreads subtly convey Cuban culture. GONZÁLEZ, Lucía M. The Bossy Gallito. illus. by Lulu Delacre. Scholastic. 1999. pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780439067577. PreS-Gr 2–Lush color illustrations complement this Cuban version of an old Spanish folktale, a classic cumulative tale about a rooster frustrated when grass, a goat, a stick, fire, and water won’t help him clean up for his parrot uncle’s wedding. The repetitive bilingual story will charm primary students, but it’s easily adapted for upper-grade Spanish-language classes. WELLS, Rosemary & Secundino Fernandez. My Havana: Memories of a Cuban Boyhood. illus. by Peter Ferguson. Candlewick. 2010. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780763643058. Gr 4-6–Dino chronicles his itinerant childhood from Cuba to Spain, back to Cuba, and finally to the United States. Based on the life of Fernandez, a New York architect, the story communicates his homesickness and love of place as well as his enterprising solution to a problem in school. Full-page illustrations in warm tones add to the vividly told tale.

Memoir & Poetry

CALCINES, Eduardo F. Leaving Glorytown: One Boy’s Struggle Under Cuba. Farrar. 2009. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780374343941. Gr 7-10–Eduardo was only three when the Communist revolution changed Cuba. His childhood memories include his parents’ growing dissatisfaction, their application to go to the United States, and the bullying he faced because his family was emigrating. The anger that grew out of incidents such as his uncle’s sudden arrest is communicated, but his love of family is equally strong. Audio version available from Listening Library. EIRE, Carlos. Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. Free Pr. 2003. pap. $16. ISBN 9780743246415. Gr 10 Up–Eire recalls his childhood in pre- and post-revolution Havana, with occasional references to his life after the airlift that brought him to the United States. Often ironic, frequently poetic, this intriguing personal account includes the author’s dreams and fears and a view of a unique family in 1950s Cuba. A National Book Award winner, it’s a good discussion starter. ENGLE, Margarita. Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir. illus. by Edel Rogdriguez. S. & S./Atheneum. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481435222; ebk $10.99. ISBN 9781481435246. Gr 6-10–Engle shares memories of childhood visits to Cuba, the U.S. embargo that barred family travel to visit relatives, and daily life growing up in Los Angeles. Told through uncomplicated but emotionally resonant verse, this reflection includes the story of how the author’s Cuban mother met her American dad. ENGLE, Margarita. The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba. Holt. 2010. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780805090826. Gr 8 Up–Lyrical poems, skillfully woven together, introduce three women: the pioneering Swedish feminist Fredrika Bremer, the enslaved Afro-Cuban who served as her translator, and the fictional daughter of a slave owner. Based on an actual journey into Cuba’s countryside in 1851, this sensitive commentary on the rights of women and slaves works well as a dramatic reading. HERRERA, Georgina. Always Rebellious/Cimarroneando. tr. by María Rodríguez-Alcalá, Juanamaría Cordones-Cook, & Alexander Cordones-Cook Cubanabooks. 2014. pap. $17.95. ISBN 9780982786062. Gr 9 Up–Almost three dozen deeply felt but verbally straightforward poems by an Afro-Cuban woman touch on faith and self-esteem—one honoring Rosa Parks. Each poem is presented in Spanish with its English translation on the opposite page, and all are enhanced by the accompanying subtitled DVD, which features a Spanish-language interview with the poet.

History, Culture, & Guides

BAKER, Christopher P. Cuba. (National Geographic Traveler). National Geographic. 2012. pap. $22.95. ISBN 9781426209543. Gr 6 Up–Well illustrated with color photos and maps, this traveler’s guidebook offers a concisely written introduction to Cuba’s history, culture, and geography. Brief but broadly inclusive lists of important sights illuminate the country’s places of interest. Students might create travel posters of Cuba’s highlights to delve more deeply. KENT, Deborah. Cuba. (Enchantment of the World). Children’s Pr. 2015. lib. ed. $40. ISBN 9780531216941. Gr 5-9–Covering current and past history, nature, government, and culture, this up-to-date overview of a country in transition presents a balanced portrait of Cuba. With a generous dose of full- and half-page color photographs, a time line, and four pages of fast facts, this is a report-friendly book. MAX, Trish. Reaching for the Sun: Kids in Cuba. Millbrook. 2002. lib ed. $26.60. ISBN 9780761322610. Gr 4-6–Through the viewpoint of 10-year-old Angie, readers travel from Los Angeles to Cuba with elementary-school children and mentors to join Cuban children and put together a one-time-only stage show. Along the way, the students visit historic sites, make friends, and learn about one another’s similarities and differences. Illustrated with photographs. SENKER, Cath. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Heinemann. 2013. lib.ed. $35. ISBN 9781432976378; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781432976446. Gr 7 Up–In October 1962, President Kennedy confronted the Soviet Union when it established ballistic missile bases in Cuba. This compact book details the tension, solution, and background information while shedding light on a turning point in U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations. First-person and news accounts also cover the Bay of Pigs invasion and world events during this period.

Wysocki-Barbara_Contrib_webRetired children’s librarian Barbara Wysocki recently added Cuba to the long list of places she loves to visit.

Digital picks

For Teachers

About Cuba! K–12 Lessons, Resources. Gazette. (Accessed 2/22/16). Links to teaching resources for grades K–12 include a mix of videos, lessons plans, and articles, as well as a detailed account of Cuba’s history. A few will also interest students preparing reports. Lesson Plan Library: U.S.-Cuba Relations. lesson-plans/us-cuba-relations.cfm. Discovery Education. (Assessed 2/22/16). Intended for grades 9–12, this lesson plan designed for two class periods introduces historical events from the late-19th century through 1999 that link the United States and Cuba. Includes objectives, important dates, a list of materials, and discussion questions.

For Students

Cuba. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Assessed 2/22/16). Gr 5-9– Detailed information on the land, people, economy, government, cultural life, and history of Cuba is included in this encyclopedia article, along with links to images, videos, and an audio of the national anthem. CUBA. National Geographic Kids. (Accessed 2/22/16). Gr 3-6 –Along with brief paragraphs describing topography, government, culture, nature, and history, readers will find excellent images of coins, the flag, and a city street. A good source of useful fast facts. Cuba Profile–Timeline. BBC. (Assessed 2/22/16). Gr 5 Up –Up-to-date and extensive, this list of important dates starts with Columbus landing on the island in 1492 and ends with 2015 improvements in U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations. Entries include details on the wars for independence, the Communist revolution, and other political and historical events. The World Factbook: Cuba. Central Intelligence Agency. (Assessed 2/22/16). Gr 9 Up–An extensive list of statistical details about the Cuban people, government, geography, and more is provided along with brief summaries of Cuba’s history and economy.

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