YALSA 2016 HUB Challenge: Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir

My first HUB Challenge pick came from the Amelia Bloomer List — “an annual annotated book list (or bibliography) of well-written and well-illustrated books with significant feminist content, intended for young readers (ages birth through 18).”

Since I am, as regular readers of “Half-Way” know, primarily a feminist writer, I was tempted to read my way straight through the Amelia Bloomer selections before moving on to other award-winners.  But, since I trust my ability to ferret out feminist content wherever I go, I branched out a bit.  Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir comes from YALSA’s own Award for Excellence in Nonfiction: which “honors the best nonfiction book published for young adults (ages 12-18).

I’m a strong reader, but I generally like to be reading a few books in tandem to stave off a flighty attention span; usually I have one fiction, one non-fiction, and one ‘miscellaneous’ (a graphic novel, a book of poetry, etc.).

Since I didn’t have a non-fiction in my rotation, and since I am also a big believer in judging a book by its cover (#librarianconfessions), when I saw Edel Rodriguez’s beautiful cover art, I was sold.

The first time my parents

take me soaring through magical sky

to meet my mother’s family in Cuba,

I am so little that I can hardly speak

The premise is intriguing: a memoir that covers only the childhood years of the author (from birth through age fourteen) . . . written entirely in verse.  But does a work deserve our praise simply by virtue of its novelty?

First, the bad.

Now, I am a notoriously hard sell when it comes to poetry: especially in regards to free verse.

My motto is: if you’re going to tell a story in verse, you had better be talented enough for it to be worth it.  We’re talking Pablo Neruda level of worth it.

Free verse poets: do not do this . . . unless you’re a cute puppy. Then you can pretty much do whatever you want.

Otherwise, at least in this humble blogger’s opinion, your work ends up reading like either, (a), you’ve been too lazy to string together sentences with the appropriate amount of prepositions or, (b), you’re suffering under a Dictionopolis-style word shortage.

That being said, I did genuinely enjoy many of Enchanted Air‘s turns of phrases.  But Engle simply doesn’t finish strong: the verse isn’t particularly tight or well-constructed . . . leaving me thumbing my way back and forth through my e-reader’s loading pages to make sure I really have reached the end of a poem.

Aside from these stylistic issues, my main problem with Enchanted Air is the disconnect between the reader and Engle’s pseudo-self as protagonist.

Here, in a non-fiction memoir designed for middle-grade readers, we had such an opportunity to teach history through fiction in an enjoyable, yet substantive way.  But the narrative feels too forced: obviously built around a central didactical point.

Now, the good.

All we learn about is ancient Rome

and George Washington,

as if only the distant past

can ever be

understood.

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: The Diary of Molly MacKenzie Flaherty” examines the Vietnam War through the eyes of a 15-year-old anti-war protestor . . . whose brother is a Marine stationed in Vietnam (gasp!).

For other periods in history, I would feel more comfortable recommending series like Dear America and Royal Diaries — namely because, as mentioned above, I feel that those books do a better job of fully fleshing out their heroines while maintaining a healthy balance of historical content.

But Engle has a virtual monopoly on this more recent Cuban-American history; the book lends itself perfectly to lesson-planning (Engle’s website even includes a pre-made curriculum guide).   And, for its middle-grade readers, apart from a slight trigger warning for some possible non-consensual sexual behavior in “First,” the content is fully age/classroom appropriate.

Each week, I check out

as many library books as I can carry,

so many that I feel like a juggler,

balancing

stacks

of entrancing

pages

in midair.

Another selling point to Enchanted Air is its championing of libraries and literacy as conduits to self-examination, growth, and even escape (The Boston Girl likewise spends significant page time praising libraries).  In a similar vein, the reluctant reader would find a lot to love in Enchanted Air.

All said and done, though I wouldn’t reread Enchanted Air for my own purposes, I also certainly wouldn’t pull it from my reader’s advisory rotation altogether.  It is by no means a ‘bad’ book.  Rather, I feel that it simply doesn’t achieve the cross-over appeal in audience to make it a truly great piece of YA literature.

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