by Stephanie Lowden for The Storied Past
The history of our relationship with Cuba is a complex one. The low point was in Fall 1962, when the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a tense 2-week standoff over the presence of Soviet missiles on Cuba, just 90 miles from U.S. shores.
Now, thankfully, we have recovered to the point where the two countries have begun to explore better relations.
To measure how far we have come, here are two kids’ books set in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, going beyond the fears and hysteria of the political conflict to look for the common hopes and dreams of young individuals trying to make sense of the complicated time.
COLD WAR ON MAPLEWOOD STREET, by Gayle Rosengren.
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015. 106 pages. Ages 8–12.)
“Once the sun went down—as it did earlier and earlier these days—the darkness seemed to press against the windows … Faces and voices, even if they were on the TV, made Joanna feel less alone.”
Joanna is home alone every night. Her mother is at night school. Her older brother, Sam, has left for the Navy. And her father? He disappeared without a trace years ago.
When she was little, her brother promised he’d always be there for her, so when he leaves for the Navy, she is so angry she vows not to write him a single letter. Now, the Cuban missile crisis looms over her. It is bad enough she has to endure “duck and cover” air-raid drills in school, but Sam is on a boat headed for Cuba. And she’s not speaking to him.
Cold War on Maplewood Street brought back my own vivid memories of the Cuban missile crisis. Joanna is twelve—I was 13. Every morning of that terrible week, our teacher, Sister Lauratana, would have us pray that we wouldn’t go to war. The first morning she did it, the girl next to me looked at me, clearly frightened, and said, “I wish she hadn’t done that.”
Like Joanna, at recess I watched the sky for Russian airplanes. Like Joanna, I was alone a lot. My father had died when I was young. Mom had to work so I was alone, like Joanna, turning on the TV for company and the radio for news.
When I was asked to babysit for a neighbor, I didn’t want to go, but I went. That night there was coverage on television of the deliberations at the United Nations. I told myself as long as they were talking, Russia wouldn’t send any bombs our way.
This book resonated with me in so many ways: the constant fear, the anger at her brother (for me it was toward my mother—why did she have to go to work and leave me alone to die in a fury of Russian bombs?)
I also experienced the everyday concerns of a pre-teen: like Joanna, I was looking forward to a boy/girl party coming up that our parish priest insisted was not appropriate. Joanna’s mother does not approve of such a party either.
Also, there’s a mysterious old lady who lives in Joanna’s apartment building. Is she a Russian spy? Does she kidnap children? Why did she make that little blond girl cry? For me it was the “egg man,” an older man that came around at night and sold us eggs. I was sure he was a murderer.
Joanna is at the mercy of her overactive imagination, something many pre-teens are haunted by. This novel reflects the timeless struggles of a little girl emerging into a young woman with the backdrop of an extraordinary time in history that many young people today don’t even know about. The suspense builds until Rosengren weaves all these plots effortlessly and ties them up at the end of the novel with impressive skill.
This is a great book for parents—or grandparents—and middle-graders to read together. The adult can share memories of their own childhood fears, while the young reader learns about an important part of our history when, in the end, words overcame weapons.
ENCHANTED AIR, TWO CULTURES, TWO WINGS, by Margarita Engle. (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015. 192 pages. Ages 12 & up.)
Margarita Engle’s poetic memoir, written in verse, is a revealing portrait of a child torn between two cultures during a time in our history when the United States was on the precipice of nuclear war.
“Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis. … Hide under a desk. Pretend that furniture is enough … each air raid drill is sheer terror, but some of the city kids giggle. They don’t believe that death is real.”
Born in America, the child of a Cuban mother and American father, young Margarita wonders why, when hostilities break out, that she is only accused of being Cuban. When the FBI visits her parents, her fear intensifies. Should she explain the Ukrainian part of her father’s heritage, that’s part of the Soviet Union?
Engle’s deft verse reflects the confusion of a child whose parents are a part of what she calls “mixed up, two-country, complicated families.”
“At school, all the teachers and students seem angered by Cuba. WHAT ARE YOU? They ask. It’s a question that requires fractions…”
Her story is largely about an artistic child growing up with an artist father, and a mother who tries to replicate the beauty of her birth country by planting copious gardens. She is a child talented well beyond her years and is moved ahead in school. Feeling very much an outsider, Margarita buries herself in books. When she visits Cuba and listens to the storytellers she realizes that reading and storytelling are very much alike and wonders if she could be a writer some day.
Margarita’s story begins in 1947, in Cuba, when her parents fall in love at first site. Her story ends when she is fourteen and wondering if she will ever be able to again visit Cuba, the land where she is “more brave.” This is a beautiful book, written in a spare verse that captures both the beauty of Cuba and two loving families divided by conflict.
[Note: you can find a Teacher’s Guide for Enchanted Air on Margarita Engle’s website. The book won a Pura Belpré Author Award]
Thanks for visiting The Storied Past. Your comments are welcome. And if you see good books or ideas worth sharing, please pass them on to friends, parents, librarians, teachers . . . and best of all, to young readers!