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A poetic, but dark history

Last year, to her great surprise, Margarita Engle won the Pura Belpré Award, a prize for the best work for children by a Latino author, for her biography in verse about the so-called "Poet Slave'' of Cuba, a real figure from history named Juan Francisco Manzano.

So even though her second book, The Surrender Tree (Henry Holt, $16.95, ages 12-up) was eligible for the award this year, winning was not on her radar. "I did not even consider the possibility that I would get it two years in a row," she said.

But she did. And then the phone rang again, and this time it was the Newbery Committee.

The Surrender Tree was also on their list -- the first Newbery Honor awarded to a writer of Hispanic origin.

"The Newbery? That had always seemed out of reach," said Engle, a former agronomy professor who now lives in the shadow of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. She was born in Los Angeles after her mother, Eloisa, emigrated from Trinidad, a town on Cuba's southern coast, when she married.

Like the biography of Manzano, The Surrender Tree is also a series of poems, covering the period from 1850-99 during which Cubans waged three wars to gain independence from Spain.

"Even Cubans have told me they never knew anything about this part of history, and Americans, if they are offered any background on the Spanish American War, it's from the last few months when Teddy Roosevelt was there," Engle said.

Engle's poems are written in the voices of four characters: Young Rosa, who uses her knowledge of herbal medicine to nurse the wounded; Rosa's husband, Jose, who helps move her secret hospital from cave to cave; Silvia, an orphan who escapes the Spanish military's "reconcentration camp'' to become Rosa's assistant; and a chilling figure -- Teniente Muerte, Lt. Death, the son of a slave-hunter whose mission is to put Rosa out of business permanently.

Some of the story is uncommonly ugly. Engle's research led her to the diaries of real slave hunters, published by abolitionists in 19th-Century England. Their accounts are reported "so matter-of-factly," Engle said. "I'm sure they didn't think of what they were doing as horrific. They were just getting their business done."

The material inspired this poem, in which readers first meet Lt. Death:

When the girl-witch heals a wounded runaway,

the cimarrón is punished, and sent back to work.

Even then, many run away again,

or kill themselves.

But then my father chops each body

into four pieces, and locks each piece in a cage,

and hangs the four cages on four branches

of the same tree

Engle knows this is tough stuff for young readers. (She intended the work for readers in middle school and older.) But she and her editor, Reka Simonsen, had faced up to that issue while readying The Poet Slave of Cuba for publication.

"Slavery is brutal. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise," Engle said. "And I would never invent horror like another writer might. This is part of history."