Fefa has word blindness (dyslexia), and is tormented by the fact that she cannot read well. Her many siblings tease mock her handwriting and tease her. In her words,
"I help herd cows, brush horses,
and feed chickens.
The only chore I never finish is
reading OUT LOUD
to my big sisters,
and call me lazy.
I hate hate hate it when they assume that I do not really try."
Fefa is extremely persistent in her desire to become a stronger reader and writer, filling a blank book with her attempts at poetry. Engle frequently has the more challenging words spelled out phonetically, although this technique fades later in the book as Fefa becomes more confident. When she realizes that she is improving, Fefa says, "When I consider the happy possibility that maybe someday I will feel smart, I grow a little bit hungry for small, tasty bites of easy words." I've seen this happen in my classes, when developing readers find the right book for them and are eager to find more like it.
The novel begins slowly, meandering through Fefa's life on the farm, so initially I wasn't as bought in as I was with THE SURRENDER TREE. Once the central plot was established, I was engaged and surprised by how Fefa's slow and careful reading is the key to her family's safety. As always, Engle's details about Cuban life in the early 1900s are the best parts of the book. I learned that wives of rebel soldiers hid messages inside giant flowers during the wars and that men would have poetry duels to see who could recite the most affecting poem. While I wish there had been more details like this, I still enjoyed THE WILD BOOK and will keep it on my shelf for struggling readers as encouragement.
Details about Cuba's history.
Fefa is a charming narrator.