In Margarita Engle’s All the Way to Havana, illustrated by Mike Curato, a young boy in Cuba sets out with his parents in their noisy old family car to visit his new cousin on his “zero-year birthday.” Driving down potholed streets, beside the farms and beaches and forests of Havana, readers join the boy in taking in the sights and sounds of the city. The boy loves his home and his family, and he has a special fondness for that family car, Cara Cara, with its “ragged seats and cloudy windows.” It’s a car that has belonged to his family for generations.
In a closing author’s note, Engle explains that many American cars in Cuba were built before 1959 and are “so old that parts under the hood have been replaced many times, often with makeshift inventions.” This picture book, she writes, is her tribute to the “everyday ingenuity” of Cubans -- in keeping the cars running and in thriving, despite decades of hardship and poverty on the island.
I talked with both author and illustrator via email about this uplifting story and their efforts to bring it all to life in the pages of a picture book.
Jules: Margarita, I love the very premise of this book, how the care Cubans have for their older cars represents their resourcefulness. How did this premise come to you? Was it a poem first, one then adapted to the picture book format?
Margarita: Thank you! I must confess that the idea for a picture book about an old car in Cuba actually came from the editor, Laura Godwin. At first, I thought: No, how could I do that? I don’t know anything about cars. Then she told me Mike Curato would illustrate it and mentioned that he’s a “classic” car enthusiast. I love his art, so I agreed, but only on the condition that Cuba’s poverty would be shown.
These are not classic cars on the island; they are simply all that’s available. Newer Russian Ladas from the 1980s were only given to Communist party members, so most Cubans take overcrowded buses, ride in horse-drawn vehicles, or hitchhike. Brightly painted buildings in Havana are only bright in front, where tourists see them. In back, they are crumbling, and every storm brings houses crashing down. I didn’t want this to be a sanitized story for tourists, but an honest book honoring the hard work of poor people everywhere, who keep their old possessions working out of sheer ingenuity and perseverance. That’s my intention for older children. For younger ones, I hope it is just a cheerful family road trip.
Jules: Mike, for those who haven't read the book yet, can you talk a bit about your travel to Cuba to research this book?
Mike: The trip to Cuba was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I decided that I had to go in order to truly bring an authentic visual voice to the project. I was joined by my former illustration classmate, Erick Ledesma, who acted as a translator and second set of artistic eyes. We stayed in Havana at a casa particular (a Cuban state-approved bed and breakfast), which is run by Margarita’s cousins, Julio and Isabel.
Throughout the course of the week, Erick and I crisscrossed Havana, taking photos of everything. We also hired a driver, Rey, to take us cross country in his ‘54 Chevy. His wife, Marbelis, also came along for the ride, and the four of us became fast friends. The car became the model for the co-protagonist of the story, Cara Cara. We drove from Havana to Trinidad, where Margarita’s parents met and fell in love, then back the next day.
Thanks to this road trip, we could experience the journey that the family in the book makes, through the lush green countryside to the multi-colored hub of the city. It made all the difference to be there in person -- not just to collect accurate reference material, but to experience the feeling of being there. I’m not Cuban, and I do not pretend to be an expert on Cuban culture after spending only a week there, but I hope that I have communicated the beauty, warmth, and resilience of Cuba, which made such a dramatic impression on me.
Jules: Margarita, you spent your childhood summers in Cuba, yes? What cars did your own family have there?
Margarita: My roots are in the countryside, where most of my mother’s cousins got around on horseback. My great uncle had a World War II-era U.S. army jeep on his dairy farm. It was great fun to splash around in the mud on the way to town to deliver milk, but not as much fun as riding horses!
Jules: Mike, can you talk a bit about how you created the illustrations? There's a note on the copyright paged about "other mixed media." As an art-lover, I'm curious. …
Mike: Sure! I combined several mediums to make the illustrations, because I felt like it mirrored the innovation of the Cuban culture, using parts from different things to create something that works.
Almost every illustration has some pencil, paint, or photographed/scanned texture. Most of the photographic texture was taken in Cuba. For example, the textures on the walls of the buildings throughout the book are taken from various photos of walls in Havana, which I overlay on my drawing in Photoshop. Some other textures are photos and scans of materials or found objects closer to home – such as, rust, wood, and pumice.
Jules: What (if anything) is challenging about illustrating so many cars?
Mike: Aside from their pointy back fins, these ‘50s cars are quite voluptuous. If you don’t have proper reference to draw from, they’re quite difficult to create from memory, or even to adjust reference. I couldn’t just change the perspective easily, like I can with a building or some other boxy shape. The front of a car is much like a human face. It can look totally different from different angles.
Jules: Margarita, I was thrilled to hear you’d been named the Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. What are your plans during your tenure?
Margarita: It’s an amazing honor and also an incredible opportunity to speak about the things that are important to me, so I’ve chosen a bilingual theme of peace/paz -- in every sense of that word. I’d also like to talk about science poetry for STEAM education.
This summer, I started by making two bilingual poetry education videos with the help of the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. During National Poetry Month in April, there will be a surprise multilingual project, with other poets invited to participate. I’ll work with the Poetry Foundation’s Youth Poetry Day in April and the Chicago Teachers Institute in July.
I hope to visit a few places that authors never visit, due to lack of resources, such as farm labor communities that don’t even have a library.
Jules: What’s next for each of you?
Margarita: My next few picture books are Miguel's Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote, illustrated by Raúl Colón (Peachtree, October 2017); The Flying Girl: How Aída Acosta Learned to Soar, illustrated by Sara Palacios (Atheneum, May 2018); and A Dog Named Haku: A Holiday in Nepal, illustrated by Ruth Jeyaveeran and co-authored with my daughter and Nepali son-in-law (Lerner, Fall 2018). My next historical verse novel is set in my hometown of Los Angeles, Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (Atheneum, June 2018).
Mike: The fourth book in my Little Elliot series, Little Elliot, Fall Friends, comes out the same day as All the Way to Havana. I just finished illustrating a book called What If… written by one of my best friends, Samantha Berger, which comes out next Spring with Little Brown. Now I am working on the fifth Little Elliot book and my YA graphic novel, Flamer.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Spreads: All The Way To Havana. Copyright © 2017 by Margarita Engle and Mike Curato. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Henry Holt, New York.