Margarita Engle's All the Way to Havana, illustrated by Mike Curato, is a celebration of perseverance and ingenuity. The story told is simple. A family sets out across the countryside heading to Havana, Cuba in order to visit a newborn relative bearing gifts and cake in their very old 1954 blue Cara Cara Chevy. Before they can get on the road though the car needs to be fixed. We learn that it simply isn't making the right noise as today it sounds like a tiny baby chick.
The narrator, a young boy, helps his dad figure out what's making the wrong sound and together they fix the car after several wrong tries.
Are they discouraged?
The narrator tells us:
"We don't give up.
As I read this I thought about American poet, William Carlos Williams and imagined how he would have been proud to hear this young boy speaking. Williams told us long ago in the poem, Deep Religious Faith, that the job of the poet was invention. In this story, everyday people are poet inventors. This simple picture book tells us what invention sounds like, looks like, and the taste of its sweat.
The family finally gets into the car and they are joined by neighbors who need to travel too. The car quickly fills up and the narrator says that he felt "like we're traveling in a barrel of elbows and knees." I love the playfulness of that and how it sounds like something a child might say. As the family travels across the countryside, we hear the various sounds the car makes and encounter lots of other vintage American cars when the Chevy rides along "the curved road by the seawall" that leads into the city of Havana.
"...Mama points out noiosy old cars of every color--yellow, pink, purple, green, orange, and even a bright red car with huge fins like a lurking shark."
As the setting shifts from country to city, the beat of the lines change too--becoming more syncopated. The narrator tells us that some of the cars have "torn seats, shattered windows, and cracked mirrors." Cars "roar, growl, whine, or putt putt but most just honk, honk, honk as they glide, bumpety bump on potholed city streets."
After getting to Tia's home and meeting his newborn baby cousin, eating cake and opening presents, the narrator falls asleep and is awakened to learn it is time to start driving home. The next two-page spread is bathed in blue night as the car makes it way back across the rolling hills, under a waxing moon.
Engle closes the story the next morning when the narrator and his dad work "under the hood" again, never giving up, never losing hope..." The car which was Abuelo's as a young man will someday be his.
At the end of the book, Engle includes an author's note explaining that American cars stopped being imported to Cuba after 1959. We know that is because of the embargos enacted by the United States in the late 50s and again in the early 60s. As such, Cubans had to remain "creative" in order "to keep machines of all sorts running long past the age wealthier people would discard them."
The book closes with an illustrator's note. Mike Curato outlines the process he went through in order to create the lush paintings. He writes, "I created the illustrations by combining pencil drawings, paintings, and textures from the photographs I took while in Cuba." Fascinating end pages invite readers to study the variety of classic cars that populate Cuba. As Curato notes, the cars may not always look as they were first intended because the Cuban "people have to work with what they have, so some car have parts that use to belong to completely different cars."
What I especially like about the picture book is how the subject of cars can help to tell the bigger story about the "everyday ingenuity of poor people everywhere who have to struggle, persevere, create, and invent on a daily basis."
I plan to read the story aloud to a group of first graders and their teachers in a few weeks at a public school in the Bronx. It's a book I'll leave with them as I am certain the children will want to revisit the text again and again. Depending on how things go, perhaps we'll talk a little bit about ingenuity and maybe we'll do some drawing and writing too. I hope as we grope towards some kind of meaning, that the boy's insights will be ours too:
"We don't give up.