The Knight of the Not Always Woeful Countenance
Book Reviewed: Miguel’s Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote – Margarita Engle and Raúl Colón, Peachtree Publishers, 2017
Miguel’s Brave Knight is a picture book about the young Miguel de Cervantes and his formation as an artist. It is written in verse by Margarita Engle, continuing a welcome trend of children’s books delivered in the least commercial literary form. It is promising how many excellent examples of narrative poems that publishers are producing for children: Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down, Debbie Levy’s The Year of Goodbyes and Engle’s own Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, to name only a few. Perhaps poetry, sometimes the most challenging genre to read and interpret, actually has an advantage in the free verse form favored by children’s authors. Each segment or chapter is self-contained and brief, and relies partly on the rhythms of speech.
When I read Miguel’s Brave Knight, as well as some of the other works listed, I asked myself at times if the story could not, in fact, have been told in prose, simply by reassigning line breaks and creating sentences. In some cases, where imagery and metaphor are not features of the language, it could. But I believe there is a value even in using the medium of poetry to tell stories because it “normalizes” this limitless form.
The young Cervantes doesn’t have an easy life. His father is depicted as an irresponsible gambler who spends time in prison. Miguel’s education is erratic and he lacks the stability that children crave.
Literature is his refuge, which will not come as a surprise to adults reading the book. Cervantes’s most famous creation was a man whose “brain dried up, causing him to lose his mind,” from reading constantly and identifying with fantastic tales to the point of insanity. In one of Raúl Colón’s pictures, Miguel sits cross-legged, his eyes closed and chin in hand in the classic pose of reflection. Everyday objects and a dog are at his feet, but a shadow of Don Quixote, reminiscent of Picasso’s Blue Period, flies over his head amidst the moon and stars:
Our empty house looks
so spooky and stark…
But when I close my eyes,
the spark of a story flares up.
A tale about a brave knight
who will ride out on
a strong horse
all the wrongs
of this confusing
This is a book for children and Cervantes’s progress from frustration to hope is wholly positive. Engle’s message is explicit, even a bit didactic, as the young Miguel becomes convinced of his own worth: “At last I feel confident enough/to dream of someday writing…” He is sure that his creation will tackle “all the wrongs/of this wonderful/but terribly/mixed-up world.” His ultimate Don Quixote will in fact, as did Cervantes himself, face cruelty, disappointment, and wrongs that could never be righted. Don Quixote dies “admitting” that he was insane and rejecting his beloved novels of chivalry. But readers of Engle and Colón’s version will appropriately learn about the powers of creativity and the importance of believing in dreams.
The book includes detailed author’s and illustrator’s notes and a brief biography of Cervantes. I was somewhat disappointed that none of these includes information about Cervantes’s roots in a converso family, Jews who had been forced or persuaded to become Christian rather than face expulsion from Spain. This part of his background has been well documented, and is an important part of the author’s perspective as a permanent outsider within Spanish society.
Engle herself is of mixed Cuban and North American heritage. Her father’s family is Jewish and she has written movingly about her background and identity. This part of her experience only makes her more suited to telling Cervantes’s life story. There is always more to learn; I hope readers will explore this topic.