Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal

by Margarita Engle

Newbery Honor winner Margarita Engle tells the story of the creation of the Panama Canal in this powerful YA historical novel in verse.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780544668706
  • ISBN-10: 0544668707
  • Pages: 272
  • Publication Date: 03/29/2016
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
  • About the Book

    In 1914, the world celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, which connected the world’s two largest oceans and signaled America’s emergence as a global superpower. It was a miracle, this path of water where a mountain had stood—and creating a miracle is no easy thing. Thousands lost their lives, and those who survived worked under the harshest conditions for only a few silver coins a day. 

       From the young "silver people" whose back-breaking labor built the Canal to the denizens of the endangered rainforest itself, this is the story of one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, as only Newbery Honor-winning author Margarita Engle could tell it.

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    MATEO from the island of Cuba


    Fear is a fierce wind
    that sends me reeling
    down to the seashore,
    where I beg for work,
    any work at all,
    any escape
    to carry me far
    from my father’s
    furious fists.

    Lobster trapper.
    I’m willing to take any job
    that floats me away
    from home.

    I am not an ordinary war orphan.

    Papi is alive, but the family part
    of his mind
    is deeply wounded.
    He drinks so much rum
    that he believes I am
    his enemy—a Spaniard
    from the country
    that lost the war
    and left so many
    of its soldiers

    Spanish veterans
    flock the seashore, begging
    for the same jobs that lure me.

    I’m only fourteen, but I’m strong
    for a starving boy.
    So I shove and curse
    along with the crowd
    of muscular men, all of us
    equally eager to reach
    a fast-talking americano
    Panamá Canal recruiter
    who promises food, houses,
    and money,
    so much money . . .

    The recruiter shouts and pounds
    his fists in the air.
    His foreign accent
    makes the words sound powerful
    as he describes a wild jungle
    where men who are hired
    will dig the Eighth Wonder
    of the World.

    He says the canal is a challenge
    worthy of Hercules,
    a task for giants,
    not ordinary men,
    but when he unrolls a map,
    Panamá is barely
    a sliver.

    How can such a narrow
    bridge of land
    be so important?

    After the confusing map,
    there are pamphlets with pictures
    of tidy houses, the orderly dining rooms
    offering comforting details
    that catch my eye.

    Lacy curtains and tablecloths,
    flowers in vases,
    plates heaped with food . . .
    So much food.

    Barriga llena, corazón contento.
    Full belly, happy heart.
    That’s what Mami used to say,
    before cholera claimed
    her happiness
    and mine.

    With the flair of a magician,
    the recruiter tosses two sun-shiny coins
    up and down in his hand,
    until the gold
    American dollars
    ring out like church bells
    or kettledrums in a parade.

    Those musical coins lure me
    deeper into the crowd of pushing,
    rushing, desperate, job-hungry strangers,
    but as soon as I reach for the recruiter’s
    paper and pen, ready to sign my name
    on a contract, the blond man glares
    at my green eyes, brown face,
    and curly hair, as if struggling
    to figure out who I am.
    No cubanos, he shouts. No islanders,
    just pure Spanish,
    semi-blanco, semi-white—
    European. Civilized.

    His words make no sense.
    Isn’t semi-white the same
    as semi-dark?

    So I start telling lies.
    I let my skin fib.

    I point out that my father
    is blondish and my mother
    was the tan of toasted wheat,
    her hair long and silky,
    her eyes as blue-green
    as the sea,
    just like mine.

    Then I invent an imaginary village
    in Spain, for my birthplace,
    and I give my age
    as twenty,
    and I show off
    my muscles,
    pretending to feel
    brave . . .

    By the time I board
    a dragon-smoky
    Panamá Craze steamship,
    I’ve already told so many lies
    that my conscience feels
    as hollow
    as my belly.

  • Reviews
    Winner of the 2015 Américas Award 

    A Jane Addams Award Honor Book 

    Green Earth Book Awards Honor Book 


    * "A masterful command of language and space. . . Engle blends the voices of her fictional characters, historical figures, and even the forest into a dynamic coming-of-age story not only of young adults but also of a blustering and arrogant United States." 

    VOYA, 5Q 5P M J S 


    * "Engle's extraordinary book is a tour de force of verisimilitude and beautifully realized verse that brings to empathetic life the silver people." 

    Booklist, starred review 


    "As always, Engle's poetry captures with sympathetic wonder and delicate beauty the plight of these disenfranchised voices; here in particular she highlights the natural beauty and love that Mateo, Anita, and Henry find and cling to in the midst of their back- and heart-breaking labor." 

    The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 


    "In melodic verses, Engle offers the voices of three [Panama Canal] workers. . . . Taken together, they provide an illuminating picture of the ecological sacrifices and human costs behind a historical feat generally depicted as a triumph." 

    Horn Book Magazine 


    "This richly developed novel is an excellent addition to any collection. In this compelling story, Engle paints a picture of an often [over]-looked area and highlights the struggles of the people and the arrogance of the Americans." 

    School Library Journal 


    A Junior Library Guild Selection 

    Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year 

    An NCTE Notable Book in the English Language Arts 

    ALSC Notable Books in the Social Sciences 

    CCBC Choice Fiction for Young Adults 

    CCBC Global Reading list 

    Best Multicultural Books, Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature

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