Friday, March 23, 2012

The Firefly Letters

March 23:  Today's post provided by Margarita Engle

I first learned about Fredrika Bremer while researching nineteenth century Cuban history for my young adult novels in verse, The Poet Slave of Cuba (Holt, 2006), and The Surrender Tree (Holt, 2008).  After reading about a Swedish women’s right advocate who visited Cuba in 1851, I grew intensely curious.  References stated that Fredrika Bremer’s journey to Cuba left the most complete known record of daily life on the island at that time.  I began searching for rare copies of her diaries and letters, and soon I was researching The Firefly Letters, a Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba (Holt, 2010).

In 1851, Bremer had already written travel books about the daily lives of Swedish women.  She chose Cuba as a place where North and South America meet, a land where she could study the clash of cultures.  Throughout her journey, she kept a diary and a sketchbook, as well as writing letters to her sister, and to members of Scandinavian royalty.

Fredrika Bremer
After arriving in Havana, Bremer asked the Swedish consulate to help her find a place to stay in the countryside.  Instead of enjoying comforts in the city, she hoped to explore remote areas, and meet ordinary people.  Bremer spoke English, but did not know Spanish, so she asked for a translator.  A young, African-born slave woman named Cecilia was assigned to help Bremer interview Cubans.  Together, Fredrika and Cecilia wandered the countryside, talking to slaves, freed blacks, and poor whites.  They rescued fireflies from children who captured the insects as playthings, and they developed a touching friendship.  At church, Fredrika kneeled in back, with the slaves.  During school visits, she challenged teachers who taught girls only one hour per day, while boys studied for eight hours. 

Fredrika Bremer was far ahead of her time.  Her books helped gain partial voting rights for Swedish women as early as the 1860s, and although she was unable to alter slavery in Cuba, she did inform European readers about the suffering that accompanied cultivation of the sugar they stirred into their tea.  Her courage to travel, and her courage to write, are remarkable not only in the context of her own time, but in any historical setting.  Fredrika Bremer is a role model for anyone who longs to change the world with words.

Editor's Note:  
Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of The Surrender Tree, which received many awards, including the first Newbery Honor every awarded to any Latino/a. The Poet Slave of Cuba received the Pura Belpré Medal, Américas Award, and an International Reading Association Award.  Tropical Secrets received the Sydney Taylor Award.  The Firefly Letters is a Pura Belpré Honor Book, and an Amelia Bloomer Top Ten Book. Hurricane Dancers is a Pura Belpré Honor Book.  Engle’s first picture book, Summer Birds, the Butterflies of Maria Merian, is an Amelia Bloomer Book, and a Kirkus Best Book for Children.  Her most recent novel in verse is The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012).  She lives in northern California, where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs.  Her next picture book, When You Wander (Holt, 2013), is about search and rescue dogs.  


  1. Thanks so much for sharing Fredrika's story. Her accomplishments are noteworthy even by today's standards, more so when one considers the era in which she lived. I wonder, with so few written documents, how will future generations trace our history? By tracking our digital footprints? Or perhaps by our printed books. Keep writing!

  2. I couldn't agree more. This is a lovely novel that has captured my sensibilities. I featured this particular book when we had our Novels-in-Verse theme sometime November/December of last year. Margarita Engle is an absolute favorite. I'm looking forward to meeting her when she visits Singapore this year.

  3. This looks great. I will send this to my friend's daughter who is half Cuban. It's hard to find Cuban KidLit!

  4. This story is evocative poetry & the title is perfect.
    Put this in the hands of many young readers.
    I wish I could write like Margarita.

  5. JUst wondering if the firefly image has any significance? I have come across a late 19th-century woman journalist's column, in a Jamaica newspaper, which she signs "Firefly" so I am wondering about the significance. Email your answer to

  6. Hi. I am working in a project about my ancestors, Phinney Family, because I want to write a novel, fiction and testimony, about that. It is nice because Fredrika Bremer visited my ancestors in Cuba and described their life. I was born in Cuba, but I live in USA since 2001. Thanks,
    Rodolfo R. Bofill Phinney.