Thursday, August 9, 2018

Review of Jazz Owls

Happy Poetry Friday Friends,

Thanks to our poet photographer friend for hosting this week's round-up at Nix the Comfort Zone.  Be sure to stop by for lots and lots of wonderful poetry offerings.

Come Monday, I will be back in middle school as a teacher-librarian. I enjoy work...and, I have LOVED summer. It's always an adjustment going back because this last week is the week to  read all those books I was going to read over the summer. Ack!

I read Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots (Simon & Schuster 2018) by Young People's Poet Laureate, Margarita Engle.

Jazz Owls is a novel in verse and I love it!

As an educator and librarian for young people, I'm always looking for text that describes how situations other than those familiar feel. Jazz Owls does this wonderfully--and in exquisite verse.

First, there is a realistic cast of characters caught up in the Los Angeles riots (known as the Zoot Suit riots. But, I may never call them by that name again), the summer of 1943. As in other novels by Ms. Engle, each character holds an important piece of the whole story.

It's no surprise to today's readers that some voices in 1943 were listened to before others. First heard and protected were navy sailors training at the nearby base and about to be shipped off to the Pacific -- scared, nervous and looking for ways to vent it all. Also, police and newspaper writers looking for an angle to sell papers were important in the framing of this story.

Other voices were young Mexican-American women working in canning factories for little pay for long hours while being encouraged to also dance at USO Clubs in the evenings. After all, the troops should be kept happy, right? All of these people had families and neighbors that were a part of the fabric of their lives.

Meet Marisela, Lorena and their younger brother-chaperone Ray who work for the war effort by day and dance swing and jitterbug by night. Their older brother, Nico and their father are fighting World War II. Mama, Abuelita are with them on the Homefront.


I love feeling jazz-winged,
so this owl life is easy for me.
until early morning when my shift
at the cannery begins, right after a LONG journey
of clanging streetcar bells and SLEEPY smiles, all
those memories of dancing the jitterbug, Lindy Hop,
and jump blues, while adding my own swaying bit
of Latin-style swing rhythm!


DARK SIDE OF TOWN was the worst headline,
with words that made the rest of this city feel
like white people had received official
to fear
and hate
all of us


If you can't dance
with your neighbors,
you live in the wrong

Dance halls need musicians like  Manolito, a drummer, who hails from Cuba. These guys are being kept busy by the high demand for big band and swing. Everyone wants to feel alive so close to the thought of war and death.


I'm just one of hundreds of musicians
who arrive from New York, Memphis, Chicago,
Kansas City, Saint Louis, and from the steamy islands
of musica too, Cuba and Puerto Rico, drummers,
wearing our loose suits, the zoot shape
that drapes us to keep dance leaps smooth
and COOL in this HOT summer river
of JAZZ!

These beautiful young people get caught up in hysteria, violence and racism when navy recruits, fueled by newspaper angling, rushed streets looking for zoot-suiters to beat up. Chaos, injury, arrests and division ensue. 

Engle gets right to the truth of history with poetic images quickly and without mincing words.  Our young people can grasp this. After all, they are witnessing life now.

There is no happy ending, however, life does go on. There is an admirable reference list and  illustrations by Rudy Gutierrez who's work give layers of authenticity to the text. Artistic readers will be inspired immediately.

A few years ago, some seventh graders were looking for book information on Zoot Suits and the Zoot Suit (which should be more apply named Sailor) Riots. I wish I could have put this book in their hands. Now, I can. And, we can talk and the conversation about who we have been as Americans and who we need to be can continue. This book pairs perfectly with the movie (or snippets of the movie for classroom viewing), Swing Kids .

Thank you, Margarita Engle. You remain one of my writing and reading heroes. 


  1. I'm so excited to read this book. What a fascinating piece of history. I'm reading another historical verse novel, Lifeboat 12, right now. This is next on my TBR.

    My favorite poem you shared:
    If you can't dance
    with your neighbors,
    you live in the wrong

  2. Thanks for this review. I love the way verse novels can bring history to life so intimately.

  3. The same poem struck me, as Laura!

  4. Linda, you certainly sold this book as a must read for adults and children. The voices of each character rang loud and clear and if I closed my eyes, I could see history repeating itself. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. The words Jazz Owls and that cover teamed together and I can almost hear the smooth, rhythmy blues swinging through the pages. And yes - dance with your neighbourhood! Thanks for sharing, Linda. And I can't believe your holidays are over already!! (If it flew for me, how much faster did it go for YOU?!)

  6. As Laura said, this is a fascinating piece of history, and one, I confess, I had never heard of. Ray's poem struck me as well--he drives his point home so efficiently and eloquently. I love the power and versatility of verse novels and will definitely add this one to my list. Thanks for a great review!

  7. Thanks for bringing their wonderful voices to Poetry Friday, Linda. I have not read this book...yet! About the book pile. I'm still working my way through it, too. Happy back to school for you, friend! -- Christie @

  8. Great review, Linda. I am always excited to read another Margarita Engle. She has a way of making the most sad history lyrical and sweet-scented with exotic blooms.

  9. Love the review, Linda. I finally just got Margarita's book from my library! Now I'm really looking forward to it! I do love the way she tells her stories!

  10. Great review, Linda. I read JAZZ OWLS earlier this summer. Margarita is an amazing writer!

  11. I can only rely on the recommendations of teachers and librarians for new books that come out. I'm a bit hopeless at keeping up otherwise! It's good to know a bit more context for the 'zoot suit riots' beyond it being related to the title of a 90's ska song...

  12. Looking forward to this book. Love so much of Engle's work.

  13. I want to read this book! How did I not ever learn about this bit of our history (maybe I did and forgot it, but still)? The more I read, the more I discover I don't know and want to learn.

  14. Fantastic review Linda, you brought us right there via Margarita Engle's passages! I look forward to reading her book, but first I have another one of her books waiting for me, her memoir "Enchanted Air," thanks.

  15. I love Margarita Engle's work, and this book sounds just as amazing as her previous work. Thank you for sharing this, Linda!

  16. I love it when I can learn history with my heart, through poetry! Thanks for this review -- I'll put this one on my TBR list for sure!

  17. I never heard of these riots before. Sounds like a sad situation. Thanks for the review!

  18. Thanks for sharing, Linda. Another important book from our talented YPPL! Did you happen to catch Margarita's interview on NPR about the book a short while back?


Friendly, positive comments and feedback are always welcome here. Please let me know I'm not just whistling in the dark!