Jazz Owls

A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots

Jazz Owls

Illustrated by: Rudy Gutierrez
For Ages: 12 - 99
From the Young People’s Poet Laureate Margarita Engle comes a searing novel in verse about the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943.

Thousands of young Navy sailors are pouring into Los Angeles on their way to the front lines of World War II. They are teenagers, scared, longing to feel alive before they have to face the horrors of battle. Hot jazz music spiced with cool salsa rhythms calls them to dance with the local Mexican American girls, who jitterbug all night before working all day in the canneries. Proud to do their part for the war effort, these Jazz Owl girls are happy to dance with the sailors—until the blazing summer night when racial violence leads to murder.

Suddenly the young white sailors are attacking these girls’ brothers and boyfriends. The cool, loose zoot suits they wear are supposedly the reason for the violence—when in reality these boys are viciously beaten and arrested simply because of the color of their skin.

In soaring images and powerful poems, this is the breathtaking story of what became known as the Zoot Suit Riots as only Margarita Engle could tell it.
  • Atheneum Books for Young Readers | 
  • 192 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781534409439 | 
  • May 2018 | 
  • Grades 7 and up | 
  • Lexile ® 1300L
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Reading Group Guide

A Reading Group Guide to

Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots

By Margarita Engle

About the Book

During the summer of 1943, thousands of U.S. Navy sailors pass through Los Angeles on their way to the front lines of World War II. Music and dance absorb their last carefree moments. Dancing with local Mexican American girls, the men jitterbug and rumba long into the night. For Mexican American boys, zoot suits are both the current fashion rage and a status symbol. One night, in an eruption of racial violence, these Mexican American boys are senselessly beaten, arrested, and thrown in jail. Written in verse from multiple points of view and based on true events, Jazz Owls explores the Zoot Suit Riots that rocked Los Angeles. Riots that started with a murder. Alongside explosions of violence and racism is a story about women working on the home front, the drive to rise above circumstances, and the desire to be noticed for who you are rather than the color of your skin.

Prereading activities

The discussion questions below particularly address the following English Language Arts Common Core State Standards: (RL/RI.6-8.1) (RH.6-8.1)

1. Look at the cover, title, chapter sections, artwork, and years covered in the book. What do you think this story is going to be about? What kind of tone is set? As you read, do your predictions change? Keep track of evidence that supports your predi see more

More Books from this Author

Forest World
The Flying Girl
Lion Island
Aire encantado (Enchanted Air)

About the Author

Margarita Engle
Photograph © Marshall W. Johnson

Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN Literary Award for Young Adult Literature winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, a Walter Dean Myers Award Honor, and was a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, among others. Her picture book Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award. Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She continues to visit Cuba as often as she can. Visit her at MargaritaEngle.com.