Book Review: Drum Dream Girl and Dancing Hands – power in poetry, empathy in art

Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreno Played the Piano for President Lincoln, 2019, Pura Belpre Medal 2020

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, 2015, Pura Belpre Medal 2016

by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez

These two books captivate both of our children. If I sit down to read them with the little one, within a couple of sentences, the older has sidled over, squeezed in next to me without a word, distracted from his own activities by the musical language, the vivid images in the text and the bold, multi-layered illustrations.

We often read them one after the other, the themes akin: two young girls, decades apart, but driven by courage, love of music and sense of self. Both are based on real stories about real children: Chinese-African-Cuban drummer, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga and Venezuelan pianist, Maria Teresa Carreno Garcia de Sena. Drum Dream Girl is told as a poem, but both books have a lyrical tone and rhythm – sentences extended out into flowing similes that conjure for us the music we can almost hear.

I found these books after reading Maybe Something Beautiful, looking for more illustrations by Rafael Lopez. In both these books, the text and illustrations carry equal weight, the words and pictures together creating a cocoon around us as we read, making dream-weavers of us. Look! – she’s a mermaid in that dream – is she a butterfly in that one? My daughter’s favourite page in Drum Dream Girl is the one of the sisters playing together in their all-girl dance band, and you can see the sadness on the sisters’ faces too when their father says ‘only boys should play drums.’ It is a powerfully inspiring story for girls – but I’m always glad of the last line for my son too – ‘both girls and boys should feel free to dream.’ Dreams outside convention; dreams that dare for every child.

Dancing Hands is a more complex story with dark notes mixed into the light – a motif that plays delicately throughout the book. Teresa flees war in Venezuela when she is eight, arriving in the USA as a refugee – while the Civil War is raging. Our children are drawn to those darker images – responding to Teresa’s sadness and the distress of war, asking questions – why is she in the water, what is that on the houses, why does Teresa have that face, are those soldiers, why is that woman sad? So we talk about the houses burning in the war, and the way the storm is both what Teresa sails through and how she feels. It’s both an adventure and an rollercoaster of emotional response. I’m not sure my daughter understands President Lincoln’s private grief at the loss of his son, she’s so wrapped up in how Teresa is feeling, her dejected face when the piano is out of tune, so involved with the story of this girl, a few years older than she is now, but still very much a child in a vast and complex world.

War, displacement, exclusion, loss. We hope to spare our children such trauma, but Engle’s poetry and Lopez’s art open their readers to another child’s fears and dreams – and provoke an innate empathy and sense of kinship, child to child. Perhaps too, these stories show our children ways to overcome their own fears and reach for their own dreams – whatever those may be.

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