Book Review: Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle, illus. by Rafeal López

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Review by Dora M. Guzmán

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: As a little girl, Teresa Carreño loved to let her hands dance across the beautiful keys of the piano. If she felt sad, music cheered her, and when she was happy, the piano helped her share that joy. Soon she was writing her own songs and performing in grand cathedrals.

Then a revolution in Venezuela drove her family to flee to the United States. Teresa felt lonely in this unfamiliar place, where few of the people she met spoke Spanish. Worst of all, there was fighting in her new home, too- a Civil War.

Still, Teresa kept playing, and soon she grew famous as the talented Piano Girl who could play anything from a folk song to a sonata. So famous, in fact, that President Abraham Lincoln wanted her to play at the White House! Yet with the country torn apart by war, could Teresa’s music bring comfort to those who needed it the most?

MY TWO CENTS: Dancing Hands is a biographical picture book about María Teresa Carreño Garcia de Sena that embraces creativity, family, and music during turmoil in Venezuela and the United States. Teresa, also known as Piano Girl, learns early on that music is an art for others to enjoy in the moment and in their hearts. Despite inevitable conflict in both her home country, Venezuela, and her new home, the United States, music becomes her refuge. Playing the piano calms the storms, brings together her family, and inspires other artists, and even the president in office, Abraham Lincoln.

While the text is in English only, the language used to describe Teresa’s talent is filled with poetic and descriptive language. It moves the reader through a narrative timeline of events and emotions. The illustrations are phenomenal and invoke more emotions as the reader learns about Teresa’s life changes. The use of acrylic paint and its textured shades contrast against the sharp lines and fierce colors that spread across each page. Each page has strategically placed colors and imagery placement to convey the story’s mood. Still, Teresa’s life experiences and talents remain front and center, with her connection to her music and cultures highlighted. My favorite moment in her story is when, as a young child, Teresa inspired other musicians to come and create music. It shows how far and wide her inspiration reached even at a young age!

TEACHING TIPS: Many of these teaching moments can be implemented in a K-5 setting, with a focus on the grades 3 and up.

  • Writing Mentor Text
    • Descriptive language: The author provides a plethora of metaphors and descriptive language that can serve as models for student writing when used to describe objects, moments, and feelings.
    • Mini lesson on adjectives and verbs
  • Addition to a biography unit or music unit
    • The historical note at the end of the book can serve as a catalyst for further research into the life of María Teresa Carreño Garcia de Sena. Student researchers can also find out more about her music and how it added to the arts during and after her time.
    • In music class, students can learn more about her compositions, as well as listen to her music compositions to add to their study.
  • Author and illustrator study
    • Pair this text with other picture books written by Margarita Engle and compare her writing style as well as the characters.
    • Pair this text with other picture books illustrated by Rafael López and compare his artistic style.

Listen to María Teresa Carreño Garcia de Sena’s composition called La Falsa Nota played by another pianist.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many acclaimed books, including two other collaborations with Rafael López, Bravo! and Drum Dream Girl, as well as The Flying Girl; All the Way to Havana; Miguel’s Brave Knight; The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor book; Jazz Owls; The Poet Slave of Cuba; and her memoirs Enchanted Air and Soaring Earth. She lives in central California. Visit her at margaritaengle.com Follow her on Twitter: @margaritapoet

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ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Rafael López was born and raised in Mexico, a place that has always influenced the vivid colors and shapes in his artwork. He now creates community-based mural projects around the world and illustrates acclaimed children’s books, including The Day You Begin, Bravo!, Drum Dream Girl, We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands, and Book Fiesta! Rafael divides his time between Mexico and California. Visit him at  https://rafaellopez.com/

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Dora M. Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-5 and also teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Children’s Literature and Teaching Beginning Literacy. She is also a current doctoral student in NLU’s  EdD Teaching and Learning Program with an emphasis on Reading, Language, and Literacy.  When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never-ending “to read” pile!

Book Review: Caminar by Skila Brown

Caminar

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

On Monday, we interviewed first-time author Skila Brown about her novel in verse, Caminar. Check out the Q&A for information about her research and writing and her decision to tackle a subject outside her own racial/ethnic experience. Today, we celebrate her debut.

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet–he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck: Communist.

Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her…Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.

MY TWO CENTS: Skila Brown’s debut novel in verse tells the heartbreaking story of Carlos, who is forced from his devastated village and treks up a mountainside to save his grandmother and her neighbors from a similar fate.

One thing that struck me most was Brown’s ability to create a touching coming-of-age narrative set in such tragic events. The novel is not graphic, although the topic is brutal. And while it is a civil war, fueled by politics, Brown does not support or condemn any side. Instead, more than anything, it’s about the ability of the human spirit to survive and persevere even after an unexpected, horrific loss.

A moment that grabbed me by the heart was when Mama tells Carlos to go into the woods and then find her later. He does so, obediently, but we just know there won’t be a later, that this is her last protective act as his mother. Another was when the children wave at the passing helicopter, as children will do when they see something interesting, but they don’t grasp the imminent danger signaled by this flying machine’s presence. From the novel:

They flew

over our village many times, searching the mountains for

something. We didn’t care,

just reached our arms as high as we could, stretched

toward the sky, wanting

to be seen.

We did not know to be

afraid, did not know they were a storm

of death, searching

for a place to rain.

Brown brilliantly combines history, fiction, and poetry in this novel, which she dedicates to the “memory of the more than 200,000 people who were killed or disappeared in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996.” These numbers are staggering, and I often questioned while reading Caminar why I didn’t know more about this 36-year civil war. This is definitely a book I will have on my classroom shelf and recommend to my middle school social studies and language arts teacher-friends.

TEACHING TIPS: Caminar would fit perfectly into a middle school social studies or language arts curriculum. Students could read this in addition to nonfiction articles or essays about the war and its effects on Guatemalan villages. Students could then compare the nonfiction pieces to Caminar to determine what’s history in the novel and what’s fiction.

In a social studies class, this book could be used in a unit about the causes of war and its effects on a country. Students could read other, similar novels or essays and compare the experiences.

Any of the individual poems could be read closely multiple times to discuss word choice and the use of figurative language in poetry.

Students could write a short story in poems to learn first hand the difficulty involved with writing individual poems that also tell a story when read together.

LEXILE: N/A

skilaAUTHOR: Skila Brown has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Caminar is her debut novel. She lives in Indiana with her husband and their three children.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Caminar, visit your local library or book store. Also, check out Candlewick PressIndieBound.org,  GoodreadsAmazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.com.

 

We are giving away two copies of Caminar!! Go to a Rafflecopter giveaway to enter for free. You can enter once per day through this week. Two winners will be selected Saturday morning.

Debut Author Skila Brown’s Novel in Verse Centers on Guatemalan Civil War

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

CaminarI recently interviewed debut author Skila Brown for the Fearless Fifteeners site, which helps to highlight our debut author friends in the OneFour KidLit group. Most of the interview is reprinted here, but I added the final question in particular because of our audience and our mission. Skila is not Guatemalan, yet she wrote a moving narrative about a young Guatemalan boy in 1981 caught in civil war. The last question addresses the concern about writing with authenticity outside of one’s own ethnic/racial experiences.

First, a little about her novel, Caminar, which was released March 26.

Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet—he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck: Communist.

Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her. . . . Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.

“Exquisitely crafted poems are the basis of an unusually fine verse novel…”

–Horn Book, starred review

“…a much-needed addition to Latin American-themed middle grade fiction.”

–School Library Journal, starred review

Me: Your bio says you lived in Guatemala for a bit. Did your experience there spark interest in this topic? Did anything else inspire you to write this particular story?

Skila: We moved to Guatemala after I’d finished the novel, though I revised it some while we were there. This novel actually came out, reluctantly and painfully, after I’d spent about a decade reading about Guatemala’s history, especially the history of the violence there that peaked in the early 80s. I had no intention of writing about it, but that’s what ended up happening. I certainly felt inspired by accounts of survival that I read, but also felt a real desire to make sure other people knew about what had happened there.

Me: How extensive was your research? Did you run into any roadblocks when seeking information?

Skila: My research started out very organically—I was reading for pleasure and interest, not with the intention of gathering facts to write a story. When the story began, I had some pointed research to do, specific questions about language and geography and other details that I hadn’t already absorbed. It was hard to track down first person accounts of rural Guatemala during this time.

Right away I faced a tough decision about language. Although Carlos would have spoken Spanish in school, it wouldn’t have been his first language; it’s not what he would have spoken at home with his mother. In an earlier draft I envisioned using an indigenous language in the text, as well as Spanish—which would have likely been the way that Carlos could have spoken to someone like Paco, for example—but I was worried about being able to maintain accuracy and authenticity if I wrote the story that culturally specific. I also felt that an English speaking reader might struggle with the mixture of over four different languages in the same story. Definitely trying to balance authenticity with a reader’s connection was a constant struggle.

Me: Is your protagonist Carlos linked to anyone you came across during your research or does he represent the young men who survived that time?

Skila: Carlos isn’t based on any one person. In fact, I had the story down before I had a character at all, but I knew early on the main character was a child, that this was really, at its core, a coming of age story. In violent conflicts all over the world, it’s not uncommon for a handful of people to survive an attack on a village such as this, having scattered away during the chaos. I’d read about children who survived and felt really drawn to that story—how scary it must for a child to be on his or her own, how resourceful that child would have to be.

Me: The physical layout of the poems adds to the narrative. I’m glad I read this one on paper instead of listening to it on audio. The visual really complements the content. Is that something you consider in the writing phase or is that developed in editing?

Skila: This was something I worked a lot on in revision. I wrote this story while I was a grad student and while I was working with poets Julie Larios and Sharon Darrow. Sharon, in particular, encouraged me to play around with shape and the placement of lines on a page. White space is a poet’s tool, and I liked thinking about how I could use it. Typically I draft a poem by hand and it has no shape or form in the beginning, I’m just thinking about the content and the words themselves. But as I revise that poem and before I’m ready to put it into the computer, I try to think about what shape would serve it best. It’s easy to play around with form and shape; it’s harder to use those both deliberately.

Me: Tell us about your publication journey. Some people get deals while still in grad school, while others query for years. What’s your story?

Skila: While I was in grad school, Candlewick was kind enough to offer me a scholarship award for a picture book text I wrote called Slickety Quick. It’s a non-fiction/poetry blend about sharks and it’s scheduled to be out with them in 2016. This really opened a door for me with them, as they also asked to see my novel. I think the key for writers is to submit away—but then put it out of your mind and dive into the next project. Good news comes faster when you’re looking the other way.

Me: Did you have any additional considerations while writing about something outside your racial/ethnic experience? Did you do anything in particular to “get it right” or did you approach it the same way you’d approach any other book project?

Skila: I was very concerned about this, Cindy. This concern kept the story in my head for two years, before I felt brave enough to put it on paper. This concern kept the finished manuscript on my computer for some time before I was ready to send it out to query. It’s something I’m concerned about still. Writing outside our cultures is a very risky thing for writers to do because it’s so easy to get it wrong.

However. Everyone this month is talking about The Study. And if only 6% of books published for kids in 2013 starred a character of color, then it’s past time for us to think about how to remedy that. If writers are going to play our part in addressing this problem, we need to look hard at how we can do this responsibly.

I approached this with a lot of research, a goal of authenticity, and a strong dose of humility. I had multiple people vet my story and offer suggestions. I thought hard about stereotypes and language and how best to portray the story with the most respect I could give it. I also tried to balance the “otherness” of Carlos with what will connect him to a reader today, what makes him the same as a twelve year old boy, reading this story in Chicago, for example. As adults we tend to notice the differences in characters and cultures, but kids are great about finding what’s the same and really connecting to the character. I hope they are able to do that with Carlos.

skilaSkila Brown holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee, lived for a bit in Guatemala, and now resides with her family in Indiana.

Come back on Thursday, when we will spotlight Caminar in our Libros Latin@s section!

We are giving away two copies of Caminar!! Go to a Rafflecopter giveaway to enter for free. You can enter once per day through this week. Two winners will be selected Saturday morning.