Book Review: Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle

By Sujei Lugo

drum dream girl coverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Girls cannot be drummers. Long ago on an island filled with music and rhythm, no one questioned that rule — until the drum dream girl. She longed to play tall congas and small bongós and silvery, moon-bright timbales. She had to practice in secret. But when at last her music was heard, everyone sang and danced and decided that boys and girls should be free to drum and dream.

Inspired by a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke Cuba’s traditional taboo against female drummers, Drum Dream Girl tells an inspiring true story for dreamers everywhere.

MY TWO CENTS: Inspired by the childhood of Chinese Afro Cuban drummer Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, Margarita Engle and Rafael López enchantingly encapsulate through poetic text and dreamy illustrations a girl’s dreams and her desires to play music. By focusing on our girl’s “dreaming” period and the stage when she finally achieves her dream as a child, the author and illustrator furnish a landscape where children should be free to dream, and one they can relate to and which allows them to see themselves as dreamers.

Through the first line of Engle’s poem, “On an island of music, in a city of drumbeats, the drum dream girl dreamed,” we meet our Caribbean dream girl, who dreams about congas, bongós, and moon-bright timbales on a island where everyone believes only boys should play drums. This excluding notion and the exposure to such blatant sexism at such a young age do not prevent our girl from dreaming. She plays her own imaginary music, walks around tapping her feet and plays contagious drum rhythms on tables and chairs. When her big sisters invite her to join their new all-girl dance band, the drum dream girl is excited, but her father reminds her that “only boys should play drums.” She keeps drumming and dreaming, until her father realizes that her talent deserves to be heard. With a compelling illustration of her father “pulling” her drumming and dreaming daughter from the sky to the ground, she perseveres and lands back on her island of music, making her dream a reality.

The text is really descriptive, filled with poetic repetition and acknowledgements of the natural landscape of the island. Rafael López’s trademark of colorful and vibrant illustrations enhances the musical and dreamy experience of our character, providing images where you feel you are listening to the music and the beats. Through two-page layout canvases rich with smiling moons, suns, and birds, huge instruments, and our drum dream girl with closed eyes, he captures the spirit, the breeze, and the rhythm of our little drummer. López also successfully portrays the essence of Cuban city life and its racial and ethnic demographics.

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Drum Dream Girl is the story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a mixed race Cuban girl, who defied gender roles in the 1930’s music scene. The girl and her story show the importance of family, teacher, and music-education support to expose and develop our children’s musical talents. The all-girl dance band she joined was Anacaona, an orchestra founded by Cuchito Castro and her sisters. This forgotten and overshadowed group challenged the male-dominated Cuban music scene and an environment where women were seen as incapable of playing music. For more information about this group, look for the book Anacaona: The Amazing Adventures of Cuba’s First All-Girl Dance Band, written by Alicia Castro, Ingrid Kummels and Manfred Schäfer, or watch this preview of the documentary Anacaona: The Amazing Story of Cuba’s Forgotten Girl Band.

TEACHING TIPS: The picture book will work great as a read-aloud and a rich addition to music-themed library programs, where children could also make their own drums. With older children, teachers can incorporate poetry writing, drawing, and visualizing music as poetry. The text, illustrations, and content make this book perfect to be adapted as a musical play.

Other classroom activities can include historical exploration of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga’s life, Cuban music, and other female musicians. Margarita Engle includes a publisher’s discussion guide on her website.

AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR:

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American author, botanist, and professor who enjoys collaborating with her husband in volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs. Engle is the winner of numerous awards for her children’s and young adult books, including the Newbery Honor for The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (2008), becoming the first Latina to win that children’s literature award. In addition to her work as a writer, she also contributes to various periodicals such as Atlanta Review, Bilingual Review, California Quarterly, Caribbean Writer, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and Nimrod. Margarita Engle is a member of PEN USA West, Amnesty International, Freedom House of Human Rights and Freedom to Write Committee.

Some of her titles are: The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (2006), Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba (2009), The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba (2010), Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck (2011), The Wild Book (2012), The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist (2013), Mountain Dog (2013), Silver People: Voices From the Panama Canal (2014), Orangutanka: A Story in Poems (2015), The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist (2015), and Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings (2015).

Rafael López is a Mexican award-winning illustrator and artist, whose work is influenced by his cultural heritage, colors of Mexican street life, and Mexican surrealism. In addition to children’s books, López has illustrated posters, United States Postal Service stamps such as the Latin Music Legends series, and he has launched street art projects to revitalize urban neighborhoods, such as the Urban Art Trail Project.

He is the recipient of various Pura Belpré Honor for Illustration awards for books such as: My Name is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/Me Llamo Celia: La Vida de Celia Cruz (2006), Book Fiesta!: Celebrate Children’s Day/Book Day/ Celebremos El Día de los Niños/El Día de Los Libros (2010), The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred (2012) and Tito Puente: Mambo King/Rey del Mambo. He also received two Américas Awards for Children’s and Young Adult Literature for My Name is Celia (2006) and ¡Yum! ¡Mmmm! ¡Qué Rico! Americas’ Sproutings (2007).

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For more information about Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music (2015), visit your local library or bookstore. Also check out worldcat.orgindiebound.org, amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and goodreads.com. You can also watch the book trailer below.

Writers and Cantantes: How Music Inspires While Writing

By Zoraida Córdova

My least favorite feeling is the moment I dig in my purse and realize I left my headphones at home. ARGH! Not only is it a terrible thing because I hate the sound of the busker butchering Wonderwall on acoustic, but it’s because I love music. No Bella Swans up in here.

This is not to say that my taste in music is great. I will never understand Lana Del Rey and sometimes I like country songs (I hope you can still accept me as a friend.) But music, like all things we invest our love into, is a matter of personal taste.

One of my favorite stories my grandmother tells me about my childhood is that when I was a baby, the only way to get me to shut up was to put a radio beside my hammock (crib? What you think I am, a Queen?). So for as long as I can remember, I’ve been listening to the smooth stylings of Lisandro Mesa, Oscar D’Leon, Ruben Blades, and because I’m Ecuadorian, Julio Jaramillo.

Zoraida pic1How many of you need playlists when you’re writing? I certainly do. Music has always gotten my creativity flowing, and I especially love Latin music because it always tells a STORY. (Sometimes it makes me sad that younger generations don’t get the Salsa greats and instead get “I LUH YA PAPI” by JLo, but that’s a different story.)

When I was 5 , I didn’t understand that “No Le Pegue La Negra” by Joe Arroyo told the story of how African slaves were brought to Colombia in the 1600s and started intermarrying with the Natives. The Spaniards would beat the African women and then people would rebel. While that’s kind of a morbid thing to be listening to when you’re little, these were the songs I grew up with.

Most Latin pop ballads by Christian Castro and Chayanne are about how they can’t be with the girl, but they’re in so much love, oh my god. Shakira’s original Rock Latino songs were a mix of Colombian vallenato instruments and electric guitars and all of her words used to be pure poetry. The other day I felt really moody on my train ride to work, so I put on Selena’s greatest hits and a bidi bidi bom bom later, I was in a perfectly good mood. See, my grandmother had a good idea all those years ago.

These are the sounds, I realize, I have had in all my writing playlists. My Maná is mixed in with my Red Hot Chili Peppers and my Celia Cruz is mixed in with my Goo Goo Dolls. Whether I’m writing about mermaids in Coney Island or I’m working on a contemporary romance set in Boston.

I leave you with a random sampling of the last songs I listened to on iTunes.

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What do you listen to when you write? What was your favorite song growing up? Share with us in the comments!