Saludos, todos! This week we are featuring Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Rafael López. As some of you may remember, we recently featured Margarita Engle in our Author’s Corner, where we gave you some biographical information, as well as some resources for exploring and teaching some of her works in young adult and children’s literature. In Drum Dream Girl, Engle does not cease to amaze us yet again. With Drum Dream Girl (ages 3-8) we continue our March celebration of Women’s History Month and our theme of women’s rights and experiences in children’s literature, by focusing on the story of a lesser-known historical figure. Through her beautiful poetic prose, Engle tells the biographical tale of a young, Cuban girl who counters gender norms in order to become one of Cuba’s most iconic female drummers.
López’s stunning illustrations complement Engle’s lyrical prose in a culmination of female empowerment and pride. As illustrator López dedicates the book to his “architect mother, Pilo, whose courage opened the ceiling above her dreams,” readers are reminded of the strength and brilliance of older generations of women, paving the way towards freedom and rights for younger generations. This book strongly resonates with the legacy of women’s rights and empowerment throughout history, in the Americas and beyond.
Drum Dream Girl is based on the true story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl living in the 1930s who successfully struggled against the social stigma for female drummers, becoming one of Cuba’s great, historic musicians. Engle narrates the tale through concise, lyrical writing, consistent with her style of fusing poetry and prose: “But everyone/ on the island of music/ in the city of drumbeats/ believed that only boys/ should play drums/ so the drum dream girl/ had to keep dreaming/ quiet/ secret/ drumbeat/ dreams.” This style is both easy for younger readers to follow and digest, and lyrically pleasing for older readers or adults.
Millo is a talented drummer whose father won’t let her pursue her dream since drumming is only for boys. However, Millo’s brilliance is so big that it becomes increasingly harder to ignore her potential. With some help from inspirational teachers and mentors, and her older sister’s all-girl music band, Millo is eventually able to conquer these obstacles and freely express her love for music: “where everyone who heard/ her dream-bright music/ sang/ and danced/ and decided/ that girls should always/ be allowed to play/ drums/ and both girls and boys/ should feel free/ to dream.”
At the crux of Millo’s story is the struggle of hindered dreams, as well as the importance and right of free expression. Through both Engle’s narration and López’s illustrations, readers will see how music is not only a fun diversion for Millo, but also a profound form of self-expression. As a review by Kirkus Reviews notes, López’s illustrations often allude to Millo’s mixed Chinese-African-Cuban heritage: “Though it’s not explicit in the text, her mixed Chinese-African-Cuban descent is hinted at in the motifs López includes.” Through the illustrations and motifs, Millo’s love of drumming interacts with her heritage and her identity. For example, one page shows Millo dancing and running with a large dragon and male drummers of visibly Asian heritage: “and the dragon clang/ of costumed drummers/ wearing huge masks.” Drumming is also depicted throughout the book as an integral part of Cuban culture and society, illuminating cafes, homes, carnivals, and even the public parks and streets. In not being able to participate in the joy of drumming, Millo is consequently prohibited from participating in her country’s musical environment, an integral part of Cuban cultural expression.
On another page, the illustrations show a sad-looking Millo looking up at a winged drum locked up in a cage: “and even though everyone/ kept reminding her that girls/ on the island of music/ had never played drums/ the brave drum dream girl/ dared to play/ tall conga drums/ small bongo drums/ and big, round, silvery/ moon-bright timbales.” Conga and bongo drums, although now found in a variety of musical genres throughout Latin America, are specifically associated with Afro-Cuban music. Moreover, as some of you may remember from my previous post on Mama’s Nightingale, the image of a caged bird (or, in this case, a caged drum with wings), is a consistent motif used in African-American literature to convey a lack of freedom. Here, the motif is also used to convey a lack of freedom, and to perhaps allude to African-American heritage.
According to the “Historical Note” found at the back of the book, “Millo became a world-famous musician, playing alongside all the American Jazz greats of the era.” However, Millo is a lesser-known figure, especially compared to some other renowned icons, such as Cuban jazz-singer, Celia Cruz, whom we’ve discussed multiple times on our blog. Nonetheless, Millo is an inspirational figure who transformed the expectations and limitations for Cuban women in the 1930s.
In the “Historical Note,” Engle also includes an anecdote about Millo playing the bongo drums for U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a birthday celebration for him in New York, “where she was enthusiastically cheered by the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.” Eleanor Roosevelt herself was a leading feminist and worked prolifically as a writer and activist. According to United for Human Rights, “As the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Eleanor Roosevelt was the driving force in creating the 1948 charter of liberties which will always be her legacy: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” By including this anecdote, Engle reminds readers of the strides made by history’s many great women.
From Millo Castro Zaldarriaga who countered gender norms and followed her passion for music, to Eleanor Roosevelt, who overcame her own oppression in order to fight against that of others, becoming a pioneer for international human rights, Engle’s book resonates with the legacy of women worldwide whose “courage broke the ceiling above their dreams.”
For those of you interested in using this book in the classroom, here are some additional resources:
- Teaching Books discussion guide for Drum Dream Girl
Stay tuned for more books about wonderful women!
Images modified from Drum Dream Girl: Pages 1, 17, 18, 26, 27, 28, 32