‘Drum Dream Girl’ is inspired by a true story about a Chinese-African-Cuban girl, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, who loved to play the drums and fulfilled her dream despite the odds stacked against her.
Cuba leapt out as a must-go-soon destination on this picture book journey because of the hype preceding the release of All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato (Henry Holt and Co., 2017). Engle is currently the US National Young People’s Poet Laureate and the Cuban-American author of many award-winning titles for adults and children; Curato is an acclaimed author-illustrator and cupcake connoisseur. I am the proud owner of this fabulous 2017 release, which features a young boy’s road trip to Havana in the ancient family car. But, I had also ordered an earlier title by Engle, illustrated by Rafael López: Drum Dream Girl. This is the book I have chosen to write about because, quite simply, I love it!
Drum Dream Girl is inspired by a true story about a Chinese-African-Cuban girl, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, who loved to play the drums and fulfilled her dream despite the odds stacked against her. Because in Cuba at that time (1920s/30s), tradition held that girls could NOT be drummers. The text is beautifully lyrical. Take these lines, for example:
“When she walked under/wind-wavy palm trees/in a flower-bright park/she heard the whir of parrot wings/the clack of woodpecker beaks . . .”
The sensory poetic language sends a shiver down my spine every time I read it. And the whole story is alive with music and rhythm. Everywhere she goes Millo is sensitive to the sounds she hears: “the dragon clang of costumed drummers”, even her own heartbeat. Whether awake or asleep, she dreams of music – of playing bongó drums and “moon-bright” timbales. And Rafael López’ illustrations in a glorious exotic palette deepen our understanding of Millo’s emotional journey: her love of sound and rhythm; her dreams of playing the drums; her disappointment; and her determination to continue with her music, despite opposition from many on the island, including her own father.
The spreads are stunning without exception, especially the surreal dreamlike scenes, where Millo floats in the air tapping out a rhythm on suspended tables and chairs, or balances on a precarious tower of drums and reaches for the moon with her drumsticks. I could go on and on about López’ brilliant artwork, but for the purposes of this piece, I’ll focus on just one illustration where Millo stands, eyes closed, and smiles as two men play drums in an outdoor café.
The drummers and a couple of café patrons form a joyful unified quartet on the left-hand page; Millo is at the bottom right of the double-page spread. She is at once part of the scene, but distanced from it; she bathes in music, but she is not actively involved in playing it. For me, this illustration is a clear visual representation of the distance that separates Millo from fulfilling her dreams. It is credit to her perseverance and eventual support of her father and then music teacher that she succeeds. The end of the story sees her preparing to play her bongó drums at an outdoor café just like the male musicians in this earlier scene. In doing so, of course, she breaks with island tradition and paves the way for other girls to follow suit.
Drum Dream Girl is a beautiful blend of lyricism, music and outstanding artwork. It provides a fascinating insight into one girl’s determination to pursue her love of drumming and to fly in the face of tradition. It is a story that should encourage all girls and boys to dream – and to follow their dreams.
Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)
Margarita Engle is currently the US National Young People’s Poet Laureate and the Cuban-American author of many award-winning titles for adults and children. She received the 2016 Charlotte Zolotov Award for Drum Dream Girl. Margarita Engle was born in Los Angeles but developed a strong attachment for Cuba, her mother’s home country, during childhood holidays spent there with relatives.
Rafael López is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning illustrator and artist. He was awarded the 2016 Pura Belpré medal from the American Library Association for his illustrations for Drum Dream Girl. He was born and raised in Mexico City and now splits his time between San Diego, United States and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.