Month: March 2016

Her Own Beat

Dream Drum Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music

By Margarita Engle
Illustrated by Rafael López
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Boston, $16.99)

Cuba has a long tradition of drumming, and until the mid-twentieth century, that tradition was male. However, in 1932, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a ten-year-old girl of Chinese, African, and Cuban descent, played the drums in Anacaona, an all-girl band formed by her older sisters. Zaldarriaga went on to enjoy a successful career as a jazz drummer: she performed with many leading jazz musicians of the day and even played at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday celebration when she was fifteen.

Inspired by Zaldarriaga’s early life, Drum Dream Girl explores the obstacles the young musician overcame to even study her instrument. In free verse, Margarita Engle describes how a youthful Millo heard music in island life: “the whirl of parrot wings/the clack of woodpecker beaks/the dancing tap of her own footsteps.” Forbidden to play percussion, she practices in secret and retreats into her dreams until she is finally permitted to pursue the instrument she loves. Engle’s verse evokes both Cuba’s beauty and that of the world Millo creates for herself.

Rafael López’s gently surreal illustrations round out young Millo’s dreamscape and bring her Cuba, with its cafés, flowers, and carnivals, vividly to life. In one spread, set against a starry sky, Millo mounts a ladder of conga and bongo drums to play a timbale that is the surface of the moon. Pleased to be part of her music, the moon smiles. In another, a flamingo, small bird, butterfly, and a snake paused to listen as Millo drums beside a small pool at night. Even a fish peeps from the water and smiles up at her: all nature delights in her beats. In this way, López captures exaltation and the sense that the universe itself rejoices with the creator: a feeling familiar to all those who’ve experienced real joy, whether it is the thrill of creation or falling in love. Various motifs float through the book’s illustrations, including a small bird who appears in several spreads. With a purple body, pink wings, and humanoid legs, she seems to represent Millo’s desire for freedom.

With lyrical verse and gorgeous illustrations, Dream Drum Girl is an inspiring introduction to Zaldarriaga’s life and work. It is also a moving reflection on the human need for creative expression.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Music to His Ears


Talkin’ Guitar: The Story of Young Doc Watson
Written and illustrated by Robbin Gourley
(Clarion Books, 2015, New York, $16.99)

Born in a two-room cabin, one of nine children, Arthel Watson lost his vision to an eye infection when he was a year old. But what sounds like the premise of a human-interest story proved anything but tragic. Young Arthel had “ears like a cat,” and he loved music: the ballads his mother sang, the hymns he heard in church, and the music he found in the wind, animal voices, and train whistles. He taught himself to play a harmonica and a homemade banjo before his father bought him a guitar. Between farm chores, Arthel practiced his guitar and began writing songs of his own. Eventually, he became Doc Watson, a folk and bluegrass artist who went on to win the National Medal of the Arts and performed until his death, at age eighty-nine, in 2012.

In Talkin’ Guitar, author-illustrator Robbin Gourley transports readers to young Arthel’s world. Her language evokes Watson’s North Carolina hills: “Yonder, where blue mountains meet the sky, Arthel Watson was born into a world of music,” commences the narrative. Throughout the picture-book biography, Gourley employs the similes Watson and his family might have used. At first, his harmonica sounds like “a wildcat howling.” Chores and guitar practice “made him sharp as a whittling knife and tough as a hickory.” Likewise, Gourley’s watercolors do not emphasize Watson’s humble beginnings, but rather celebrate the wonder young Arthel finds in his world. In a few spreads, soft blue and violet hills rise out of green meadows into a pink or orange sky. In one, a tiny church steeple peeps over a low hill; meanwhile, Arthel lounges with his cat and dog in the meadow. Around him, in small balloons, float the sounds that inspire him from the “Peep-Peep” of birds to the “Moo” of cow to the “Amen” chorus at church. Young Arthel may be unable to admire the view, but he is acutely aware of the mountains’ beauty.

Talkin’ Guitar is a lyrical introduction to Doc Watson and his music. It is also a moving journey into another’s world, a reminder that disabilities can coexist with extraordinary abilities, and a celebration of the music we encounter every day.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Trade Secrets

inventors-secret-hiresThe Inventor’s Secret: What Thomas Edison Told Henry Ford
By Suzanne Slade
Illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and the phonograph; Henry Ford produced the Model T Ford, the first affordable, high-quality automobile. Together, they helped fashion modern life. However, when they first met at an 1896 dinner party, Edison was sixteen years old and far more celebrated than the younger inventor. Still, he gave Ford some much-needed encouragement – and some valuable advice. That was all the incentive Ford needed to continue experimenting with engines. Eventually, he made his Model T, and the two men developed a lifelong friendship.

In The Inventor’s Secret, Suzanne Slade and illustrator Jennifer Black Reinhardt tell the innovators’ intertwining stories. First, readers encounter both men as small boys whose curiosity leads them to perform risky experiments. As the narrative progresses and Edison’s fame grows, Ford admires him from afar and longs to equal his success. Slade describes her subjects’ creations in clear, simple prose and skillfully develops the relationship between the inventors. Cheerful and occasionally cartoonish, Reinhardt’s illustrations complement the narrative and convey the excitement inherent in discovery. At the end of the book, a timeline and various notes offer more information about the subjects and their creations.

What detracts from an otherwise delightful text is a description of an experiment young Edison performed with his family’s cats. By gleefully mentioning his efforts to understand static electricity, Slade could inadvertently persuade kids to try this at home – and hurt animals in the process. Including this information in a book for children is simply irresponsible.

The very acts of investigation and invention suggest optimism about the world and the future. In The Inventor’s Secret, Slade and Reinhardt introduce children to two important figures in American history and focus excitement about the possibility of discovery. The picture-book biography also holds a familiar, albeit important, lesson about the value of persistence.

-Dorothy A. Dahm