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Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music – 2016 Pura Belpre Illustrator Award

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music
Winner of the 2016 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award
Written by Margarita Engle and Illustrated by Rafael López
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015
Grades PreK – 6
Book Review
“On an island of music / in a city of drumbeats / the drum dream girl dreamed.” But the island is Cuba, and, here, girls cannot be drummers. In a picture book poem, Cuban-American author, Margarita Engle and acclaimed illustrator Rafael López celebrate the musical passions of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, whose talent changed her country’s views on female drumming. While she remains unnamed in the book, an “Historical Note” describes Millo’s accomplishments, which include playing with Cuba’s first “all-girl dance band” and well known American jazz musicians. The lyrical text focuses her early attunement to sounds and rhythms all around: “When she walked / under wind-wavy palm trees / in a flower bright park / she heard the whir of parrot wings /  the clack of woodpecker beats…..” and her undeterrable instinct to interpret her world through rhythm: “At home, her fingertips / rolled out their own /  drum dreamy rhythm / on tables and chairs.” Her passion for drumming transcends the limitations of her society. López’s surreal and highly symbolic illustrations immerse readers in the super-saturated world of the drum dream girl’s aspirations; she floats above the earth, drumsticks outstretched to the round face of the moon. This musical offering will inspire artistic responses of all kinds and is a poignant reminder that “both girls and boys should feel free to dream.”
Teaching Invitations: Ideas for Your Classroom
Grades PreK – 6
Following Your Dreams. Engle’s imperative at the conclusion of Drum Dream Girl – “both girls and boys should feel free to dream” – is a clear invitation to a classroom discussion focusing on hope and dreams. Ask your students to spend some time thinking about their own dreams and then to share these dreams orally, in writing, or through invitation. Encourage students to find connections to each other – what dream do they share? Student writings (poems or prose) or illustrations could be compiled into a class book or recorded digitally in a slide show.
The Sounds of Drums. Engage your students in an inquiry project focusing on drums and the roles they play in music around the globe. Immerse primary grade students in different drumming styles originating from countries around the world – use sound clips and images of different drums and invite students to imitate the different rhythms they hear. Older students can work in small groups assigned different continents with the goal of preparing a presentation (addressing origins, roles, drum styles, rhythm patterns and changes over time) for their classmates. Links in the Further Explorations section below are offered as a starting point for research. As an extension, consider collaborating with your art teacher to offer students the opportunity to make drums.
Sounds All Around. As the young drum dream girl moves through her day, she listens to the sounds of her world and hears music. Reread the section of Drum Dream Girl that begins: “but when she closed her eyes / she could also hear / her own imaginary / music.” Take your students for a walk around your building, or if you are able, outside in your community. Bring clipboard or iPads and ask students to list the sounds that they hear. Enlist the support of your music teacher, a parent, or a local musician to help student create audio samples of the sounds; these samples can then be incorporated into student musical compositions (using an app like GarageBand). A similar teaching invitation is found in our entry on One Dream – these two books might also be used together in a Duet Model pairing
Devices of Sound. Reread Drum Dream Girl and create a chart, listing the words and phrases used by Margarita Engle that create a sense of sound for the reader. Consider how she uses rhythm, alliteration, and onomatopoeia.  Expand your student of how words can create experiences with sound by exploring other texts. See the teaching invitation Transmediation / Representing Music with Words and Images” in our Trombone Shorty entry for book suggestions.
Cuban Music. After or before reading Drum Dream Girl, offer your students the opportunity to explore the sounds of Cuban music. Students will relish the chance to get up and move to the beat. If you are able, invite local Cuban-influenced musicians to visit or Skype with your class.  Older students could research Cuban music, describing characteristics and changes in style and instrumentation over time.
Illustrator Study.Gather a collection of books illustrated by Rafael López (see his website for a listing). Invite students: to notice patterns in his illustrative style and to read biographical information and interviews to learn more about his life. Invite students to emulate López’s style and provide them with materials to try painting in acrylic on wood, the medium used to create Drum Dream Girl.
A Mural of Dreams. Invite your students to document their dreams in the form of a mural. Begin by watching Rafael López describe his process of creating a community mural in Chicago. Extend your study of the work of muralists by looking at other artists (see for example our entry on Diego Rivera, His World and Ours) and online resources. Collaborate with your art teacher or an artist in your community to create a mural that represents a composite of the “dreams’ held by your students. If a wall sized mural is impossible, butcher paper hold the potential for the creation of a ‘temporary’ mural that can then be preserved through digital photography.
Tito Puente and Millo Castro Zaldarriaga. Pair Drum Dream Girl with Tito Puente, Mambo King, a bilingual picture book biography, written by Monica Brown and illustrated by Rafael López in a Duet Model Reading (see our Teaching with Text Sets entry). Compare: the presentations of the life stories of these two drummers (author’s writing style); the life experiences of the drummers; and the role of the illustrations in narrating these life stories.
Pura Belpré Award. Learn more about the Pura Belpré Award at the ALA website. Gather a collection of award winners from past years and invite children browse and make observations. Engage older students in a discussion of the benefits of recognizing diversity in children’s books (see the We Need Diverse books website for resources). You can find Classroom Bookshelf entries on the past Illustrator Award winners: Grandma’s Gift, Diego Rivera, His World and Ours, and Separate is Never Equal.
Grades 3 – 6
Biography in Poetry. Include Drum Dream Girl a text set of biographies written through poetry, for example, picture books: Love to Langston, Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude, Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson, Blackbeard, the Pirate King, Pride of the Pittsburg Pirates and novels: Brown Girl Dreaming and Margarita Engle’s memoir Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings (consult your librarian for additional examples). Notice the genre categorization – is the book considered fiction, nonfiction, autobiography? How does the genre of poetry lend itself to life story? Following this study, invite students to write poems about their own lives, either a single poem or a series. Provide an opportunity to share these poems with an audience.
Author Study. Conduct an author study of Margarita Engle’s books, which include picture books and novels in verse. Ask your students to identify patterns in setting, theme, character, and plot across the books and study Engle’s writing style – how does she create such strong emotion and imagery through the words and arrangements of her poems? Research biographical information and ask students to make connections between Engle’s life story and the patterns and commitments expressed in her writing.
Critical Literacy
Breaking Boundaries. Drum Dream Girlis a useful addition to a solar system model (see our Teaching with Text Sets entry) of texts that focus on individuals who overcame societal boundaries, breaking taboos with their accomplishments. Divide students into groups to read titles and ask students to report out on: Who is the subject of the text? What obstacles did they face? How did they overcome these obstacles? What accomplishments are they credited with?  Following this text study, invite students to consider which boundaries and taboos have yet to be broken – what are our next steps as a society toward greater inclusion? Some suggested titles for this activity are: Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?, Malala, Brave Girl From Pakistan, Brave Girl Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers, Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave.
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Author’s Website: Margarita Engle
Illustrator Website: Rafael López
Pura Belpré Award
Drum Dream Girl Story Walk
Latinos in Kid Lit Blog
Watch: Connect: Read – Rafael López
You Tube: Rafael López:  Chicago Mural
City of Philadelphia: MuralArtsProgram
American Museum of Natural History*
*change the continent in the search term to view different drum types
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Online Collections
British Library: Drum Sound
Smithsonian Folkways:  Beats, Rhythms, and Drums: Grooves of the World
Smithsonian Magazine: The Talking Drums
The Drum Connection
Muthoni, The Drummer Queen
See Margarita Engle’s and Rafael López’s websites for a listing of their books.
Brown, M. (2013). Tito Puente, Mambo King/Tito Puente, Rey del Mambo. Ill by Rafael López. Rayo Books.
Brown, M. (2004). My Name is Celia/Me llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/la vida de Celia Cruz . Ill by Rafael López. Cooper Square Publishing.

Engle, M. (2015). Enchanted air: Two cultures, two wings: A memoir. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 
Lewis, J.P. (2006). Blackbeard, the Pirate King. National Geographic Society.
Medina, T. (2002). Love to Langston. Ill. by R. G. Christie. Lee & Low.
Smith, C.R. (2010). Black Jack: The ballad of Jack Johnson. Ill. by S. Evans. Roaring Brook.
Winter, J. (2009). Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude. Ill. by C. Brown. Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Winter, J. (2005) Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Ill. by R. Colon. New York: Atheneum.  
Woodson, J. (2014). Brown girl dreaming. Nancy Paulsen Books.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.


  1. Love your blog. My kids favorite two books at the moment are “Finding Winnie” and Cooking With Mr. C.” Have you reviewed them? We love them. “Cooking With Mr. C. can be an asset to a classroom. Thanks. Mary