The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

2020 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award Winner: Dancing Hands

Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln

Illustrated by Rafael López; written by By Margarita Engle

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2019

ISBN #978-1-4814-8740-5

Grades K and up

Book Review

Winner of the 2020 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award, Dancing Hands tells the extraordinary tale of a young Venezuelan girl whose musical talents helped people find respite amidst the tumult of life. As a little girl, Teresa Carreño learned quickly how music could cheer her when she felt sad “and when she was happy, the piano helped her share bursts of joy.” Taught by her Papa to play the piano, by age six, Teresa was composing her own songs and soon began performing before public audiences. In 1862, the Federal War in Venezuela forced her family to seek refuge in the United States, which ironically was embroiled in its own civil war. Still, eight-year old Teresa looked to music to restore hope and peace, even in a strange land where she needed to learn a new language and make a new home. Eventually, news of Teresa’s resolve and talent spread and soon garnered the attention of President Lincoln who had just lost his son and was trying to lead a country at war with itself: “Teresa began to worry: How could music soothe so much trouble?” Acclaimed poet Margarita Engle chronicles Teresa’s tale with her trademark lyrical writing, and award-winning illustrator Rafael López’s vibrant and dazzling mixed media illustrations emphasize the joy and exuberance that music brought to Teresa and those around her. Threaded throughout the book are themes of determination, immigration, and the connecting power of music. Back matter includes a historical note that provides more details of Teresa’s musical career. An ideal text to use in social studies, language arts, and music units, Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln is a brilliant addition to your classroom bookshelf.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Music to Soothe. Throughout the story, young Teresa harnesses the soothing effect music to calm one’s troubles. Ask students what kind of music soothes them. What songs, musicians, or musical genres help them feel better when they are feeling sad, anxious, frustrated, or angry? Why? Using students’ answers, create a class playlist of songs and music to use in the classroom whenever students are feeling any of those emotions. Set up a listening station in your “relaxing” or “take a break” area, so individual students can use music to help calm themselves if needed. Use some of these songs to also set the mood for tackling challenging learning activities or for just having some peaceful, quiet time in class. You might also want to collaborate with students to make other kinds of class playlists, such as an “uplifting music” playlist or an “energizing music” playlist.

The Universal Language of Music. Although Teresa didn’t know English when she first arrived in America, she quickly “discovered that wherever one is, some people are friendly, drawn together by songs.” Invite students to storytell about times when they experienced how music draws people together. Then, engage them in a discussion about what gives music that power to unite different people. Have students write personal narratives about a time they witnessed this unifying feature of music. To emphasize the point, when students publish and share their narratives with others, have them choose a song to add as the “soundtrack” for the story. This could be a collaboration with the school music teacher, as well.

Text Set: Girl Musicians. Dancing Hands is the second award-winning creation of the author-illustrator team of Margarita Engle and Rafael López. In fact, their first collaborative picturebook, Drum Dream Girl also garnered the Pura Belpré Illustrator Award in 2016. Both picturebooks tell the story of a young girl who summons her courage to pursue her musical dreams. As a class, read both books, noting similarities and differences across the characters, plots, settings, and themes. Remember to use the back matter in each book to compare and contrast the information about Teresa Carreño and Millo Castro Zaldarriaga that goes beyond the main storyline. Use the websites listed below in Further Explorations to gather more information about these brave girls who grew up to be phenomenal, groundbreaking women musicians.

Musical Descriptions. Guide readers to take note of the kinds of words and phrases Margarita Engle uses in her writing: “The president listened quietly to notes that rose, swayed, rippled, and dipped like a bird in a blue sky above a green forest” and “powerful songs that roared like prowling jaguars, beside towering waterfalls in a mysterious green jungle.” Note the use of vivid verbs, descriptive adjectives, and figurative language. How would the text read if Engle had used more conventional words? Have students replace these precise words with more mundane ones and compare the revised sentences with Engle’s original ones. How does the use of these words change the impact of the text? What do they notice about the images created by the language? What do they notice about the rhythm and cadence of the sentences? Have students take a piece of writing that they are already working on, highlight key words, and have them help one another brainstorm more interesting, precise, descriptive, and musical choices. You might also play various genres and styles of music and have students jot down the words and images that come to mind, perhaps focusing their word play on different descriptive parts of speech at a time (e.g., adjectives, adverbs, verbs, etc.).

Teresa Carreño’s Musical Oeuvre. As the Historical Note at the end of Dancing Hands explains, Teresa Carreño was a multi-talented musician, gaining recognition as a composer and opera singer as well. Support students to conduct more research about Teresa Carreño’s life and musical career. Have them read the historical note and pose questions based on the information there to guide their research. You can find many online videos and audio clips of her compositions and performances to share with students as well. How might they describe her musical work? How did her life experiences shape her musical endeavors? Have students create a multimodal presentation to share with peers and teachers in other classrooms.

Popular Music of the Mid-19th Century. Young Teresa Carreño knew how to play the song President Lincoln requested because it was a popular song in America during that time. What other songs were popular in the United States during the mid-19th century? Collaborate with your school’s music teacher to have students research the popular music of the time. As a starting point, the Library of Congress and the Organization of American Historians have resources to share with students. You can also find audio clips of some of the songs online. What do students notice is similar and different about the music when compared to what is popular today?

Rafael López Illustrator Study. Collaborate with your school or local librarian to gather a collection of books illustrated by Rafael López. Survey his illustrations, and identify his artistic style, artistic idiosyncrasies, and favorite artistic media to use. Gather information about him from her websites listed below, your local librarian, the Internet, and as other biographical sources. Encourage your students to try imitating López’s style to illustrate some of their own writing.

The Pura Belpré Award and Principles of Illustration. Dancing Hands was awarded the Pura Belpré award for excellence in illustration. What makes a picture work? Read Molly Bang’s book Picture This, and explore some of the principles of illustration with your class. As a class, model the application of these principles by dissecting the illustrations in Dancing Hands. If you have a class document camera, project the illustrations from the book so the whole class can discuss them. How did López create emotional impact and action through the use of color, composition, contrast, line, page breaks, and perspective? Compare the illustrations in Dancing Hands with the illustrations in other Pura Belpré winners and honor books for illustration to see how artists can use different illustration styles and media to create powerful picturebook illustrations.

Diverse Books in Your Classroom. Although the Pura Belpré Award honors Latinx cultures, that doesn’t mean the books that win it are only for students who identify as Latinx. Students of all cultures can benefit from considering the windows and mirrors found in books centering specific cultures. Have students analyze their own classroom bookshelves for characters from various cultural backgrounds. What do students notice about the social locations of characters in the books read aloud, available, and that they turn to for independent reading? Do the characters remind them of themselves? Do they see themselves in books? When? Are their stories missing from the shelves? If so, how can they be added to your classroom bookshelves?

The Pura Belpré Award in Your Classroom. Your students may be familiar with the more popular Newbery Award (awarded for the text) and the Caldecott Award (awarded for the illustrations) for children’s literature, but they may have limited knowledge of the Pura  Belpré Award. Read aloud the 2020 Pura Belpré Author Honor Book, Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré, by Anika Aldamuy Denise. Then, gather a variety of Pura  Belpré Award and Honor winners for students to explore and study. Once students are familiar with the criteria and quality of the award, hold a mock Pura  Belpré Award event in your class.

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Rafael López’s website


Margarita Engle’s website

Pura Belpré Award

Websites about Teresa Carreño and her music:

Documenting Teresa Carreño – (full of primary source documents)

Steinway & Sons –

All Music – (including audio clips)

National Portrait Gallery –

BBC – (including a fun fictional Twitter account in Spanish and English to follow)

Grand Piano Records –

Websites about Female Musicians and Composers:

Classic FM –

New York Public Radio –


Grand Piano Records –


Brown, M. (2004). My name is Celia/Me llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/la vida de Celia Cruz. Ill. by R.l López. Cooper Square Publishing.

Denise, A. A. (2019) .Planting stories: The life of librarian and storyteller Pura Belpré. Ill. by P.  Escobar. HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Engle, M. (2015). Drum dream girl: How one girl’s courage changed music. Ill. by R. López. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Reich, S. (1999). Clara Schumann: Piano virtuoso. Clarion Books.

Rusch, E. (2011). For the love of music: The remarkable story of Maria Anna Mozart. Ill. by L. Fancher. Tricycle Press.

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.