by Sam Juliano
For picture book lovers it is a dream come true. Renowned Cuban-American poet and novelist Margarita Engle and acclaimed Mexican-American muralist Rafael Lopez have collaborated on a work that has brought together the real-life aspirations of a mixed heritage Cuban girl trying to make it in a field dominated by males, with rapturous aesthetic beauty rarely conferred upon the form. Based on the indomitable Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a spirited young girl who refused to buckle under to the prevailing make chauvinism in vogue on the island nation nicknamed “Pearl of the Antilles.” Engle sets the stage early in establishing the sounds and images that leave an indelible mark on a child who develops the determination to break through oppressive traditions: She dreamed of pounding tall conga drums/tapping small bongo drums/and boom boom booming with long, loud sticks/on big, round, silvery moon-bright timbales. Engle likens her homeland to a place of glowing musical praxis (an “island of music” in the “city of drumbeats”, but one that resolutely held the door shut to female complicity. There was something about drum playing with its aggressive negotiation that seemed to cry out for male involvement, leaving the females to engage in the more “delicate” string instruments. Initially her aspirations were restricted to dreams and the everyday beckoning that drove her further to action: 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/the dancing tap of her own footsteps/and the comforting pat of her own heartbeat.
Nothing like hands-on exposure, and Millo was further taken on her path of redemption after attending a carnival and living out the at-home fantasies to achieve her inner purpose. At home the tables and chairs became her drums, and she became airborne: Her hands seemed to fly/As they rippled/rapped/and pounded all the rhythms of her drum dreams. Her seeming chance to break through with her sisters in a fledgling all-girls band was quickly dashed when her father enforced the island’s dogged adversity to female drummers, an act that again forced the drum dream girl to solitary reverie. Soon after, her father had second thoughts and enlisted his daughter with an experienced drummer to see if her talent was worth pursuing. The teacher was summarily enraptured and soon agreed that she was qualified to strut her stuff on bongo drums at a garden cafe – 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.
Both Engel and her remarkable illustrator bring a dreamy buoyancy to their collaboration, one that sets forth the arc of actual realization, beginning with infatuation, continuing with aspiration, and finally with the changes in the world. The metaphor of the moon and a girl gazing upwards on a seashore perch on a starlit night allow Lopez to enter the illustrative stage strikingly. There and throughout Drum Dream Girl there is some color coded energy that brings all the colors of the rainbow into this phantasmagorical equation with the eye filling specter of an amazon parrot. Purple, pink, turquoise, orange and yellow define the vibrancy of a place with a rich musical tradition and reverence, hence the confluence of color makes an all-encompassing statement.
Lopez’ saturated art -acrylic paint on wood- is gloriously cognizant of the island’s rich outdoor beauty with birds, fish, plants and star lit skies in abundance. The sun is portrayed as an enthusiastic accomplice in this coming of age story, always looking down with a gleeful measure of endorsement. But all the living things in this island paradise are in on the uprising. Lopez, whose extraordinary work in Tito Puente and The Mambo King won awards, offers up one stunning tapestry after another. Three boys captivate the neighborhood banging drums in an oppressively arid double-spread painting that denotes the early rejection of Millo in this man’s world. Then soothing tones dreamily visualize a soulful mermaid playing drums in aquatic bliss. The ravishing flower-bright park tapestry ushers in the book’s first vertical design, and it is electric, showcasing colorful dancers on stilts with carnival costumes, all in drum beat ecstasy. The eye candy is sustained on the very next turn of the page – the dragon clang of costumed drummers wearing huge masks bears seductive allure, and more drum making merriment that drives Millo further into her alter ego. A gay shade of pink frames Millo’s airborne drumming on tables and chairs prior to a sublime vertical reminder that girls are forbidden to do what her heart has her setting out to conquer. Lopez ups the euphoria a notch higher when the dream girl ascends a ladder of drums to engage the surface of the moon, then in warm daylight she is propped by wings to pound away in an extraordinarily beautiful painting that shows a magnificent kinship between pink, orange and yellow.
The girl’s band painting recalls last year’s Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, though the details keep it within the sphere and setting of Engle and Lopez’s vision. The shade is darkened when Millo’s father nixes the plans (what a beautiful double page spread by any measure), but there are nocturnal wonders to follow as Millo wins approval from a snake, flamingo, fish and butterfly in a tapestry that evokes A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The practice session with the teacher is fueled by passionate engagement bright colors, but the final breakthrough amidst nighttime trappings are imbued subdued tones that accentuate how indescribably moving the moments is when one crosses that barrier of discrimination to achieve a lasting equality. Drum Dream Girl is a magisterial picture book achievement and a given for Caldecott scrutiny.
Note: This is the tenth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.