Today I needed poetry of triumph, of grit and determination rewarded, of strength seen and honored, and so I turned to Margarita Engle’s words and Rafael López’s illustrations in Drum Dream Girl, the Pura Belpré Award-winning poem about groundbreaking Cuban drummer Millo Castro Zaldarriaga.
Engle is well-known, in kidlit, for her gorgeous work in verse: she’s written novels in verse for teens, novels in verse for middle graders, and picture books in verse that are, theoretically, for preschoolers and elementary kiddos but in reality can be enjoyed by anyone at all. Her poetry is rhythmic throughout Drum Dream Girl, beating like Millo’s hands “pounding tall conga drums / tapping some bongó drums / and boom boom booming / with long, loud sticks / on big, round, silvery / moon-bright timbales.” The image runs throughout Drum Dream Girl, a kind of refrain, as Millo, unnamed here, fights her way through sexism and gender norms to finally be able to perform.
López’s art swirls with colors just as Engle’s words are awash in rhythm, bringing our heroine and her quest to play drums to life. Disappointment and frustration are clear on her face as she’s turned away again and again, told over and over that “…only boys / should play drums.” But she’s impossible to keep down, our heroine is, and López shows it in the determined set of her chin, in her buoyant return to excitement and work. We believe the little girl we follow from page to page will show the world that “both girls and boys / should feel free / to dream,” because if anyone’s got the gumption, it’s her. (I think that López’s paintings of Millo’s teacher deserve to be called out here: the relationship he paints is one of trust and fondness and safety, as the teacher helps Millo reach greater heights—and believes in her.)
Drum Dream Girl is a beautiful book, and a triumphal poem, a reminder that sometimes determination can change the world. There is a brief author’s note with more information on Millo; López also has information on his website about the first woman to be a professional drummer in Cuba. And, together, Engle and López have created a work of beauty and grit, honoring Millo Castro Zaldarriaga and celebrating those who, like Millo, dare to change the world.