Contra Costa libraries urge getting into the 'Rhythm' of reading
By Lou Fancher
The brave spirit of a real-life 10-year-old girl beats profoundly at the heart of Contra Costa County Libraries' "Read to the Rhythm" Summer Reading Festival 2015.
Inspired by Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, the Chinese-African-Cuban girl who broke Cuba's long-standing taboo against female drummers in the 1930s, author Margarita Engle's "Drum Dream Girl" with illustrations by Rafael López is the centerpiece of the over two-month celebration that ends Aug 15.
With special programs, recommended book lists and prizes as incentives, readers from kids to adults can participate in visits by authors, artists and musicians throughout the countywide library system. A launch event on June 19 at the Lafayette Library & Learning Center pairs López -- the featured book's award-winning illustrator based in San Diego and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico -- with the Azúcar Quartet, four women drummers from the Bay Area group Azúcar Con Ache. Events will follow at Hercules, Concord, Clayton and Bay Point, with an end-of-festival event planned in Lafayette Aug. 14 and a festival in San Ramon the next day (for more information go to http://ccclib.
In August, Cuban-American novelist and poet Engle, the first Latina to win a Newbery Honor Award for "The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom" (2009), will visit libraries in San Ramon (Aug. 5) and Pittsburg (Aug. 6).
Engle lives in central California, but often visited her mother's native land, Cuba, during her childhood. "I started returning as an adult in 1991," she said, "but in all that time, I'd never thought about how few women drummers there were."
Appropriately, it was a book that fed directly into Engle's habit of seeking out forgotten or untold tales of people leading lives of bold, expressive courage that lit the spark for the lively, lyrical "Drum Dream Girl." The true story of an all-girls dance band written by Alicia Castro, the sister of Cuba's first famous girl drummer, caused Engle to write her timeless version of a girl with equal unstoppable ambition and perseverance.
"It came in one great spurt. It just flowed with a drumming rhythm," Engle said.
Writing the first draft longhand as is her habit, Engle says she feels a direct, intimate connection with the words. Reading the text aloud is a natural part of her poet's process, but outside of proofing and editing her work, Engle tends to be a quiet observer. "I love to travel and listen to people on the streets. I'm sort of a sponge, absorbing. I read ravenously, eclectically. When it comes to Cuba, I read everything. (Historic) diaries especially, are a form of time travel."
The book's repeated phrases and images are like a song's refrain, and Engle said she's grateful to her editor for selecting López. "Some people are shocked the editor chooses the artist, but it's a privilege to have someone with a good artistic sense doing the choosing."
López said he's wanted to work with Engle for years and especially pleased to have illustrated this book because his background has parallels: Latino-descent, Latin Jazz-lover, salsa dancer and more.
"I've played guitar since I was 5," he said. "I play Latin jazz while I'm painting. I have a connection to Caribbean music. It was a dream project for me."
Engle's text allowed him to unleash his color sense, to create soaring, surreal landscapes for the girl's dreams and grounded, back-to-earth depictions filled with horizon lines and architecture when the world's restrictions (and her father) remind her that "only boys should play drums."
López spent a full month finding images of Cuba and the 1930s and playing music before sitting down to doodle for two weeks. "After this month-and-a-half, I start reading the story," he said. "I describe it with visual clues, not just creating imagery that repeats what's in the text."
Engle said children are naturally curious about the world, and that same impulse in her own childhood led her to ditch picture books early on and sneak into the adult section of libraries. "I wasn't finding authentic books written by authors who were from the countries or understood the cultures: I'd read adult travel books instead," she recalled.
López said kids are visually sophisticated, and there's no need to leave out playfulness. At presentations, he uses sketches his son made years ago to demonstrate that "when you're young and have a beautiful mind, you're not afraid to draw incredible stuff." Leading an interactive drawing exercise, he has kids list five objects and five emotions. Asking them to make connections -- like a disgusted shoe or an unhappy umbrella -- he said quick sketches he draws of their ideas show them that conceptual illustrations can spring from a visual and imaginative challenge. He likes to remind people that writing and drawing, like drumming, is a gender-, age- and ethnicity-free privilege.