As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
Book: DANCING HANDS: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln
Author: Margarita Engle
Illustrator: Rafael Lopez
Publication Info.: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (August 27, 2019)
Ages/Grades: four to eight years (preschool and up)
Categories: third-person POV, narrative nonfiction, biography, interiority, heart
First lines: “When Teresa was a little girl in Venezuela, Mama sang lullabies while Papa showed Teresita how to let her happy hands dance across all the beautiful dark and light keys of a piano.”
Overview (from the publisher): “As a little girl, Teresa Carreño loved to let her hands dance across the beautiful keys of the piano. If she felt sad, music cheered her up, and when she was happy, the piano helped her share that joy. Soon she was writing her own songs and performing in grand cathedrals. Then a revolution in Venezuela forced her family to flee to the United States. Teresa felt lonely in this unfamiliar place, where few of the people she met spoke Spanish. Worst of all, there was fighting in her new home, too—the Civil War.
Still, Teresa kept playing, and soon she grew famous as the talented Piano Girl who could play anything from a folk song to a sonata. So famous, in fact, that President Abraham Lincoln wanted her to play at the White House! Yet with the country torn apart by war, could Teresa’s music bring comfort to those who needed it most?”
What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:
This book arrived at the perfect time in my writing journey. In my current picture book draft, I’m struggling to remember to focus on the main character’s internal journey, to slow down and share not just facts, but feelings. Engle does an excellent job of tracking Teresa’s emotional journey in this book. Here’s an example: “Poor Abraham Lincoln! Teresa hoped she could entertain the president, his grieving wife, and their two surviving sons. …But Teresa was brave, and she believed in trying her best…” Engle shares not only Tersa’s internal thoughts (“Poor Abraham Lincoln!”) but her feelings too, with words like “hoped,” “believed,” “remembered” and so on. This is such a wonderful reminder of what a picture book biography is about: a person, not just a plot.
Another element I admire about this book is how Engle elegantly shows why studying music matters. In this case, Teresa’s song comforts — for just a moment — a grieving family. What a beautiful testament to why the arts are important in daily life.
Additional resources for authors, educators, and parents:
- The BBC has links to several tracks of Teresa playing the piano.
- The National Portrait Gallery has in its collection a portrait of young Teresa.
- Vassar’s Archives and Special Collections has several primary sources available digitally, which would be fun to show kids, including a portrait, concert advertisement, and Teresa’s music.
- Want to introduce music into the classroom? Try these games from Kidsactivities.net.