Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Mentor Text Author Study: Revisiting Margarita Engle

 by Keila V. Dawson

Margarita Engle is an award-winning author of poetry and prose. Engle’s quest to learn more about her Cuban heritage and history led her to discover figures she’s written about in her books.

Marcie Atkins wrote a 2018 ReFoReMo Mentor Text Author Study about Engle. Today, we’ll look at her most recent picture book, DANCING HANDS:  HOW TERESA CARREÑO PLAYED THE PIANO FOR PRESIDENT LINCOLN illustrated by Rafael López and winner of the 2020 Pura Belpre Illustrator Award. 



When Teresa was a little girl in Venezuela, Mamá sang lullabies to let her happy hands dance across all the beautiful dark and light keys of the piano.

In this one line, the reader learns a lot about the main character. She lives in Venezuela, played the piano with “happy hands” while her mother sang, tells us music is important to her family. And the illustration shows her father standing close as her hands dance across the piano keys. Engle chose the word dance to describe how her hands move so we can imagine what they looked like.


Engle uses lyrical language and figurative language to tell the story of Teresa who had to flee Venezuela as a child because of war,  moved to the U.S. and soon after, her newly adopted country was at war, too.

“happy hands dance across all the beautiful dark and light keys of the piano”

"clouds that bucked and kicked across the wild sky like angry mules"

“notes that rose, swayed, rippled, and dipped like a bird in a blue sky above a green forest.”

STORY FOCUS: A Moment In Time

Teresa struggled to fit into her new life in the U.S. When she felt sad, she played her piano. When she felt happy, she played the piano. She became famous and played in many places. President Lincoln heard about the Piano Girl and invited her to the White House. She knew Lincoln was grieving over the loss of his son, and the lingering Civil War, so she wanted to bring him some joy, if only for a moment.

The colorful illustrations by López depict various moods of joy and despair as Engle explores what was happening during Teresa’s childhood.

It is a perfect pick to study and celebrate Latino and Hispanic Heritage Month.


  1. That first lien odes do the heavy lifting, Keila. Love all of Margarita's work. Thank you for this feature.

  2. I love this book! It's beautifully illustrated and the lyrical words just fill the spaces with music. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thank you for this post Keila. Such beautiful, lyrical language--speaks directly to the senses!

    1. You're welcome Charlotte. I always learn from studying the work of others.

  4. That's quite a first line! And they need to be to capture the attention of an agent, editor, teacher, or child!

  5. Isn't it? It's an invitation to experience the story.