About the Holiday
Beginning on September 15th and running through October 15th, National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the contributions of those who come from or whose ancestors immigrated from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Each year the holiday adopts a particular theme. This year’s theme is Hispanic Americans: A History of Serving Our Nation. From the military, to business and industry to culture, sports, and entertainment Hispanic Americans have made an important and indelible imprint on our country. First observed in 1968 as a week-long holiday, the commemoration was expanded to a month in 1988 under President Ronald Reagan. To celebrate, learn more about Hispanic Americans who have influenced our culture, attend a special event, and enjoy great books by Hispanic authors like today’s book! You can learn more about the holiday at the official Hispanic Heritage Month website.
Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln
Written by Margarita Engle | Illustrated by Rafael López
Growing up in Venezuela, Teresa listened to her mother’s lullabies and learned how to play the piano from her father. It wasn’t always easy “to make the stubborn music behave as she practiced gentle songs that sounded like colorful birds…and powerful songs that roared like prowling jaguars, beside towering waterfalls in a mysterious green jungle.” But by the time she was six, she was composing her own songs and at seven, she played in the cathedral.
When Teresa was eight, however, her world was rocked by war, and she and her family escaped by ship to America. In New York, she felt lost among all of the strangers, who didn’t speak Spanish and gawked at her and her family as if they “belonged in a museum of oddities.” Even here, they had not escaped conflict as the Civil War waged, pitting the North against the South and family against family.
Teresa found refuge in her new piano and began to make friends with musicians who came to her home to listen and play along. Teresa practiced all types of music, “her strong hands accepting the challenge of life’s many dark and light moods.” She became well known as “the Piano Girl” and performed with big orchestras and in theaters. She became so famous that she was even invited to play for President Abraham Lincoln and his family at the White House.
At the time Washington DC was awash in suffering, torn by war and weariness. President Lincoln’s young son had recently become sick and died. How, Teresa wondered, “could music soothe so much trouble?” Holding tightly to Papá’s hand, she entered the White House and was ushered into a room “as red as a storm or a sunrise.” As she sat at the piano, Teresa recalled past challenges and her discover that life was a “mixture of all sorts of feelings, happy and sad.”
She began to play, but the piano was out of tune, “making her music sound ugly.” She stopped, but then President Lincoln requested she play his “favorite song, ‘Listen to the Mockingbird.’” This was a song Teresa could play on this imperfect piano. “Her fingers leaped across all the dark and light keys, improvising the way mockingbirds do, the melody changing as she went along.” Lincoln closed his eyes and was taken away on the soaring notes.
When the song ended, the President rose and applauded. He smiled at Teresa and she smiled back, understanding that “her music had brought comfort to a grieving family, at least for one brief, wonderful evening of dancing hands.” Teresa continued to share her gift with the world, always bringing “beautiful dark and light moments of hope” to her listeners.
A Historical Note about the life of Teresa Carreño follows the text.
Margarita Engle’s soaring biography introduces readers to an astounding woman who, even as a child, had not only a prodigious talent for the piano but a gift for understanding life as well. Engle, the 2017 -2019 national Young People’s Poet Laureate, infuses her story with beautiful lyricism and stirring metaphors that evoke the power of music in Teresa’s heart and hands. On these pages, music becomes a living thing, capable of forming friendships, soothing grief, providing escape, and offering hope. Engle’s focus on the meeting between Teresa Carreño and Abraham Lincoln is significant and offers inspiration to young readers. Like Teresa, who, concerned with playing just right, was presented with an imperfect piano but encouraged by Lincoln’s kindness, they too can learn that with a steady and courageous heart, anyone can use their talents to overcome challenges.
In Rafael López’s crisp, stylish illustrations, Teresa Carreño’s love of music and its emotional power serves as a counter point to the distress of war and anguish of grief. Using vibrant greens, pinks, oranges, and blues, Lopez surrounds Teresa with lush vegetation, dazzling birds, and the security of home. Muted variations of these colors depict the bleakness of war. A moving image, washed completely in gray except for an approaching vivid bird and a tinge of soft rose dawn shows a mourning Abraham Lincoln alone in his office but soon to be comforted by Teresa’s music.
A beautiful and uplifting biography for kids of all talents, Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln would be an inspiring addition to home, school, and public library bookshelves.
Ages 4 – 8
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2019 | ISBN 978-1481487405
Discover more about Margarita Engle, her books, and her poetry on her website.
To learn more about Rafael López, his books, and his art, visit his website.
National Hispanic Heritage Month Activity
Homemade Baked Cinnamon Tortilla Chips
It’s easy to make these yummy tortilla chips at home! Why not invite your friends over and bake up a batch or two to enjoy while playing or reading together?
- 2 10-inch flour tortillas
- ¾ teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 ½ tablespoons sugar
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Combine the cinnamon and the sugar in a bowl
- Butter the tortillas
- Sprinkle the tortillas with the cinnamon sugar mixture
- Cut the tortillas into 8 pieces
- Place pieces on a baking sheet
- Bake in 350-degree oven for 12 – 15 minutes
- Chips will become crispier as they cool.
Makes 16 chips
You can find Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln at these booksellers
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