Title: Ira’s Shakespeare Dream
Written by: Glenda Armand
illustrated by: Floyd Cooper
Published by: Lee & Low, May 2015
Themes: African Americans, biography, Ira Aldridge, Shakespeare, acting, diversity, abolition of slavery in the USA
Genre: Picture Book Biography
IRA COULD NOT KEEP STILL as he waited in the balcony of the Park Theater. But once the magnificent, velvet curtains opened, Ira sat spellbound as Shakespeare’s Hamlet was brought to life. Ira mouthed the words along with the actors.
This above all, — To thine own self be true...
This is a nonfiction biography chronicling the life of Ira Aldridge, an African American actor who overcame racism to become one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the nineteenth century.
Ira Aldridge dreamed of being on stage one day performing the great works of William Shakespeare. He spent every chance he got at the local theaters, memorizing each actor’s lines for all of Shakespeare’s plays. Ira just knew he could be a great Shakespearean actor if only given the chance. But in the early 1800s, only white actors were allowed to perform Shakespeare. Ira’s only option was to perform musical numbers at the all-black theater in New York city. Despite being discouraged by his teacher and father, Ira determinedly pursued his dream and set off to England, the land of Shakespeare. There, Ira honed his acting skills and eventually performed at the acclaimed Theatre Royal Haymarket. Through perseverance and determination, Ira became one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors throughout Europe. (Goodreads)
Why I like this book:
I am embarrassed to say that until reading this captivating biography I knew nothing about Ira Aldridge. As a Brit and Shakespeare-lover, it saddens me that this renowned Shakespearean actor is so little known. According to the notes at the back of this book, his is the only African American name among the 33 actors names inscribed on the bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which I have visited in Stratford Upon Avon. This is a tribute to the life of a young man who pursued his dream against the mores of his culture in early 19th century New York and against his father’s wishes. It is a tribute to a young African American boy who recognized his own talent and the talent of a great dramatist of a previous century. It is the story of a man also who never forgot the slavery he had seen in a brief childhood visit to the south, where as a ship’s boy he was nearly sold for $500. He uses his art and the truthful but often tragic messages of the Bard to call theater goers in Europe to action against the continued slave trade in the US.
This is a picture book heavy on text an aimed at older elementary children. Armand’s text evokes period and passion equally. It is peppered with Shakespearean quotes, and weaves a forceful story arc of Ira’s early passion and trepidation, and eventual courage as he leaves his homeland to follow his dreams. I was enthralled by Ira’s acting through many European countries and how well received he was. This is a valuable addition to any biography or Shakespeare shelves. I am even tempted to shelve it in our middle school library as I know our 6th graders could benefit from this story in their unit on Shakespearean times! The evocative text is Illustrated by award-winning artist Floyd Cooper, whose unusual style of erasing oil washes from boards to create his images, masterfully captures the weight and authority of this man and his story.
- An afterword and bibliography allow for greater reading about Ira Aldridge.
- This would be a great and unusual text to include in Black History month.
- An interesting project for 5th or 6th graders might be to select one of the 33 names engraved on that bronze plaque and do a short presentation about them!
- Here are five recommended books for teaching Shakespeare to young children.
- I would also highly recommend Usborne’s Illustrated Stories from Shakespeare.
Each week a group of bloggers reviews picture books we feel would make great educational reads. To help teachers, caregivers and parents, we have included resources and/or activities with each of our reviews. A complete list of the thousands of books we have reviewed can be found sorted alphabetically and by topics, here on Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.
Source: review copy from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review