Ira’s Shakespeare Dream – Perfect Picture Book Friday & Diversity Day

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25109013-2Title: 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

Ages: 7-11+

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

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16 Responses to Ira’s Shakespeare Dream – Perfect Picture Book Friday & Diversity Day

  1. This book sounds like a treasure. Ira is certainly a role model for young people. What an inspiring story! It must be a beautiful book with Cooper’s artwork. Thanks for sharing.

    • Joanna says:

      I was so happy to receive a copy of Ira’s story from the publisher. I feel his tenacity deserves to be heard about.

  2. Janet F. says:

    I want to read this one, Joanna! Thank you for letting me find it.

  3. Sounds terrific, yet makes me sad to hear of yet another soul who had to leave home to find a chance to thrive and fulfill dreams. At least he did!

  4. What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing.

  5. This is a book that should be required reading in schools. Ira sets a bold example of never losing sight of dreams no matter how many nay sayers the world sets in your path. I HAVE to check out thisi book!

  6. Nice pick, Joanna. I’m a fan of heavy text picture books for older kids. They’re hard to come by.

  7. Patricia says:

    Like you, I confess to never hearing of Ira or his quest to break a racial barrier. This book definitely should be included in Shakespeare & drama lessons – for kids & adults of all ages. Thanks so much for sharing!

  8. Andrea Mack says:

    This does sound like a great one to read during Black History month (or at any time)! Thanks for featuring it.

  9. Keila Dawson says:

    I have not heard of Ira either. Wonderful to see so many books with stories that need to be told. Can’t wait to read it.

  10. Wow, I have never heard of Ira Aldridge either. What a fascinating man. Thanks for adding this to my “to read” list, Joanna.

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