Written by Glenda Armand and Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Published in 2015 by Lee and Low Books
“This above all,--To thine own self be true…” As a young African American boy, Ira Frederick Aldridge sat spellbound as Shakespeare’s Hamlet was brought to life on the stage of the Park Theater in New York City. It was the early 1800s and only white actors were allowed to perform Shakespeare. Yet, Ira Aldridge was determined to perform the works of the Bard. He pursued his dream by crossing the Atlantic to become one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of his time in England and Europe. In this fictionalized biography, readers witness the impact of race, discrimination, family, and country on Ira’s life choices. Born to free Black parents, Ira travels down South where he witnesses the slave trade. This experience leaves a lasting impression that would drive his support of the abolitionist movement in years to come. Floyd Cooper’s signature illustration style of oil washes and erasers creates an ethereal effect mirroring the central message of Ira’s steadfast pursuit of his dream. Cooper’s use of shades of yellow bridges natural and stage lighting and is used to cue readers of important moments in the text. Glenda Armand’s text invites young readers to understand the social and cultural significance of Ira’s life through simple sentences coupled with intermittent Shakespearean lines from Hamlet, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. Ira’s Shakespeare Dream provides classrooms a life story of struggle, grit, and ultimately success alongside an introduction to Shakespeare that will inspire students to consider their own dreams and the ways they can be true to themselves.
Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
All the World’s A Stage: Bringing Shakespeare to Life. Transform your classroom into the Globe Theater or Theatre Royal Haymarket where Ira Aldridge performed. Gather famous lines or scenes from Shakespearean plays and have students perform these lines with fervor drawing on Ira as an inspiration. You can start by lifting the Shakespearean lines Armand incorporated which are catalogued in the back matter of the book. Pair Ira’s Shakespeare Dream with a play from the Shakespeare Can Be Fun! series by Lois Burdett to support students in deeper study of a particular play. Written in rhyming couplets, Burdett’s series supports staging a class play but works equally well as a read aloud. Gather techniques for supporting the budding dramatists and playwrights in your classroom from Ken Ludwig’s esteemed How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.
Turning Points: Noticing Character Change. There are several key moments throughout this telling of Ira Aldrige’s life. As part of your initial read aloud of the text, have students jot their thinking about what happened, questions that arise for them, and their predictions for what is to come next using text evidence. Then, support students with their own copies of the text to closely study the words and illustrations that convey turning points. Have students create multilayered timelines using words and images to “retell” these critical moments. Finally, have students present their timelines to one another in partnerships or small groups noticing similarities and differences in their turning point selections and depictions.
Dream Mapping: To Thine Own Self Be True. Use an adapted version of Georgia Heard’s heart mapping technique by having students create their own dream maps using words and pictures to brainstorm or mind map their dreams. Drawing on Ira Aldridge’s example as an inspiration, what do they hope for themselves? What do they imagine is possible? What obstacles will they need to overcome? What are they willing to give up in pursuit of their dreams?
Shakespeare Text Set. Build a multigenre, multimodal text set of Shakespearean resources for students to learn more about the Bard and his works. Use Marcia Williams’ Tales from Shakespeare to introduce some of Shakespeare’s most famous works through this series of comic strips. Read aloud a collection of Shakespeare’s stories written for younger audiences such as E. Nesbit’s Shakespearean Stories for Young Readers or Usborne’s Illustrated Stories from Shakespeare. Read aloud Ian Lendler’s comical The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth and John McCann, Monica Sweeney and Becky Thomas’s Brick Shakespeare which uses Lego figures to bring Shakespearean plays to life. Visit the online Folger Shakespeare Library for Kids to learn more about Shakespeare’s life and works alongside famous quotations, fun facts, and even games and puzzles. View Shakespearean scenes, particularly from plays mentioned in Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, through the PBS Shakespeare Uncovered page and the MIT Global Shakespeare Project. Support students to discuss the difference between reading versus viewing Shakespeare’s works. Finally, use the Sonnet Project app available for smart phones or tablets to watch 154 sonnets told by 154 actors in 154 New York City locations.
The Role of Fiction in Biography. Glenda Armand uses simple sentences to portray a series of impacting events in Ira Aldrige’s life. She also uses a variety of craft techniques to bring this story to life for readers. In particular, draw your students’ attention to her use of dialogue, internal thinking, and imagined scenes. Discuss as a class why authors of biographies would include fictionalized moments in biographies and for what effect. Engage students in a debate hotly contested in the field about whether or not a biography can include fictionalized moments and still be considered a biography. Compare Ira’s Shakespeare Dream to a picture book biography that does not have fictionalized dialogue, internal thinking, or imagined scenes. Notice the ways other authors of fictionalized biographies use the same techniques in their work, particularly Jeanette Winter’s Malala: Brave Girl from Pakistan/ Iqbal: Brave Boy from Pakistan and Gretchen Woelfe’s Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence previously blogged about at The Classroom Bookshelf. Engage students in their own study of historical figures that interest them, particularly figures that overcame barriers such as race, class, or gender to achieve their dreams. Have students turn to Ira’s Shakespeare Dream as a mentor text to write their own fictionalized biographies of the historical figures they researched.
Author/Illustrator Study. Study the work of Glenda Armand by comparing Ira’s Shakespeare Dream with her earlier book Love Twelve Miles Long. Consider topics that resonate across her works including family and slavery as well as themes such as overcoming odds to accomplish great things. Read Armand’s blog and visit her website to learn more about her story as a teacher and writer and the ways her study of history influences her writing process. Then, study the illustrations of Lloyd Cooper by visiting his website and by reading books by a variety of authors whose work he illustrated such as Grandpa’s Face by Eloise Greenfield, A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy Duncan Dempsey and The Blacker the Berry by Joyce Carol Thomas. Support students to describe his signature style providing text evidence for their thinking by describing his use of color, texture, light, and use of space.
Backmatter Matters: Noticing Reading Preferences. More frequently, authors of nonfiction for children are providing additional information in the form of “back matter” in their books. Guide students to examine the back matter in Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, including the afterword, quotations, and suggested books and websites. Support students to notice the expository text structure used in the afterword. Support students to notice the ways in which each text type supports the other. Have students consider which kind of reading they prefer: the fictionalized biographical text or the expository afterword. Which is most useful for gathering information? Which would they want to read again and again?
Why So Long? Critiquing the Genre and Bridging Gaps. Ira Aldridge was born in 1807 and died in 1867, nearly 150 years ago. Consider with students why it has taken so long for Ira Aldridge’s life story to reach our bookshelves. In what ways does Ira’s story support our understanding of our diverse society both historically and today? Analyze with students your classroom bookshelf noticing gaps in representation. Study biographies, in particular, noting the social locations of the figures featured. Then, visit the Lee and Low Books website for a series of diversity gap studies including analysis of children’s literature and Hollywood productions. Support students to ask such questions as whose stories are being centered? Whose are underrepresented or even missing? Search Lee and Low Books and other independent children’s book presses for life stories to fill your own classroom bookshelf gaps.
Critiquing Casting. Ira Aldridge became the first Black man to portray Othello in a staged Shakespeare production in England. Othello is often played by a Black male since the character is defined as a Moor in Shakespeare’s play. Critique with students the ways in which this break through for Aldridge both afforded him the opportunity to perform in a Shakespeare play in a lead role but how it also potentially limited the ways in which producers cast him in roles in the future. Read an interview on the Lee and Low Book blogsite with Christine Toy Johnson to learn about diversity or lack thereof in theater today. Support students to critique casting in films and in theatrical productions. Explore with students through a Google search the ways in which racebent characters are being created to counter the whitewashed literature and film industries.
Glenda Armand’s Site
Floyd Cooper’s Site
Folger Shakespeare Library
MIT Global Shakespeare Project
PBS Shakespeare Uncovered
The Sonnet Project
School Library Journal Suggested Shakespeare Resources
Lee and Low Books Diversity Gap Studies
(see further links within page)
Aagesen, C. (1999). Shakespeare for kids: His life and times, 21 activities. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press.
Burdett, L. (2000). Hamlet for kids: Shakespeare can be fun series. Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly Books.
Ludwig, K. (2014). How to teach your children Shakespeare. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Nesbit, E. (2006). Shakespeare's stories for young readers. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
Usborne Publications. (2010). Illustrated stories from Shakespeare (clothbound story collections). London, England: Usborne Publishing.
Williams, M. (2004). Tales from Shakespeare. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Williams, M. (2005). Further tales from Shakespeare. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.