by Sam Juliano
Inventing instruments wasn’t easy. But they fiddled around, discovering which materials hit the right notes. They transformed oil drums into cellos, water pipes into flutes, and packing crates into guitars. -Susan Hood
There could hardly be a more inauspicious setting for a child growing up than in a town sitting adjacent to a land fill in a third world country. Surrounded by squalor and extreme economic impoverishment families faced the bleakest prospects for security and well-being, if indeed survival was in the cards for some. In many towns such dire conditions invariably lead to crime, drugs and even worse. Gangs have been known to take the law into their own hands, and violence in such hapless neighborhoods is a regular occurrence. The 2002 Brazilian film City of God by Fernando Meirelles depicted a Rio de Janeiro district overcome by a drug trade that enlisted the services of children. Many books and other films have sordidly chronicled this social plight, one where expressions like “Only the strong survive” and “the survival of the fittest” have been validates by a series of unconscionable events. Once in a great while you do hear of stories of some enterprising youths beating the odds, and finding joy and creativity from the seemingly losing hands they were dealt, and some of the times the arc is from rags to riches as is the case with kids from dirt poor families finding out they possess enormous athletic potential.
In the afterward of Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, a non-fiction picture book written by Susan Hood, the most extreme picture of abject poverty is painted in the town of Cateura, which functionally serves as the garbage dump for Paraguay’s capital and largest city, Asuncion, which lies on a border with Argentina. Hood reveals that this geographical aberration is “one of the poorest slums in all of South America” and that astoundingly “twenty thousand people live there on less than two dollars a day”. The author further adds another incredulous statistic for the reader: “They endure fourteen hour days picking through the trash in the landfill to find things they can recycle and sell.” The book’s resilient heroine, Ada Rios is immediately established as someone who believes in that light at the end of the tunnel. The garbage dump did after all give opportunity for recyclers -known as gancheros to scour through the refuse to earn five cents for a pound of cardboard and ten cents for plastic, and Ada’s thoughts were enlivened by the memories of her father finding “appliances, toys, perfumes and antique watches” and a woman lucking into a box of jewelry. Ada, her younger sister Noelia and the other friends in their circle of hope saw every arriving garbage truck as a potential opportunity for coming upon something of value.
In a life where there is little to latch onto, music became the center of Ada’s. Her grandmother was a fan of the great rock groups from the 60s like The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle and Creedence Clearwater Revival and her sponsorship of many of their standards left its mark on Ada – who secretly sung – and her father kept the musical juices flowing with stories of songs and great musicians, turning the radio’s volume higher so Ada could distinguish between the instruments. The high pitched violin set off a spark within her. But when school started again Ada was entrusted to watch her sister while Grandma went after cans and bottles. Making sand cakes in the dirt, playing hide-and-seek or handball kept them close to home, but in time they made their way to the bodega for candy. She noticed the aimless teens loitering and wondered what would happen to her and her sister. But her beloved abuela discovered a sign hanging in a chapel advertising free violin, guitar and cello lessons courtesy of a man named Fabio Chavez. At first the numbers didn’t jive: two violins and three guitars for ten applicants. But Hood relates that the bigger problem is having the kids practice at home with expensive instruments and the obvious danger it poses. Incredibly the author notes that a single violin is worth more than a house. Chavez enlists a carpenter, Nicolas “Cola” Gomez to construct improvised instruments from the garbage. Soon enough there were enough instruments to go around, and Hood’s moving description of how Ada’s violin was made is miracle of craftsmanship:
Ada chose a violin made from an old paint can, an aluminum baking tray, a fork and pieces of wooden crates. Worthless to thieves, it was invaluable to her. It was a violin of her very own.
But the makeshift construction of the instruments wasn’t remotely the final hurdle, as this Cinderella story subsequently documents. Without a classroom they had to practice outdoors in weather that hovered around 100 degrees, not to mention periodic downpours. This torrid demand sent some kids away, but Ada stayed the course, even supplementing the three hour sessions with two more at home. In time Chavez molded “The Recycle Orchestra” into a disciplined ensemble and the upbeat mood in Cateura became infectious as Hood glowingly relates: “A symphony of sound helped to lift them beyond the heat, the stench, and their aching backs.” The violin for Ada was the passageway from the doldrums of her garbage-infested existence to an imagined place of beauty and individuality. The forty musicians in her group were eventually invited to concerts in Cateura and Asuncion, but their continuing success sent them around the country and then outside Paraguay. They went on their first airplane, and traveled around the world, and were stunned to appear before thirty-five thousand people in Bogota, Columbia, when they appeared as a second act with a famous rock band. They made it. Their trash heap in the end brought happiness and beauty to so many.
Ada’s Violin’s illustrator is Sally Wern Comport, and her collage work throughout is nothing less than spectacular. In the same way that The Recycled Orchestra transformed trash into sublime music, Comport’s depiction of dastardly living conditions allows her to employ a most intricate art form that is identified on the copyright page as being created from “a hybrid technique of collage, acrylic glazes and paints, drawings, and digital mediums, then executed on stipple paper” as something against all odds stunningly beautiful. In short, an auspicious application of mixed media, Comport brings readers into the thick of this cesspool of refuse and degradation, and etches visceral images of high contrast that heighten the psychological state of the characters as they traverse their sorry environment, motivated by the love of family and unwavering optimism. Until the band moves on beyond the borders of the land fill, the illustrator incorporates Cateura’s major import in scattered canvases that serve as continued evidence of this environment of ill repute.
A number of her tapestries are stunning: Dump trucks depositing their loads in an arresting canvas of dense, muted hues and the torn letters from labels and newspapers with an almost apocalyptic backdrop in a fiery color mix; Ada dreaming while visions of jewelry and other past, present and future valuables float above the heap; the vivid walkway in front of the Bodega, one that accentuates the poverty and unsanitary conditions; Gomez’ finding of the human x ray in the container at the forefront of a wonderful example of picture book perspective that captures this menagerie of shanty homes, farm animals and preponderance of litter, a place where children play; the detailed workshop spread -one that competes with Stone Soup for the seeming impossibility of the coming hardware metamorphosis; a beaming Ada with her violin and all the other instruments, meticulously detailed; the walk home by the Gancheros in a sunlit landscape of deep orange under yellow skies, which is seen in sharp contrast to some of the band, with musical sheets woven in the same abstract manner as the melting pot contents of the landfill; the close-up of Ada in a sea of blue, green and turquoise playing her violin and dreaming big, with the far away places represented by city skyscrapers, and thematically enhanced by floating musical notes on cut paper; the spontaneity of the performance in Asuncion shown on a darkened expressionist canvas; the truly arresting (my own favorite) canvas featuring a map of the world, with our celebrating musicians frolicking on the beach, while historical places, religious shrines, Buddha, foodstuffs, the famous Hollywood banner and their plane painting as amazing a picture of exhilaration as any illustrator could hope to in a picture book; the concert hall ecstasy by an overflow crowd under the spotlights depicting new superstars; and finally the unbridled bliss of a group that began on the outskirts of a sandy landfill and ended up at the top of Mount Everest. Red and orange permeate and even reflect on their faces. Nirvana has been achieved.
In a world of hardship and uncertainty, Ada’s Violin showcases the realization of a dream fulfilled and how the worst kind of head start can still be remedied when one remains positive and resilient. The Caldecott committee will be hard pressed not to find Comport’s collages as some of the best ever crafted, and Hood’s irresistible and stirring prose has offered up the essence of this unlikely tale of some who have transcended the world they were born into. Hood is a strong choice for Newbery recognition. Ada’s Violin is wholly magnificent.
Note: This is the fifteenth entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.