Ada’s Violin by Susan Hood and Sally Wern Comport – Review by Sheila Berenson
The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay
A picture book by Susan Hood and Sally Wern Comport
Picture books are given formidable tasks to perform for their young readers – to entertain, to offer new experiences, to expand emotional vocabulary and empathy, to explore their own worlds or the worlds beyond. Ada’s Violin accomplishes all with clear language, impressive story, and stunning art.
Ada Rios lives a part of Cateura, Paraguay, where poverty is rampant. Ada’s family and neighbors live in and around a landfill, survive by retrieving, sorting, and recycling the debris brought in from the nearby capital. Future prospects are dim; most everyone ends up in the trash business.
Ada’s grandmother is delighted when she sees a bulletin, posted by Favio Chavez. As an environmental engineer teaching safety to those working in the landfill, Chavez has noticed the roving children with little to do and announces he’ll give music lessons. Problems arise. Chavez only owns a few instruments, not enough for those who want lessons. He also knows thieves will steal the instruments as soon as the children are seen out on the streets with them.
So along with a skilled carpenter, Chavez sets out to create instruments from the garbage around them. Ada receives one of the violins. She devotes herself to her lessons, practicing through pouring rain and sweltering heat, and eventually earns first chair. Chavez’s young music community grows into its own orchestra and receives invitations to perform both in Paraguay and elsewhere. (An illustration hints at Hollywood.) Back matter tells of how the orchestra continues to expand today; it now has two hundred children.
The story has three primary characters, each equally important. First, there is Ada, the protagonist. But there is also Chavez, a man with tremendous cleverness who powers the complete shift in these children’s lives. The landfill, too, serves as a character; it is present on every page and impacts all else.
Ada’s Violin should broaden its young reader’s understanding of the world. To those able to rent or purchase quality instruments to play in school or at home, the idea of having only oil drums and crates as “official” instruments has to give them pause. Whole communities living in and around a garbage dump?
Picture books are also powerful pervaders of teaching language to children, and here Ada’s Violin weaves active verbs (scrambled, rumble, clanged), descriptive adjectives (stinking, bittersweet, enormous) and unusual nouns (bodega, landfill, oil drum, first chair) into the common language that populates much of the book.
The superb mixed-media collages are a major draw. Each page’s art is powerful and equally balanced throughout; together, they give the entire book a wonderful rhythm of energy, warmth, action. With their flat and meaty images, they are a wise choice as they turn the coarseness of the trash, the backdrop for most pages, into a pop of colors and textures.