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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Amandina (or how a bored cockroach saved the show!)

Amandina, by Sergio Ruzzier
Neal Porter Books
Roaring Brook Press, 2008

Click above to listen to the way we read Amandina.

I came across Amandina while browsing through what the Neal Porter Books imprint at Roaring Brook Press (Macmillan) had published over the last few years. Being in Europe and only recently paying much attention to who actually published the children's books I read, I hadn't even heard of the imprint before reading A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Since then, I've become I bit of a stalker.

Amandina's cover, with that unassuming, long-eared, rather ugly looking small dog on a stage, draws you in at first sight. But then the inside works some serious magic and turns the initial attraction and quiet intrigue into a full blown love affair with the story of this independent-minded, talented shy dog that is the star of the show. Amandina is love at first sight that continues to grow on you with every reading.

The Story
Amandina is the story of a remarkably talented little dancer, singer, actress and acrobat dog called Amandina Goldeneyes, whose talents nobody knows about on account of her being so shy. One day, while walking on the waterfront, "as usual, all alone", Amandina decides to put an end to this silliness and give a public performance. She rents a run-down theatre, does it up herself, makes all the costumes, sets and props, puts up posters and sends out invitations announcing her very own show.

The night before the big day, Amandina dreams of a full theatre and plenty of applause. She is perfectly prepared for the big occasion, except for the curtains opening and finding that nobody had turned up. She wonders what to do for a moment, but then decides to go ahead with it all anyway. She starts with a fanciful prologue. A cockroach who is wandering around "with no plans for the evening" sees the beginning of her fantastic show and calls up all his friends, who arrive and watch the rest of the show in silent awe: a comic pantomime, a shortened version of Beauty and the Beast, a band concert, folk songs and dances from all over the world, a magic act, "and a stupendous acrobatic feat as a grand finale". When Amandina raises her head after her bow at the end, and hears the thunderous applause coming from the packed venue, she's a very happy pup.

The Illustrations
Sergio Ruzzier's pen & ink and watercolour illustrations stand out instantly as having a marked personality of their own and a definite recognisability. He uses colour beautifully, with a recurring warm but muted palette of green, blue, cream, ochre, pinky-red and orange, which in all likelihood appear rather brighter on your screen than on the beautifully thick paper in the book. Even so, I think the richness of the illustrations can be appreciated on screen.

Voilà Amandina Goldeneyes in the opening scene (is that not a particularly nice green?):
And here's the old theatre she does up single-handedly:

Here is Amandina cutting the cloth for her costumes:

The heartbreakingly empty theatre:

Check out the "fanciful prologue"! (and the beautiful blue)

And this "shortened version of Beauty and the Beast" does look rather appealing: 

The band concert:

Folk singing and dancing:

I could just go on reproducing them all! Each and every illustration in Amandina has something special about it, but it's only fair to leave something to the imagination. I personally love the scene with the cockroach sitting on a seat after having emerged from a tear in the tapestry. And the last scene with all the audience cheering and Amandina holding up a flower in triumph is fantastic. Judge for yourselves, but I think you'll agree they are special.

Reading it out loud
Amandina is proof that although rhyme, rhythm and the opportunity to put on silly voices help when it comes to reading to children (I'm talking of very young children here), if the story is powerful and intriguing enough and the character is developed powerfully through the illustrations, they are by no means prerequisites for toddler read-aloud enjoyment.

Of course, the musicality of the heroine's name, Amandina Goldeneyes, doesn't hurt. The very mention of it makes my son smile.

But reading Amandina out loud is perhaps more about sharing the illustrations, pointing out the little details and being captivated by the little dog herself, a really solidly developed character my son took to immediately, from the moment he saw the cover.

My son (now approaching three) loves looking and commenting on all the scenes where Amandina is preparing the theatre and the show. "What's she doing here?" "And here?" "And here?". He loves the animals in the dream scene, which include a bear, a flamingo, an elephant, a lion, a deer, a crocodile and a couple of dolphins. "Where's the water?". He absolutely loves the scene of Amandina's girl-like feet sticking out under the stage curtains. He asks "What happened?" when he sees the empty theatre and chuckles when he sees the cockroach. And of course, he loves joining in the cheering and the applauding at the end.

Amandina is a quiet book that causes noisy celebration.

Other things we like about Amandina
Amandina was an instant hit with parents and 2.5 year old son alike. More about why the adults in the house liked it below, but I venture to say why my son was so immediately drawn to this funny little dog:  Amandina's eyes are not just human-like, they are unmistakeably child-like in their expression of uncertainty, determination, concern, concentration and enjoyment. I'm sure children pick up on this immediately.

Adults in the house like Amandina because it manages to tell a story about confronting shyness or insecurity without sending out big messages or being cheesy. We also like to look at it as a hymn to keeping at it, to doing what you like and what you want to do, even if no one is listening or paying attention. You never know what cockroaches might be lurking behind your sofa.

Read more about Sergio Ruzzier in this interview from 2008 by Jules Danielson over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Sergio Ruzzier, 2008.
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie. You may copy this or reproduce it, but please be nice and credit the author and the site.

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