There is a very specific feeling you get from a picture book when the combination of text and image is pitch perfect. It’s a very hard thing to get, mind you. You might have a book where the words are lovely and the pictures exciting, but if the two don’t work in tandem then your end product is going to end up a merely okay bit of indistinguishable dribble. A hint of what might have been will hover over the reading experience. I mention this because I’m trying to find a way to explain why Amandina by Sergio Ruzzier is as delicately miraculous as it is. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it’s a Neal Porter book and Mr. Porter is known for helping to bring perfect little books into the world (see: Dog and Bear). Maybe it has to do with author/illustrator Sergio Ruzzier, whose previous books and collaborations have played effectively with tone and story. Maybe it’s the thickness of the paper or the shade of the watercolors. Maybe it’s everything altogether or maybe it’s none of this at all. Whatever the case, if you are looking for a story that is sweet but not saccharine and carries a lovely little message without beating you over the head with a didacticism stick, this is the book for you. A book designed to be the perfect gift for any 4-8 year old child.
Amandina Goldeneyes is “a wonderful little dog”. She may be incredibly shy and not know a lot of people, but as a performer is the remarkable. One day Amandina decides to give a grand performance so that everyone will see her and she can stop being shy. She rents the theater, makes the costumes, creates the sets, puts up posters and when the curtain goes up . . . . nobody’s there. Undeterred, Amandina proceeds to perform the show exactly as she planned. As she does so a small cockroach happens to see the performance. Stunned by how cool it is, he runs outside and tells his friends who tell their friends. By the end of the show Amandina, who was too wrapped up in her act to pay attention to the audience, is stunned and delighted when her finale meets with a roar of applause.
Sergio Ruzzier fans are not as common as Mem Fox fans or Mo Willems fans, but they are out there just the same. More than once have I had someone approach me saying, “You DO know Sergio Ruzzier’s work don’t you? Don’t you?” causing me to sputter a surprised assent. The fact is that until a couple years ago I actually didn’t know who Mr. Ruzzier was. Had you shown me his work I would have vaguely agreed that I’d seen his art before in Karla Kuskin’s Moon, Have You Met My Mother?. But I feel like recently he’s started to really come into his own. Whether creating a one-of-a-kind mole for Lore Segal’s, Why Mole Shouted and Other Stories (and its sequel) or accompanying Emily Jenkins’s fabulous Love You When You Whine, Ruzzier is a wonderful fellow to work with. But I think that the books he writes himself are the best of the lot. The Room of Wonders was along the right path, melding an affair of the heart with a personal journey. But Amandina really got me where I live. Not every book has that ability.
I’m a big fan of picture books that deliver a message in a subtle but obvious manner. I understand the necessity of teaching children through literature, sure. I just think that some methods are more interesting than others. Ruzzier could have written a story about a shy little dog that finds happiness by overcoming shyness by making it like the 150 billion other books out there with a pat message. Amandina would have gone on stage with a full house and learned courage through “being yourself” or something equally dull. Instead, this book is cleverer than that. Amandina’s charm is that even when no one comes to her special performance she has the sheer gumption and spunk to perform it anyway. So maybe the moral of this story hasn’t anything to do with shyness at all. Maybe it’s about doing your own thing for your own sake. And if others happen to sit up and take notice then you’ve truly earned their applause. When Amandina puts on her show she pours her whole heart and soul into it. I’ve never really disagreed with a Library of Congress description at the front of a book, but the one for Amandina didn’t sit well with me. Listen: “Amandina decides to overcome her shyness and show the town what a talented little dog she is, but when no one shows up for her performance, she finds that she also has a lot of perseverance.” I guess. But it doesn’t feel right when you say it like that. Not really.
For me, it all comes down to tone. Getting the right tone is probably the hardest thing to attain in a picture book. It didn’t hurt matters any that Ruzzier was working with both the words and the images in this book. But listen to this description of what Amandina discovered when her curtain came up. “The theater was empty: nobody had come. Sometimes these things happen, and nobody can say why.” I love that. Somehow the simplicity of these words reminds me of Arnold Lobel. They’re just that nice. The choices the author made can be intriguing too. Why does Ruzzier wait until the very last sentence to tell us that Amandina’s last name is Goldeneyes? I don’t know why, but it works.
Using watercolors that range from a deep peach to a liquid cobalt blue, Ruzzier’s palate here is a subdued but colorful collective. And from a visual perspective I was fond of the setting to this tale. Born in Milan, Ruzzier has set this book against an Italian backdrop. The theater she rents “in the old town” is called the “Teatro Ventura”. Later her show seems to incorporate Harlequin elements. And for the record, Amandina’s show really does look splendid. It would be one thing if we were told that Amandina was a special little dog with lots of talent, but to actually see the remarkable show in progress is a special treat. Without much explanation we see that the “fanciful prologue” (again, great turns of phrase here) involves a suitcase that explodes with a smoky column of flowers while Amandina floats above like a butterfly. And then there’s the magic show, the dances from around the world, the acrobatics… who wouldn’t want to see her perform all of this?
Charm is impossible to teach, ridiculously hard to learn on your own, and money in the bank. Amandina also happens to have it in spades (doggy puns unintended). I don’t go for the whole “be yourself” motto unless you can sell the idea to me in a beautiful tale. Sergio Ruzzier has done just that. If you’ve never read one of his books before, this is an ideal place to start.
On shelves now.