This true story begins provocatively: “Ada Ríos grew up in a town made of trash.” And in fact, as the Author’s Note at the end of the book explains, Ada’s town, Cateura, is the main garbage dump for Asunción, the capital and the largest city of Paraguay in South America. NPR has reported that every day, about 3 million pounds of solid waste get dumped in Cateura. The author of this book observes:
“More than twenty-five hundred families – twenty thousand people – live there on less than two dollars a day. They endure fourteen-hour days picking through the trash in the landfill to find things they can recycle and sell.”
Ada was worried what the future could possibly hold for her and her younger sister Noélia. Then her grandma saw a sign posted by Favio Chávez, an environmental engineer assigned to Cateura to teach recyclers safety methods. He was offering music lessons to children, and Grandma signed up both the girls. Unfortunately, there were not enough instruments for all the children who were interested. Chávez asked his friend Nicolás Gómez, a talented carpenter in the community, to help make instruments for his group out of materials reclaimed from the landfill.
Soon there were enough instruments for all, and the kids worked hard to learn how to play them. They were determined to succeed, and “the Recycled Orchestra was born!”
As Ada and her thirty-nine fellow musicians became more skilled, they were invited to perform concerts throughout Paraguay and later even in other countries around the world. The story ends with their performance in Bogotá, Colombia with a rock band, for which they were to be the opening act. The audience cheered for them:
“The astonished kids bowed, grinning at one another. They had discovered the surprise waiting in the landfill. Buried in the trash was music. And buried in themselves was something to be proud of.”
Back matter includes the Author’s Note as well as links for more information, including videos. We learn that the orchestra has performed concerts all over the world and have played for a number of world dignitaries, including Pope Francis. NPR notes that the group plays Mozart, Paraguayan folk music, even Frank Sinatra. And the young musicians have backed up artists like Stevie Wonder, Metallica and Megadeth.
The author adds in her note that the orchestra has swelled to two hundred students, with more than twenty-five instructors.
Chavez stated that the result of the orchestra’s success is more than just the music they make:
“What we have achieved is that in the community, children are respected. And respect for the moment that they need to get an education. It’s something sacred. Before, it wasn’t like this. Before I gave music classes, the mom or dad would take the kid away by the hand because they had to go to work. Today, that’s unthinkable, impossible for it to happen. And we’ve already achieved the most difficult thing, which is to change the community.”
Illustrator Sally Wern Comport said in an interview that she considers herself a “visual interpreter” for the narrator of a story. Indeed, in her digitally enhanced collages she conveys hope, engagement, transformation, and excitement as the kids of Cateura turn themselves into an orchestra.
Evaluation: What a wonderful story about how hope, inventiveness, and working together can change even the worst of circumstances and make dreams come true.
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016