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Mariel artist pens penguin story

The little penguin that stars in Edel Rodriguez's picture book debut is, comically, afraid to swim. Despite the fact that fish and water are his favorite things, despite his friends' encouragement, despite ample protection in the form of floaties, he's afraid.

As a witty parable about taking the plunge, Sergio Makes a Splash! (Little Brown, $15.99, ages 3 to 7) parallels author Rodriguez's own story. At age 8, Rodriguez arrived in Miami, a Mariel boatlift immigrant who

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Edel Rodriguez's website has samples of his award-winning poster work and a blog that includes details about his family and their perilous voyage from Cuba to Miami during the Mariel boatlift. See it at www.edelrodriguez.com.

spoke no English. Just a few years later, he had distinguished himself as an artist and was offered a spot at the New World School of the Arts. He didn't take it, choosing instead to attend his assigned school, Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High, from which he graduated in 1990.

"He wanted a regular high school experience,'' recalls Mary Nichols, Rodriguez's high school art teacher. "He wanted to go to the prom, and to football games, so that's how I got him. Sheer luck on my part.''

But when it came time to choose a college, Nichols, like Sergio's friends, was more insistent. Rodriguez had earned a full scholarship to the University of Miami. But he'd also been offered a one-year scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York. Nichols urged him to go north where his burgeoning artistic talent would get world-class nurturing.

"Not just me, all of his teachers,'' Nichols recalls. "The University of Miami is a fine school but the Pratt is the Pratt: It's one of the finest art schools in the world.''

Part of Rodriguez's reluctance was based on the reaction of his parents, who -- having fled their homeland -- were adamantly opposed to further fragmentation of their family.

"We had long arguments. 'You are Cuban. You can't leave us,'‚'' Rodriguez recalls. "I had never even been on a plane before. But I went, and I fell in love with New York City. My life would have been very different if I had not gone.''

After graduating from Pratt in 1994, Rodriguez went on to earn a master's degree from Hunter College and spent 13 years as an art director at Time magazine. He left the magazine this year to concentrate on his freelance work.

Before Sergio, he had illustrated three picture books for other authors: Mama Does the Mambo by Katherine Leiner, Oye Celia, a biography of Celia Cruz by Katie Sciurba, and Float Like a Butterfly, a story about Muhammad Ali by Ntozake Shange. He has won awards for poster design, created a stamp for the U.S. Postal Service, and received both Gold and Silver medals for editorial illustration from the Society of Illustrators.

The idea for Sergio came from observing kids in his New Jersey neighborhood who waddled over to his house after he and his wife, Jennifer, put in a pool a few years ago. "They looked so funny wearing all this gear, but even with the gear, a few of them were unsure about jumping in,'' he says.

The clean, mostly double-page spreads make full use of a minimalist palette by using a few bright orange highlights on each page. Sergio is rendered in just three colors -- a 1950s turquoise, tangerine and a deep midnight blue.

Rodriguez says his artwork is influenced by the street art of his youth in Havana.

"I grew up surrounded by the Russians' political posters and billboards, but I use it in a weird way. I'm throwing it back at them by making a living out of their propaganda designs,'' he said.

Currently, he's working on a sequel, titled Sergio Saves the Game. "Once I figured out Sergio was an Argentinean penguin, I made him into a soccer fan,'' Rodriguez said. "He's very passionate about soccer, but he sucks at it. The question in this book is, how do you become better at something you love but are not very good at?''

This story doesn't seem to have its roots in the author's story. Nichols, who retired to North Carolina 15 years ago, insists the guidance she gave her star student in high school amounted to "staying out of his way.'' She tells this story about his precocious ambition: She had encouraged him to enter a contest sponsored by Dade's Cultural Affairs division to create an artwork showing the Eiffel Tower located somewhere in Miami.

Rodriquez's entry won the grand prize -- two tickets to Paris, one for him, one for his teacher.

"He didn't want to go,'' Nichols recalls. "So my husband bought the ticket from him and he used the money to buy art supplies. How many teenagers would do that?''

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