My relationship with Italian children’s books started back in the early 2000s when, as a young mother, I was looking for books to read to my newborn daughter in our small village in Italy. This relationship with the literature deepened as my daughter went through primary school and I joined her class regularly as a parent storyteller. Those experiences – the books I read, and the authors I met along the way – cemented my desire to become a literary translator. Some of the things we read in class were just so special that I couldn’t wait to share them with my English-speaking friends and their children.
However, the relationship was not always a smooth one. I might have eventually become an enthusiast, but my first impressions of the books I sourced in Italian were not good. I’m happy to say, though, that those very characteristics – the childish covers outside, the dense texts within; the apparent seriousness and high register; the feeling that they were a little too teachy – are now the things I value.
Why did I change my mind?
Children’s books in Italy, I learned, were not just for entertaining, they could be precious learning moments; times for hearts and minds to come together and reflect on something outside of a child’s personal experience, a way of encouraging them to think more broadly from the earliest age. While this may seem didactic, I think it’s what makes Italian children’s literature so inclusive. Everything – be it board books, illustrations, early readers or YA – touches on themes big and small: identity, disability, race, even global political issues like migration or troubling ones like child prostitution. So texts that initially feel a bit serious, a bit too deep, actually open conversations about diversity, about being marginalised, about society in general.
My journey into these kinds of books started with publisher uovonero (www.uovonero.com/chi-siamo) and their classic fairy tales that use augmentative and alternative communication methods for children with processing difficulties to get them working, drawing, reciting and creating in a cooperative way.
A book that particularly touched my heart, because it taught me something, was the quiet but very powerful La pasticceria Zitti by R. Tiziana Bruno. It tells the story, in a series of captivating and unusual illustrations, of a deaf chef who puts his special ingredient – silence – into his pastries, restoring peace and calm to a noisy town in which people have stopped listening to each other. In a school for deaf children it provided a wonderful stimulus for a cooking project, in which we placed our silent wishes into the food we made. In mainstream schools it helped us reflect on how we often stop listening to each other in the ‘vroom-vroom’ of everyday life. It is an iconic Italian solution: a tray of Zitti’s pastries offers the perfect opportunity for a timeout away from it all. A bit of quiet. With cake!
Another book in this vein that has been the source of many a conversation is Il pentolino di Antonino (known in English as ‘Lorenzo’s Saucepan’), by Isabelle Carrier. In a series of simple black, white and red illustrations it tells the story of a little boy who drags a tiny saucepan around with him; it makes him angry, gets him into trouble, gets in the way. A disability? That interpretation is left to the reader. Happily, someone shows little Antonino how to get along with his saucepan, tuck it into a satchel, stand on it to see over walls, and other unimagined benefits that he eventually learns to appreciate. Deep? Yes. Serious? Yes. Teachy? Also. But as I worked with books like this and saw how children responded to them, I began to appreciate that they help you engage with young people on a deeper level – as they are surprised by a new word, a new expression, a new idea.
Moving away from picture books, the very first author I met in Italy was Andrea Bouchard and his book Acqua dolce, which was read aloud then re-enacted in my daughter’s primary school. This sweet, magical tale, about a young girl who has a desert-island adventure and finds her voice again after years of living as a mute, addresses in a natural way the kind of diversity that is now being asked for in children’s books in the UK.
At this point, I can’t not mention the great Angela Nanetti, a doyenne of literary fiction for children, whose gentle and exquisitely written story of rural Italian village life, Mio nonno era un ciliegio (‘My Grandfather Was a Cherry Tree’) tells of a boy going through a series of personal issues who then has to cope with the grief of losing his beloved grandfather. Another potentially weighty theme dealt with weightlessly and joyfully. Italians, after all, are known for their ability to celebrate life, even when life is no more.
Reading these works allayed all of my concerns that the language was too complex and the themes too deep; I was simply transported by the storytelling, engaged by the thoughts and was learning all the time. If they worked such wonders for my own Italian in those days, then they can only be recommended for young learners, working on doing the same.
Another important area in Italian children’s literature is the ‘epic journey’ or historical novel. The Greatest (‘La più grande’) by Davide Morosinotto, Hoopdriver by Pierdomenico Baccalario, and I’isola del Muto (‘Island of the Mute’) by Strega winner Guido Sgardoli, are all so meticulously researched and the stories so epically told, that the cultures and historical contexts they create stay with you long after you put them down. L’isola del Muto could be considered a mini One Hundred Years of Solitude, taking you through the vicissitudes of multiple generations of one family of lighthouse keepers, succeeding each other through a century and a half of Norway’s history. Once more, the intention to inform readers, to introduce something perhaps never encountered, may seem didactic, but the quality of the storytelling is by far the dominant feature, the magic that cements everything else.
There are so many wonderful texts that have proved my first doubts wrong, that have shown me that children’s picture books don’t always have to be comical, written with a few chosen words on each page, in quirky fonts, in cute packaging or with clever punning. Italy also showed me that children’s novels can be informative and fun, historical and fun, serious and fun. Most importantly, it is to be treasured that these books remain faithful to the political, social, pedagogical and highly literary tradition of writing for children demonstrated by Carlo Collodi, Gianni Rodari, Edmondo De Amicis and the wonderful Bianca Pitzorno.
By Denise Muir
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