Italian Children’s Literature

This week (on 1 June) is the International Children’s Day (also the Children’s Week in some countries) and I am dedicating this post to the Italian children’s literature.

🤥 The Adventures of Pinocchio (Le avventure di Pinocchio) [1883] by Carlo Collodi

Pinocchio, a wooden boy who wants to be a real boy, has endeared himself into millions of people’s hearts. Collodi’s famous tale follows the adventure of a marionette who finds out early in his life that the world is not always just and that oppression exists alongside goodness and benevolence. Like Lewis Carroll’s original story of Alice in Wonderland [1865], some aspects of the original story of Pinocchio is quite disturbing and violent, but, then, what mid-nineteenth century fairy-tale has aged well? The Adventures of Pinocchio is the third most translated book in the world (after the Bible and The Little Prince) and no wonder – its messages of rising above oppression, trying to do one’s best despite adversary, bad influence and even one’s own trouble-making nature, and becoming the best person one could be, are truly universal. I do not have much hope for the following adaptations of the story, but it is still interesting to note that not just one, but two Pinocchio adaptations are coming out in 2022: Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion animation Pinocchio and Robert Zemeckis’s live-action film Pinocchio.

Pinocchio near the entrance to a souvenir shop, Florence, Italy © Thoughts on Papyrus

🤥 Carlo Collodi (1826 – 1890) was born Carlo Lorenzini in Florence, Tuscany, later changing his name to Collodi to honour his mother’s birthplace. That was not the only instance of name-changing in his career as The Adventures of Pinocchio was first published as a series under the title Storia di un burattino (Adventures of a Marionette), and in fact, I have always known the story under this same title – The Adventures of Burattino (Russian: Приключе́ния Бурати́но). There are now some interesting Pinocchio attractions to explore in Tuscany, such as the Casa di Collodi in Florence and the Pinocchio Park in Collodi, and, of course, the Tuscany region is full of shops selling various Pinocchio souvenirs.

🚂 The Blue Arrow (La freccia azzurra) [1954] by Gianni Rodari

As a child, I probably spent more time with Gianni Rodari books than with any other books. His most famous children’s book is probably Tale of Cipollino (Little Onion) (Il romanzo di Cipollino) [1951], which tells of a little boy-onion who helps to overthrow the cruel dictatorship of Prince Lemon and Signor Tomato. However, my favourite book was Rodari’s The Blue Arrow (La freccia azzurra) [1954]. Way before Pixar’s Toy Story, this was a story about a group of toys in one expensive toy shop who become sad seeing one boy Francesco always looking at them (especially at the gorgeous electric train Blue Arrow), but not having the means to buy them, and so they decide to come to the boy themselves and surprise him on Christmas Day. There are so many heart-warming messages in this book, especially about the importance of friendship and love above material possessions. Another memorable Rodari book is called Gelsomino in the Land of the Liars (Gelsomino nel paese dei bugiardi) [1958]. This one tells of a boy who has such a loud voice that everything around him breaks the moment he starts to speak. He goes to one weird “upside-down” world – the Land of the Liars, where everyone should only tell lies and never the truth, and his adventures begin. The improtant message here is that being different should not mean exclusion or shame, and each unique talent is to be admired, having application in the wider world.

🚂 Gianni Rodari (1920 -1980) was an Italian writer and journalist. During the World War II, he was first forced to join the National Fascist Party, but then experienced trauma following the death of his two best friends and his brother’s incarceration in a concentration camp and so joined the Italian Communist Party actively participating in the Italian resistance movement. He began writing children’s books in 1948, and, in time, those books had gained an enormous popularity in the Soviet Union, to which he also made frequent trips. In 1970, he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the world’s most prestigious award for contribution to children’s literature.

🔎 Geronimo Stilton [1997 -] by Elisabetta Dami

This fun best-selling book series for children features main character Geronimo Stilton, an anthropomorphic mouse and a clever, knowledge-seeking editor of The Rodent’s Gazette living in New Mouse City (a pun on New York City), Mouse Island. Together with his family, he reluctantly gets himself entangled into the many adventures. There is much humour in this series, and a dash of Tintin, Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and James Bond. Through the solving of the many adventure-mysteries, the readers are not only introduced to different countries, their histories and wonders, but get to understand the fascinating world of publishing houses and how tricky it is to navigate it! Nearly every book also contains a map of a sort, and we know how kids love maps of all kinds!

Il mistero della piramide di formaggio (The Curse of the Cheese Pyramid) [2000] is the second book in the series where Geronimo is in Egypt, learning about pharaohs and mummification. In fact, much history is “scattered” throughout the books, combining education, mystery and humour (even though the stories themselves are very simple, geared at younger readers). So, for example, in La valle degli scheletri giganti (Valley of the Giant Skeletons) (#32), there is a trip to the Gobi Desert, Mongolia via a journey on the Orient Express; in Il tempio del rubino di fuoco (The Temple of the Ruby of Fire) (#14), the readers are introduced to the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants via a trip in a Jules Verne-inspired submarine; and in Il mistero della gondola di cristallo (The Mystery in Venice) (#48), Geronimo is in Venice, being introduced to glassblowing, the Bridge of Sighs, and to the historic Venetian regatta (boat race).

🔎 Elisabetta Dami (1958 -), the author, had been around books all her young life since her father owned a publishing house. When in 1990 she found out that she could not have children of her own, she started to volunteer in a children’s hospital and it is there that her idea of a funny story character that makes children laugh emerged. Dami wanted to combine that inquisitive character with her love for world travel and archaeology, so her stories also began to take shape. Now, the book series features over 80 illustrated stories, which had been translated into some 49 languages, and there are even many spin-off series, such as The Kingdom of Fantasy, detailing Geronimo’s adventures in a magical world.

🐻 The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily (La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia) [1945] by Dino Buzzati

Illustrated by the author, this fantasy book tells the story of an ancient feud between the bears and humans in Sicily. This rift escalated further when humans stole a bear cub of Leander, the King of the Bears, and then, driven by hunger, the bears made their advance from their home in the mountains to the plains inhabited by humans. The centre of the story is magician Professor Ambrose, whose ambivalence in this war and then the siding with the bears lead to a surprising war conclusion. With faint echoes of Animal Farm by George Orwell (which was published in the same year as Buzzati’s fairy-tale) and filled with ghosts, ogres and sea- monsters, this is a tale for the older reader about power corruption and betrayal, but also about unconditional love and the fact that it is never too late to realise the full extent of one’s bad actions and do good.

In 2019, comic artist Lorenzo Mattotti presented the animated adaptation of Buzzati’s story at the Cannes Film Festival. His film received critical acclaim. With its distinctive visuals, it is a very considerate adaptation of the source material, with the background and battle scenes being especially eye-catching.

🐻 Dino Buzzati (1906 – 1972) was an Italian novelist and journalist (writing for Corriere della Sera) best known for his existential novel The Tartar Steppe [1940]. Sometimes compared to Italo Calvino, he also penned many short stories, most of which combine the fantastical and magical realism with existential angst, and I hope to review some of his short story collections (either The Siren [1984] or Restless Nights [1971]) in the near future.

🐉As I was obsessed with dragons as a child (thanks to The Hobbit and animation The Flight of Dragons [1982]), I have also been recently recommended Silvana De Maris’s The Last Dragon (L’ultimo elfo) [2004], which is a children’s fantasy novel that follows “the journey of the last elf as he seeks out the last dragon so that the world can be renewed.”

7 thoughts on “Italian Children’s Literature

  1. Thanks for highlighting these. I love exploring children’s literature from different parts of the globe. I’ve read Pinocchio and some Gerinomo Stilton in translation but will look up the others.

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  2. Most of your authors are names new to me apart from Collodi. Coincidentally I’ve just read the 1922 classic The Velveteen Rabbit for the first time in its centenary year and was struck with the parallel with Pinocchio, especially when a fairy is instrumental in the toy becoming [* spoiler alert! *] a real rabbit, reminding me of the fata dai capelli turchini in the Italian tale.

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    1. That’s very interesting about The Velveteen Rabbit. That “Pinocchio” component inside the story is irresistibly interesting and of course arouses sympathy for the main character. I love discovering stories that are similar to others and exploring all the similarities. I guess magical transformations and animals/objects wanting to become human/real goes way back to some ancient folklore (a mermaid wants to be human, or some other character having some “bodily disadvantage” and they try to overcome it?). I have read that Collodi was actually translating some French fairy-tales before writing Pinocchio and that makes me wonder if some of them had influenced him. I mean, Beauty and the Beast, that’s 1740? and there a beast wants to be a man (again, but still).

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  3. Despite having worked as an au pair in Italy many years ago, I am largely a stranger to Italian children’s literature: apart from Pinocchio of course! So this makes for an interesting introduction. Thanks!

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  4. Oh this post was so nostalgic for me as you are talking about all the books I read when I growing up in Italy! I also remember visiting the Pinocchio Park which was fantastic for a child (and probably adults as well). The only one that I didn’t read was The Blue Arrow, but it was only because I watched the cartoon/movie on repeat! 😊

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    1. It’s great to hear this from you and I’m glad you found it nostalgic. Collodi and Rodari have such a special place my heart, too, but I am relatively new to Buzzati and Dami. I should probably check out that cartoon The Blue Arrow, but, to be honest, I had such an intricately illustrated book as a child that I don’t think anything can compare! 🙂

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