The luminous legacy of 20th-century author Giovanni “Gianni” Rodari (1920–1980) remains largely unknown here in the U.S. But in his native Italy, Rodari is a revered storyteller and educator, considered the father of the modern Italian children’s book, equal to Pinocchio creator Carlo Collodi in literary stature. More than a century after his birth, Rodari is reaching English-speaking readers via several recent and forthcoming books in translation—all of which showcase his abundant wit, wisdom, and wordplay. The force behind this belated introduction is Brooklyn-based indie publisher Enchanted Lion.
Rodari’s publishing journey with Enchanted Lion got off to a promising start in 2020 with Telephone Tales (Favole al telefono, 1962), translated into English for the first time in its entirety by Antony Shugaar, and illustrated by Valerio Vidali. The edition received the 2020 Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ English Translation Prize and the 2021 Mildred L. Batchelder Award. Rodari earned the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal a half-century earlier, in 1970.
Telephone Tales comprises 70 short stories across 212 pages, framed by a traveling salesman’s calls home each night by pay phone—a device that might resemble a fairy tale relic for today’s young readers—to tell his daughter a brief bedtime story. Though many of these tales are set in Italian terrain, they’re animated with elements of wonder and whimsy—from a palace made of ice cream to a land where war is “unwaged.” The nested storytelling structure evokes such classic works as One Thousand and One Nights and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. On a visual level, Vidali conjures a sense of opening successive doors to discovery with myriad gatefolds and flaps.
As Shugaar told PW, the appeal of Rodari lies in his power “to take the humdrum and transform it into the magical.” Shugaar recounted the rewards and challenges of inhabiting Rodari’s imagination through close (re)reading and translation, saying, “The joys are embodying Rodari’s brilliant mind and delightful confections. I feel that the genuine process of translating isn’t so much switching out one word for another, it’s using a text to envision a world, bit by bit, and rebuilding each of those bits like tiles in a mosaic.” Shugaar further likened the process to “taking a very long train ride with the author, sharing the same compartment. You hope that your traveling companion will be interesting and likable. Well, riding with Gianni Rodari has been an astonishing experience. I want to share it with others.”
Translation and Transformation
After 30 years of engaging with Rodari’s stories and advocating for their translation in English, Shugaar views the Batchelder Award as a fulfilling feat—not so much a fairy-tale ending as an auspicious beginning. “My hopes have already come true, so I’m really just hoping for more,” he said. Sure enough, more Rodari is on the way to U.S. readers.
Next up is Telling Stories Wrong (A sbagliare le storie), a vignette from Telephone Tales in which a grandfather tells his granddaughter the story of “Little Red Riding Hood”... except his version is chock full of errors. A yellow hood instead of the titular red one! A giraffe in the place of the Big Bad Wolf! What initially seem to the girl like glaring mistakes turn out to be marvelous opportunities for the duo to collaborate on a story that’s all their own. Due June 21 from Enchanted Lion, the book is illustrated by Bologna-born artist Beatrice Alemagna who, according to her bio, considers Rodari one of her “spiritual fathers.”
Alemagna told PW (in Italian) that discovering Rodari’s stories as a child signaled the start of her evolution into an independent reader and artist. “Telephone Tales is a book that turned me upside down and branded me,” she said. “I’d been told enough of Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales and Luigi Pirandello’s stories to notice that, along with tradition, in the work of Rodari there’s an ocean of overwhelming novelty. The first thing I felt with Rodari was inspiration. And it’s precisely this inspiration toward freedom that has influenced me as a writer and also as an illustrator.”
Describing the “great honor” of illustrating Rodari’s words, Alemagna said she approached Telling Stories Wrong from a place of “innocence.” Her marker- and wash-textured artwork, dominated by blob-like figures and speech bubbles, suggests the raw energy of a child’s doodles. She added that, “Any artist who is faced with Rodari can’t help but think of [illustrator] Bruno Munari, whose essential images and graphics have accompanied Rodari’s words since the beginning. I decided that I would use a language that was graphic but illustrative at the same time.”
Also forthcoming, in fall 2023, is The Adventures of Cipollino (Le avventure di Cipollino, 1951), translated by Shugaar, and illustrated by Russian-born artist Dasha Tolstikova, a political allegory starring a little onion in a world populated by produce. Tolstikova said that Rodari, a dedicated Communist, played a major role in her creative upbringing in the former USSR. “I feel like Cipollino was such a huge part of the childhood culture in the Soviet Union that I can’t even remember when I would have first encountered it. In addition to the book, there was a beautiful animated film, and a ballet; there was even a postage stamp with Cipollino’s face—it was just everywhere in the air!”
When asked about the popularity of Rodari among Russians, Tolstikova replied, “So much of the Soviet propaganda machine was in its most idealistic state in the 1950s and ’60s. Cipollino came out in 1951. My father was a little kid then and absorbed it first-hand. Of course, later, we found out about all of the corruption and prosecutions that were going on in the background; but if your life wasn’t directly touched by it, there was this very optimistic idea of the nation that was building a better society—and Rodari fits directly into this,” she explained. “Communism in its unadulterated state is about fairness and access. Rodari, an educator as well as a writer, was very interested in this, and these themes abound in his works for children.” As for her own creative path, she said, “Rodari has definitely influenced my entire life. I have been writing little stories and drawing books since I was a kid, and I do think that childlike lightness in approach that Rodari advocates always leads somewhere interesting.”
Two more books of Rodari’s fiction for children are in the works from Enchanted Lion: a revised translation of fable Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto (C’era due volte il barone Lamberto, 1978) for fall 2023 or winter 2024; and The Book of Whys (Il libro dei perché, 1984) for winter 2024, both translated by Shugaar. The latter will be illustrated by South Korean-born artist JooHee Yoon. The Book of Whys was an outgrowth of Rodari’s column for the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party, L’Unità, which ran in the mid-1950s, in which he responded to children’s questions, both quotidian and philosophical.
The Rules of the Game
Enchanted Lion founder and publisher Claudia Zoe Bedrick was no stranger to Rodari when Shugaar contacted her about translating Telephone Tales some time in 2014 or 2015, fittingly by telephone. Bedrick had first come across Rodari not through his children’s books and rhymes, but through his nonfiction book The Grammar of Fantasy: An Introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories (La grammatica della fantasia, 1973). Drawing from his experience in classrooms in Italy and abroad, Rodari offers a passionate guide for teachers on incorporating stories (especially fairy tales) in their work with young students, with an emphasis on collaborative play. Bedrick referred to The Grammar of Fantasy as a “touchstone” for Enchanted Lion. “His ideas about the place of imagination in learning and human freedom are at the core of our work in kids’ publishing,” she said.
The book of essays was originally translated into English in 1996 by children’s literature scholar Jack Zipes for Teachers & Writers Collaborative. In April 2023, Enchanted Lion will release a new edition, featuring an updated translation by Zipes and illustrations by Matthew Forsythe. Bedrick hopes the volume will hold interest beyond the educational sphere, for “creative people who are fascinated by the process of how art is made.” She called it a “stimulating and catalyzing book about the life of the mind and how we liberate ourselves from the structures and assumptions that we may not even understand are confining us.”
Adding another layer to Rodari’s international journey, Zipes first encountered the author’s work in the early ’90s in a bookstore in France. While reading the French edition of The Grammar of Fantasy, Zipes (who is professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota) was struck by Rodari’s pedagogical approach, which centers creativity and nonconformity. “He doesn’t preach,” Zipes noted, “but he uses language and situations in such a way that we come up with something new in our thinking. I particularly like the way he challenges young people to think for themselves.” Encouraged by his editor, Zipes set out to learn Italian so he could translate Rodari for U.S. readers.
Beyond translation, Zipes has made it his mission to bring Rodari’s philosophy to today’s teachers and students through year-long theater-making workshops. Zipes is the founder of Neighborhood Bridges in his home of Minneapolis, a program that for two decades connected teaching artists with kids in public schools throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. Taking a page from Rodari, specifically the concepts and creative exercises set forth in The Grammar of Fantasy, Zipes said, “Our endeavor is to try to enable children to become storytellers of their own lives.” The program was shuttered due to the pandemic, but he is hopeful that it will be revived in some form.
Bridging Rodari’s approach to writing and teaching is his respect for the value of play in early childhood development—of the freedom to question, bend, and even reinvent the rules of the game. (Look no further than Rodari’s Telling Stories Wrong, with the grandfather and granddaughter’s call-and-response collaborative retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” for an example of his methodology.) In The Grammar of Fantasy, Rodari introduces a wordplay exercise he developed with his students, known as “the fantastic binomial”—combining two words at random to create an entirely new idea, which in turn becomes the building block for a story. This strategy for world-building is on full display in Rodari’s fiction, and it’s a prompt that Zipes used with the students in his theater program.
Shugaar compared the process of translating Rodari to its own kind of game. Noting the similarities between Rodari and writers such as Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, and Arthur Rimbaud, he said, “There’s a game of logic and illogic, sense and nonsense, in which language becomes secondary. Each story is a bit like a game with a new set of rules.” The fun of reading Rodari, or in Shugaar’s case translating him, “is trying to recognize which game he’s playing.” Rodari’s absurdist bent is exemplified in Telephone Tales, in stories such as “Inventing Numbers” and “Old Proverbs,” which employ wordplay and made-up words—a game that Shugaar said he willingly took up while translating into English.
Twice Upon a Time
There’s an Italian toast, “cent’anni,” meaning “may you live 100 years!” Though Rodari’s centenary passed in 2020 with little fanfare due to the pandemic (a celebration had been planned for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair), his work continues to take on new life. Each of the creators we spoke with about the current wave of Rodari translations is confident that American readers across generations will connect with his storytelling as they have.
Zipes summed up Rodari the writer and Rodari the educator, saying, “He’s extraordinary; there’s never been anybody like Rodari before or after him.” He went on to describe him as “a great writer with hope. Even though he deals with many social and political problems in our world, he always takes the point of view that we can overcome them. We just have to use our imagination.”
Tolstikova emphasized the enduring force of Rodari’s compassion and humor. “What I think makes Rodari resonate is his extreme humanity. He is such a kind and attentive observer of life, while also being a very funny and keen commentator on the absurdity of it.”
Shugaar spoke in more concrete terms of the sociopolitical context that informed Rodari’s writing, and the echoes felt in current global events. “Rodari’s early life corresponded to Mussolini’s years in power. Rodari lived through fascism, WWII, and even fought as a partisan after Germany invaded Italy in 1943. It was a complicated time, not unlike our own,” he observed. Pointing to the activism that underscores the author’s work, Shugaar said, “The rest of Rodari’s life as a writer was spent teaching people to be decent, to care for their neighbors and communities, and to respect the humble. He was an early proponent of the teaching of how to be an anti-fascist.”
For her part, Alegmagna noted the eternal, fable-like quality of his writing. “Rodari’s texts are timeless, which is why they are universal. The elements and characters within the stories may age, but the meaning and value of the words remain vivid and amazing, like fiery stars in the sky.”