This year marks the centennial of Italo Calvino’s birth, with a number of cultural institutions across the globe celebrating the 20th-century Italian writer and journalist’s impact on our collective imagination.

On November 13, the Society of Illustrators in New York City hosted a panel and reception in honor of its current exhibit “Italian Excellence: Illustrations for Italo Calvino.” On view through January 6, 2024, the traveling collection features 61 artworks inspired by the author—including 31 pieces by international artists whose illustrations for Calvino have previously been published, and 30 by newcomers selected by judges from the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. The illustrations were first exhibited at the 2023 BCBF as part of the fourth edition of the “Italian Excellence” project, organized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the Emilia-Romagna region, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and the Giannino Stoppani Cooperative/Accademia Drosselmeier. Marking a new partnership between the Society and BolognaFiere, the SoI’s annual Original Art show, which celebrates the year’s most exceptional children’s book illustration, will travel to Bologna for the first time for the 2024 fair, to be held April 8–11.

Steven Guarnaccia, illustrator and professor emeritus of the Parsons School of Design, moderated a discussion about the Calvino exhibit and approaches to illustrating classic works of literature. Guiding their conversation, he said, were the questions “why are some kinds of literature illustratable and others not?” and “what is the role of illustration in a book that isn’t a picture book, in which the images accompany the text in a different way?”

Maria Russo, editorial director of Astra Publishing House’s Minerva and minedition imprints, and former children’s book editor at the New York Times Book Review, praised the Society of Illustrators as one of the few spaces in the U.S. “where no distinction is made between art created for children and art created for adults.” She presented a brief overview of Calvino’s literary achievements, describing him as the “ultimate trickster” playing with the roles of author, narrator, and reader. “He is both required reading and a true pleasure to read,” she said.

Russo recounted the pivotal assignment from legendary book publisher Giulio Einaudi that set Calvino’s imagination in flight. In 1954, Einaudi tasked Calvino with collecting Italian folktales for a volume that would, he hoped, stand alongside the works of the Brothers Grimm. Calvino “traveled and listened and catalogued” stories in regional dialects, compiling them in literary form in the acclaimed Fiabe italiane (Italian Folktales), published in 1956. It wasn’t until 1980 that they first appeared in English, from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Reading the tales, Russo said she was struck by the fact that Calvino “seems uninterested in separating out works for kids.” In his retelling of the fables, “enchantment lives hand-in-hand with the knowledge of all of life.” She noted that in his introduction for the book, Calvino writes, “Le fiabe sono vere” / “Fairy tales are true.”

Next, Grazia Gotti, a curator for the exhibit and co-founder of the Giannino Stoppani children’s bookshop in Bologna and of the Drosselmeier Academy–School for Booksellers and Center for Children’s Literature Studies, spoke of the importance of studying the history of book publishing to better understand Calvino’s writing and the rich and varied visual representations that accompany it. “Calvino worked in publishing, not in an ivory tower,” she said. The author himself decided that his 1957 novel Il barone rampante (The Baron in the Trees) could also be released as a children’s book, and even chose the illustrator, Maria Enrica Agostinelli—an unusual occurrence in the world of publishing. “He had a great knowledge about illustration,” Gotti said.

Speaking of the combined power of words and images, and of BolognaFiere’s partnership with the Society of Illustrators, Gotti said, “we together will go far working collaboratively, because language is for all of us.”

Talking Pictures

Pivoting to discuss the visual interpretations of Calvino’s books, Italian illustrators Andrea Antinori and Irene Rinaldi, whose work is featured in the exhibit, gave presentations on their creative inspirations and processes. Antinori shared his initial trepidation at illustrating Calvino and another iconic Italian author, Gianni Rodari (1920–1980), whose centennial was celebrated in 2020. “Like Calvino, [Rodari] was a very important author from Italy. His stories are amazing, and for me it was a difficult task working with his text.” But together, he said, “images and words generate a new level of reading.”

Antinori said that whether he is illustrating his own picture books or the works of other writers, he’s mindful that “the image doesn’t repeat the information in the text. The illustrator has to add something,” in the form of a new perspective or even a layer of irony. “You don’t just see an illustration—you also read it.” In that way, he said, “you become another author.”

Rinaldi’s illustrations have been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times, L’espresso, and other editorial outlets, but she said, “children’s books are where I do most of my experimentation.” She spoke of the “power of abstraction” and ambiguity in “fanciful stories” for readers of all ages. “Illustration lives in this space between memory and experience, ideas and reality,” she observed.

Illustrating the words of writers such as Calvino and beloved Italian children’s author Beatrice Solinas Donghi (1923–2015), Rinaldi said, “I learned to respect the text and the author’s intention.” She described how she adapts her style to suit the story, saying, “Illustration is transformation.” Research plays an important role in her process. “I buy a lot of old books—I’m a collector,” she said. “Having books in front of you gives you the possibility to study the aesthetic in a way you can’t digitally.”

Guarnaccia referred to the paradox of looking at book illustrations like those by Antinori, Rinaldi, and the other artists on display in the Society of Illustrators’ Calvino exhibit, framed on the wall and removed from their original literary context. As much as he loves seeing this work recognized in a gallery, he said, “it comes alive in a book.” He opened up the conversation by asking, “Are there some stories that shouldn’t be illustrated?”

Russo said that it wasn’t until she began working at the New York Times Book Review that “illustration was in my world every day—and I never looked back.” Now, she said, there are few cases where she doesn’t “crave” illustrations. She believes that the reading experience is greatly enriched by art and said, “I’d like to know why there are no illustrations in adult books!” She suggested that part of the obstacle, in addition to economic factors, is “fighting the stigma against children’s literature” as lesser than adult literature, and something to grow out of.

Gotti alluded to a line in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where Lewis Carroll’s young heroine wonders, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” Illustration makes a story “exciting and dynamic,” Gotti said. She also described the value in terms of literacy, citing Calvino’s statement that “images allow you to start reading before you know the alphabet.”

The panelists noted that many popular 19th-century works for adults (including books by Twain and Thackeray) were illustrated in their original editions. But novels with pictures fell out of fashion in the early 20th century due to the cost of printing and production and a shift in literary attitudes, perhaps stemming from anxiety about the rise of cinema as a competing artform.

Guarnaccia called the idea of kids aging out of picture books a myth. One needs only to look at the popularity of graphic novels, he said.

Russo believes our lifelong attachment to illustration may be because “images come first at you emotionally, and then intellectually,” while the reverse is true for text. Rinaldi agreed, saying she sees her work as forming a bridge: “I think the role of the illustrator is to put together the rational and the irrational.”

A comment from the audience echoed this sentiment. Reflecting on the experience of learning English as a second language as a child, they said, “I don’t think I would remember the stories I was read without the illustrations.”

Bringing the conversation full circle, Russo concluded by recognizing Calvino’s brilliance as a writer and a springboard for the imagination. “The words of Calvino are so powerful that they can inspire a multiplicity of images. The right words are the beginning,” she said.