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The Italian Communist Whose Radical Children’s Books Shaped a Generation

Gianni Rodari was Italy’s most important children’s author — and a Communist. Cherished by generations of readers, his irreverent fairy tales encouraged children to question authority and think for themselves.

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Gianni Rodari in the 1950s., Rodari family / Wikimedia Commons

In an unnamed land, a ferocious dictator torments his people with arbitrary violence, repression, and abuse: “Those who stood against him were shot. The poor were persecuted, humiliated, and insulted in a hundred ways.” The only one who dares oppose him is a young boy named Giacomo, whose body is made of crystal. Also crystal clear are Giacomo’s thoughts, feelings, and anger, which everyone can see through his transparent body.

The dictator doesn’t consider sincerity a virtue in his subjects — and duly has the boy jailed. But Giacomo manages to inspire subversion even from within his cell, which seems to turn into crystal with his presence, allowing him to transmit his thoughts to the outside world. The tale reaches its striking conclusion:

At night, the prison would give off a great light, and the tyrant in his palace would close his curtains to unsee it, yet he was still unable to fall asleep. Crystal Giacomo — even in chains — was stronger than him, because truth is stronger than anything else, more luminous than the day itself, more terrible than a hurricane.

Any hint of innocence is lost here. Truth and justice, the tale seems to suggest, eventually assert themselves with righteous violence. Giacomo himself, despite his young age and good-natured disposition, is no quietist. He has something of Antonio Gramsci about him, pursuing his work and vocation with a mad determination even under captivity, as well as the rage of a prophet who plants the seed of dissent in those who cross his path.

If you’ve grown justifiably wary of martyrs and heroes, look at the wording again, for Giacomo isn’t cast in either of those roles. Rather, in its last sentences, the story is already moving away from him to focus on the ripples he has made in wider society. His ultimate victory, if it ever comes, will owe to the consciousness raised in others, rather than to individual self-sacrifice.

Giacomo’s story is one of many such yarns in Telephone Tales (“Favole al telefono”), a collection of fables published in 1962 by Gianni Rodari. A recent English translation was released in 2020 to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of his birth, allowing English-speaking audiences to discover more of his work, albeit long after many other countries in Europe and beyond.

A schoolteacher and journalist turned children’s author, Rodari had reason to feel fairly satisfied in 1962. Having made a name for himself in the cultural and journalistic section of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) — yet also struggling with measly salaries and the party machine’s internal wrangling — he secured a spot as special correspondent for the widely distributed daily Paese Sera. A frequent contributor for RAI (Italy’s national broadcaster) as well as the BBC, the popularity of Rodari’s books was no longer confined to his native Italy. He was already known and loved in the USSR, where his work had several waves of editions and adaptations.

Particularly beloved in the Eastern Bloc was Rodari’s Cipollino (“Little Onion”), another rebel figure who leads a community of oppressed anthropomorphic vegetables in a fight against the erratic and tyrannical ways of Prince Lemon. With their irreverence, their general disregard of authority, and their strong sense of solidarity with others, Crystal Giacomo and Cipollino are indicative of Rodari’s conception of the fairy tale — a vision also connected to what he had witnessed in his own life.

The Grammar of Fantasy

Born in 1920 in Omegna, in Northern Italy’s Piedmont region, Rodari came from humble beginnings. His father was a baker and his mother a maidservant — “one of those who could speak French” and an autodidact, like Gianni himself would become in due time. Rodari recalled how introducing the young to the pleasure of reading wasn’t the main concern of people like his parents; when he was a boy, vast swaths of the population were still illiterate and struggling to survive amid poverty, sickness, and crippling overwork. Like many other kinds of pleasure, books were a matter of inheritance. A domestic library was something to be passed on from generation to generation in middle-class and upper-class households, thus granting immediate access to reading material that a boy like Gianni had to acquire in more roundabout ways.

By the time Rodari became a successful author, illiteracy was largely a problem of the past, and cheap paperbacks made the idea of a private library less prohibitive. Indeed, the PCI, in which Rodari was active during various phases of his career, spearheaded many initiatives seeking to make literature, culture, and philosophy accessible to the general public — for instance by publishing an exhaustive series of low-price paperback editions of socialist thinkers and writers, as well as a selection of literary classics. Working-class families could now amass a small library of their own, populated by authors and theorists from all over the world — one main goal being the attempt to “de-provincialize” Italy in cultural terms.

None of that was available during Rodari’s childhood. But the writer-to-be still gained a lot by observing his father at work around the oven, learning to respect and treasure an artisan’s work — in literary terms, he would eventually become such an artisan himself. One of his more enduring and adaptable works, The Grammar of Fantasy: An Introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories (“La grammatica della fantasia,” from 1973), is dedicated precisely to identifying, explaining, and disseminating the tools of his trade.

The Grammar of Fantasy embraces everything from the ways to prompt children (or adults) to launch into flights of fancy by hijacking and estranging certain everyday words and turns of phrases, to how you can spin a yarn or invite others to do so by playing around with Vladimir Propp’s “functions” for speaking about everyday occurrences and twisting them into strange tales. Where Propp, the Russian formalist theoretician of the fairy tale, had composed a taxonomy of recurring tropes and situations for this genre — such as “the hero departs,” “the hero returns home in disguise,” “the hero fights the antagonist,” and “the impostor is unmasked” — Rodari turned these into cards that children could use to improvise their own stories. “Propp’s cards” were, in his mind, a way of providing children with an awareness of the basic elements of fairy tales and thus becoming more critical readers and storytellers themselves — Propp’s functions being akin to the twelve notes that musicians use “to create countless melodies.”

Rodari’s working-class roots, along with the abuse his friends and family suffered at the hands of Fascists during World War II, ultimately brought him to the underground Resistance and — once the war was over — the Italian Communist Party, one of the strongest in the West. Through his work as an editor and contributor for publications like L’Unità (the party daily) or Il Pioniere (the children’s magazine published by the PCI), as well as through his own nursery rhymes and fairy tales, Rodari added a decisive political spin to his children’s literature; yet a socialist reading of his work today should both celebrate this aspect and avoid reducing it to banal sloganeering.

An Onion Has Many Layers

If Rodari had confined himself to writing moralistic tales with a communist twist, his books would scarcely hold any significant sway over readers today. We would probably see him as a somewhat embarrassing relic of a time when ideas and policies of the Left were part of the mainstream — a purveyor of children’s propaganda whose ideological proximity to our own convictions would make him all the more uncomfortable. Yet Rodari’s books still manage to fascinate readers of all ages across the world, pointing to some everlasting element in his productions that allows him to retain relevance even thirty or forty years after his heyday and death. That’s in part because his work tests the limits of what fairy tales can do.

His educational work through books like The Grammar of Fantasy, and the workshops with children, teachers, and parents that preceded it, are only one side of the equation — and it would be naive to see this as a passing-on of the “means of literary production.” For one thing, Rodari had to cope with industry’s reluctance to pay its creators appropriately. Literature under capitalism is an industry like any other (with the proviso that it often does not see itself as one, thus feeling free to take more liberties with its workers than would normally be the case), and no amount of critical thinking or storytelling can change its hierarchies overnight.

Rodari’s work aims at another kind of liberation, through understanding and creativity, in a change akin to that which Crystal Giacomo produced. It’s the possibility of suspending the automatic routines of everyday thinking and slights that could simply be taken for granted, instead opening minds to change and even revolution through the imagination.

This is also the reason why so many of Rodari’s short stories and fairy tales don’t take place in fantasy worlds or in a timeless past. He instead opts for the more mundane setting of contemporary Italy, specifically the industrial towns of the North that were so familiar to him and so easily recognizable to his young readers. The magic and disorder breaking into the story have a considerably stronger effect in these everyday settings — especially for very young readers, who might be attracted to fictional worlds precisely because they instinctively feel that the reality surrounding them is stifling and oppressive.

We see this in one story from Il libro degli errori (“The Book of Errors,” published in 1964), centered on a slender and overzealous ragioniere from Trieste. (A ragioniere is an accountant, a common and “secure” middle-class job that was a popular target of jokes about the tastelessness and tediousness of postwar bourgeois life.) He can prevent being swept away by the port city’s powerful bora winds only by carrying a brick in his briefcase, until one day he drops the weight by accident, and the bora carries him away on a transatlantic adventure. On his return, no one in his family or his company believes his story, yet he still repeats his flying exercises on bora days, finding in them great fun and respite.

“Never judge a man by his looks, his profession, or the state of his jacket,” we are admonished. “Each man can accomplish extraordinary things: many don’t do them just because they don’t know that they can, or because they cannot get rid of their own brick.” This ending is not meant as a consolation from the drudgery of repetitive and mind-numbing work through the magic of escapism; rather, it points to the absurdity of restrictions imposed by class, work, and education, and how ignoring them is the only way to achieve freedom. “Getting rid of one’s own brick,” in Rodari’s fables, is never a purely individualist act.

This is illustrated even in more fantasy-driven tales like “Cipollino,” which carry a hidden message that may have gone over the heads of the parents and educators relating the fable to their pupils and children: Rodari chose vegetables and fruits to rehearse his own version of class struggle because they were basic necessities that Italians found hard to acquire in the immediate postwar period. There is also a hidden class stratification in their role in the story, the protagonist being a humble onion in a community of equally cheap vegetables like zucchini and pumpkins, and the noble folks being represented by “fancier” delicacies like cherries and tomatoes. The story is an intimation not to trust any abuse of power by authorities whose legitimacy is, in any case, to be questioned.

Soviet Games

Rodari’s formal affiliation with the PCI did not save him from criticism by his party comrades. The brand of anti-authoritarianism that his fairy tales promoted did not sit well with certain cadres, and Rodari faced considerable ostracism due to his unorthodox views. This debate in the Italian context mirrors the way Rodari was received in the USSR. Translators and writers preemptively sanded off the sharp edges of his characters and stories to make them appear more in line with party orthodoxy, thus casting Rodari in a semi-heroic light: the Communist bard playfully delivering the party line to the brainwashed youth of a capitalist country, with an added element of Italian exoticism.

All misadventures of reception aside, Rodari was always curious to meet his readers in the Communist bloc. A year before his death in 1980, he embarked on his last and most extensive trip through the Soviet Union. His diary of this last journey — which he never had time to edit for publication and which appeared posthumously in 1984 under the title Giochi nell’URSS (“Games in the USSR”) — documents his candid impressions of the many cities and countries he visited. He takes note of young people’s daily rhythm of work, study, and leisure, and he describes the organizations regulating their lives (for better or for worse). He gives us delightful descriptions of the popular games and charades played by children — and the language games that come to his mind as Italian and Russian (which he had some working knowledge of) do battle in his head.

Rodari also lucidly muses on his own skewered relationship with Russia and the Soviet bloc as an Italian Communist — projecting onto it certain ideas of collectivist civility and finding them partly confirmed but partly refuted. He gauges the lay of the land by looking at how the children he meets in local schools and orphanages react to the storytelling challenges and games he presents them with. Some of them are playful and attentive, mingling local folklore and street smarts in their inventions and proving a capacity for creative thinking. But others remain stiff and “almost frozen,” as if scared to delve into fantasy in front of the ever-watchful educators who regiment the writer’s visits with military precision.

In the Caucasian city of Pyatigorsk, he takes part in the autumn celebrations of a local elementary school. As children and their parents play and chant and offer him bread, cookies, and blinis, he is taken back to his native Piedmont, and he has a vision of his long-lost father that he encapsulates in a poem:

I saw my dad today. Arriving at the gates of the Caucasus, way past my green years, I suddenly saw my father as a child, far from home, torn from his loved ones, an eight-year-old worker in a bakery amid the harsh mountains of the Ossola valley.

I saw him in the smiling children who danced and offered me bread in Pyatigorsk: in the big, beautiful dome of that splendid bread. That’s how those who are hungry dream of bread and smell its fragrance in their sleep.

He was happy, my dad was, and he sang with the shrill infant voices as I had never heard him sing before his death. And in his heart, my own heart was beating.

Thanks, comrades, for the sweet bread, for bittersweet memories, for my infant father, alone with his toil, kneading other people’s bread in his pain.

Once again, his mind returns to the art of baking his father made into a job and his own first contact with the joy of creating — but also to the oppression that his father suffered as a worker and a child, while the festival going on around him in a Pyatigorsk elementary school hints at a different, more serene possible future.

The long and exhausting trip did nothing to alleviate Rodari’s already precarious health conditions, which steadily worsened upon his return from the USSR. He died of cardiac arrest in 1980, leaving behind his wife and his daughters, as well as a literary legacy that will outlast his own age.

[Giorgio Chiappa is a writer, teacher, and researcher living and working in Berlin.]

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