Party Line! Gianni Rodari’s Telephone Tales

Allow me to introduce you to the greatest Italian children’s book author of the twentieth century—Gianni Rodari, a journalist, life-long Communist, educator, and winner of the 1970 Hans Christian Andersen award.  His poems, short stories, and full-length fantasies influenced by linguistics, surrealism, and the desire for social justice, have been widely translated, but they are sadly little known in the English-speaking world.  So why wait?  Sample two of his  highly inventive “math lessons” from Anthony Shugaar’s glorious translation of Telephone Tales (1980) illustrated by Valerio Vidali and published in 2020 in honor of the centennial of the author’s birth by the extraordinary independent children’s book publisher, Enchanted Lion.

Inventing Numbers

“Shall we invent some numbers?”

“Yes, let’s.  I’ll go first.  Almost-one, almost-tw0, almost-three, almost-four, almost-five, almost-six.”

“That’s not enough.  Listen to this one: a mega million times a billion, a tricyclon of squintillions, a googleplexity of centillions, and an octillion.”

“All right then.  I’ll invent a multiplication table: three times one, a barrel of fun; three times two, Kalamazoo; three times three, coffee and tea; three times four, dinosaur, three times five, backward dive; three times six, stacks of bricks, three times seven, manna from heaven; three times eight, Alexander the Great; three times nine, Frankenstein; three times ten, and back again.”

“How much does this pasta cost?”

“Two slaps on the wrist.”

“How far is it from here to Milan?”

“A thousand new miles, one used miles, and seven lemon gumdrops.”

“How much does a teardrop weigh?”

“Depends.  A willful child’s teardrop weights less than the wind, but that of a starving child weighs more than the world”

“How long is this story?”

“Too long.”

“Okay, then, let’s hurry up and invent more numbers.  Here we go, in New York style: foist, secant, and toid, toitytoid and a hunnit and toid, a doity boid plus a noid is the woid.”


Upgraded plus Two

“Help! Help!” a poor Ten cried as he took to his heels.

“What’s the matter?  What’s happening to you?”

“Don’t you see?  I’m being chased by a Subtraction.  If it catches me, it’ll be a disaster.”

“Oh, come one!  Don’t you think ‘disaster’ is a little much?”

There, the worst has happened: The monstrous Subtraction has grabbed the Ten, lunging at him, slashing savagely with its razor-sharp sword.  The poor Ten loses one digit, then another.  To its immense good fortune, a foreign car a block long goes by.  The Subtraction turns and stares for a moment to see whether he shouldn’t shorten it a little, and good old Ten takes advantage of the distraction to get away and hides in a doorway.  But now he’s no longer a Ten; he’s just an ordinary Eight, add what’s more he has a nosebleed.

“Poor little thing, what did they do to you?  You got into a fight with your school mates, didn’t you?”

“Heavens above, everyone run for your lives!”  The high-pitched voice is sweet and compassionate, but its owner is Division itself.  The unfortunate Eight whispers, “Good evening,” in a faint tone, and tries to turn and go, but Division is quicker than Eight, and with a single clip of her scissors, she cuts him into two: Four and Four.  She puts one of the Fours inside her pocket, and the  one takes off running, racing back onto the street, where it leaps onto a passing trolley.

“A moment ago, I was a Ten,” he sobs, “and now just look at me!  A Four!”

The pupils on the trolley all hasten to get some distance between themselves and the Four.  None of them want anything to do with him.  The trolley driver mutters, “ Certain people really ought to have enough common sense to go on foot.”

“But it’s not my fault!” the ex-Ten shouts through his tears.

“Sure, blame it on the cat.  That’s what they all say.”

The Four get off at the next stop, red as a red cherry candy.

Uh oh!  He’s pulled another one of his pranks—he’s stepped on someone’s toe.

“I’m sorry!  I’m so, so sorry, Signora!”

But the lady isn’t angry.  In fact she smiles up at him.  Well, well, well, looky who it is!  None other than Multiplication!

She has a heart of god and can’t stand the sight of unhappy people.  So right then and there, she multiplies the Four by Three.  Now, he’s a magnificent Twelve, ready to count a whole dozen eggs.

“Hurray!” cries Twelve.  I’ve been increased!  Increased by two.!


More Pretty Little Pocket Books for Children

A woman’s hanging pocket in the collection of the V & A.

The word “pocket book” was a term for a wallet or small purse for money and personal objects in the eighteenth century.  That wasn’t its only meaning, however.  It also referred to books– especially memorandum books (i.e. “diaries” in British English) or vade mecums, compilations of useful information– that could be comfortably stowed in a weskit pocket  or the hanging bag attached to a tape that tied around a woman’s waist.   Related to almanacs, they were revamped for adults by enterprising publishers in the 1740s, among them John Newbery, more famous for his children’s books.  Twenty years later he went back to the drawing board and reconceptualized the pocket book for younger customers.  Newspaper advertisements confirm that the publisher really was its compiler. .The Important Pocket-Book or Valentine’s Ledger (ca. 1765), which was also a tie-in to The Valentine’s Gift, may be the first of its kind and a good model for the genre as a whole, whether or not  Continental children’s books publishers were influenced by it.

Cotsen 5354.

The more famous Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), which could be carried on its owner’s person without any trouble, was not meant for ready reference or record keeping. The Important Pocket-Book was, with its  tables of money, weights, and measures and a  calendar for recording daily expenses over a twelve-month period that was not keyed to a particular year, making it saleable over a long span of time.  On the facing pages Newbery added a second calendar for tracking good and bad deeds, a feature which does not seem to have caught on.  He also selected stories from classical literature such as Cornelia, mother of the Graecci, and combined them with anecdotes from modern history, and short fiction reprinted from others of his juveniles. Selections were accompanied by both copperplate engravings and wood cuts. Shown below is the cut of Father Time illustrating a story about a time-wasting school boy and an opening from the moral ledger that was marked up for about a month.  Someone tried to erase the notes, but “Bad” is still visible on the right hand side.  The entire package of material was attractively bound in boards covered with Dutch floral paper shiny with gilt.Prentjes Almanach voor Kinderen, a charming Dutch pocket book bound in pale apple-green printed boards (Cotsen 3466), is much smaller than The Important Pocket-Book  and appears to have been issued annually by its publisher W. Houtgraaf. In 1799, the contents featured a page of information about eclipses, which was probably suggested by the three forecast between April and October, culminating in a total solar eclipse. The selection of literature was somewhat lighter in character than the stories in the Newbery book.  Prominently featured was a series of illustrated poems about children’s pastimes,  itinerant street vendors, and strolling players.  English street cries for children often portray as many sellers of foodstuffs as small commodities, whereas the Almanach shows just one vendor tempting children with sweet teeth with a basket of “china apples, i.e. oranges.”  A somewhat unusual subject is the man crying umbrellas, a convenience that was still something of a novelty in  Europe. Children were surely more likely to flock around the bagpiper with his trained animals than the seller of useful objects, especially when the musician undoubtedly would perform for anyone with pennies burning in their pockets.  While it was a well-established practice to draw vendors full-length,  I can’t help but wonder if it was deliberate that the attractive nuisance is shown without an audience, whereas the ink vendor has a customer that looks like a school boy to his left.The daintiest of the three pocket books is, of course, French, but it may come as a surprise that Reveries orientales (Coten 65141) was issued in by Louis Janet in 1794 during the French Revolution.   I did look at a near contemporary catalogue of moral, instructive, and amusing children’s books issued in Lyons by Bohaire  (Cotsen in process)  to see what pocket books he stocked and found three or four for ladies with elegant engravings and bindings that sound as fashionable as this one in embroidered cloth with tiny drawings under isinglass (or horn) with a little pocket lined with rose paper on the inside of the rear board.  The tiny engraved plates are based on the ones by famous Roccoco artists for the celebrated Cabinet des fees, a multivolume anthology of French fairy tales and stories from the Thousand and One Nights.  The rather perfunctory monthly calendars of accounts surely could not compete with the illustrations, like the one for the tale of the miserly merchant Abou Cassem.John Newbery probably would not have approved of this frivolous approach to a kind of children’s book that he believed ought to help form good habits and regular self-examination, but the French and Dutch examples here suggest that the conventions for pocket books were just as fluid as they were stable.