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.!


Advice to Parents of Large Families from an Old Bachelor ca. 1799

Young characters in eighteenth-century children’s books have a reputation for being preternaturally well-behaved.  That stereotype probably contains some truth, but we don’t have to look very far to find other contemporary writers besides Jane Austen who showed t adults who were not natural managers of children and households. Descriptions of parents in over their heads turn up in magazine essays and I ran across one in the July 1799 European Magazine.  “The Wanderer” number 15 was supposedly contributed by a cranky bachelor, but is actually the work of Joseph Mosher (1748-1819), one of the magazine’s regular writers.  It’s a fascinating mash-up of half-examined gender expectations, details about the material culture of childhood, and stereotypes about “savages” that were thought comical then.

Before telling about his dinner at the home of his boyhood friend Frank Homely, “Solus” the bachelor gives the backstory.  Years before he and Frank both fancied Rachel Barnaby, a farmer’s daughter, but Frank won her heart in just two months. Luckily Solus never revealed his passion and left England almost immediately after his disappointment for fourteen years.  Shortly after his return, Frank sent him an invitation to visit his lovely wife and their little family of seven sons and seven daughters.  Solus anticipates the pleasure of being entertained by an affectionate, rational couple who preside over an elegant establishment where the children are seen and heard when only when admitted to the company.

I repaired to Mr. Homely’s house, and was shewn into his study, which, instead of being furnished with books and maps, was strewed round with go-carts, dolls, whistles, penny trumpets, and “cheap publications.”  I  thought this rather strange furniture for a library….Scarce had I made this reflection, when my ears were alarmed with a tremendous sound, which, ascending the stair-case, and bursting open the study door, exhibited four of my friend’s sons and six of his daughters, shouting like wild Americans, with their arms strongly fastened with cords, and urged forward by another of the hopeful race, who brandished a whip over his head;…this gentle pastime, it seems, they called “playing at horses.”  The infant banditti had paced round the room, and thrown down three chairs in their progress, when the second horse in the team fell down, and was dragged by his playful associates along the floor, in spite of his angry cries and remonstrances. 

The floor sounds as if it were ankle-deep in inexpensive toys, the baby walkers (i.e. go-carts), and chapbooks (i.e. “cheap publications”), giving the impression that children took over their father’s library long before. If any further proof were necessary, eleven of the children burst in, as noisy as “savages” ( as Native Americans were then erroneously considered), pretending to be a team of horses drawing a carriage.  It sounds as if the coachman was applying his whip to his siblings’ backs to make them go faster around the room.  Their lack of respect for property provokes Solus to compare them as well to a lawless band of robbers (i.e. “infant banditti).  Of course, their play ends in tears and roars.

It required all the authority of their father to quell this hideous din, who shortly made his appearance; and notwithstanding the increased wrinkles on his brow, welcomed me with a cordial shake of the hand, and led me upstairs to the drawing room, to introduce me his wife. The drawing room had discarded all superfluous ornaments, and boasted a negligence and plainness that Diogenes might not have been ashamed of. In one corner two mischievous urchins had torn open a new pack of cards, and were building houses with them. In another stood a cradle and cawdle cup; while rush-bottomed chairs, backboards, steel collars and stocks, usurped the place of candlelabrums, silk hangings, and mirrors. 

A drawing room is supposed to be a handsome space where adults socialize, but at the Homelys it has been childproofed (i.e. emptied of furniture and objects needing protection from clumsy, careless, high-spirited members of the family) and is instead full of more the children’s things that belong more properly in the nursery.  Equipment for improving posture like backboards, steel collars and stocks indicates parental aspirations that their children to carry themselves with fashionable grace.  Could their resting place on the floor betray the little victims as having taken the first opportunity to throw off the wretchedly uncomfortable things.?On my entrance, Mrs. Homely shook two children from her lap, and one from her shoulder, and arose to welcome me; exhibiting to my astonished view the once slender Rachel converted into a broad clumsy dame, with all the marks of premature old age.  After the usual ceremonies I took my seat, and now my torments commenced.  One child fastened my button with packthread to the back of the chair; another pierce the calf of my leg with a black pin; while a third insisted upon mounting behind me, and swinging by my pig tail.  I bore these tortures with the firmness of an American captive, hoping that the call to dinner would put an end to my sufferings.

Solus’ observations here must test many modern readers’ notions. While it is natural to be taken aback when seeing an old acquaintance changed almost beyond recognition, Solus’ description of Rachel’s body after bearing so many children seems ungentlemanly and unkind.  Comparing himself to a hostage tortured by Native American captors is now inappropriate, even if the Homely’s children were misbehaving.  Certainly, they ought to be have been stopped by one of their parents.

But my expectations were vain… though I confess my sufferings were alleviated by observing that the rest of the company came in for their share.  Mrs. Homely sat at the head of the table with a rickety child on her knee, and insisted, like an indulgent mother that she was, that none of her numerous brood should seat themselves at the board, which caused all the dine and disturbance that I expected.  Two butter-boats were overset on the satin breeches of Mr. Deputy Maroon; the immaculate muslin of Miss Bridle was fated to receive the contents of a wine glass; and, to complete the calamity, a fine leg of pork was entirely flayed, that the children might devour the skin, under the significant name of crackling.  My friend, not quite reconciled to matrimonial trammels, seemed rather disturbed at this scene of folly and confusion; but his help-mate, who had long buried politeness, and even decency, in the vortex of one instinctive passion, love for her offspring, was delighted with the bustle, and “would not have the poor things snubbed for the world.”  She looked round upon her distorted brood with exultation, even priding herself upon their defects, and appeared to think that she had obtained a dispensation from rule and reason from the sole circumstances of having favoured the world with fourteen children.

After surviving a meal so disorderly, Solus was entitled to be exasperated and disappointed.  And yet it seems incredible he would cast Mr. Homely as the victim of his wife’s failure as a mother. The figure of overly fond mother who does not restrain her children’s unmannerly and self-destructive behaviors goes back in English literature at least to the seventeenth century and usually the father is not considered an equally guilty party to the spoiling of the children.  When the wife’s parenting makes life miserable for everyone in the house as well as anyone who visits them and the father does nothing to correct the course, then he has failed his children as much as she has.

Although Mosher’s essay contains distasteful stereotypes, he also points the finger at some very familiar shortcomings parents can fall into when outnumbered by their offspring and overwhelmed by their energy.  Gentle readers of this blog may have experienced something like dinner at the Homelys  while trying to enjoy a quiet meal in a nice restaurant or catch up with friends in their apartment on a night no babysitter was available.  Perhaps they know someone who has been provoked to write to an agony aunts for advice about how to alleviate the miseries of such social situations.