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.
“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?”
“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.!