Operator, Operator, Connect me to Signor Rodari for more Telephone Tales!

It is hard in just  a few selections to give an idea of the remarkable range of subjects, genres, and tone of the two hundred and two pieces in Rodari’s Telephone Tales.   The volume is supposed to be a collection of bedtime stories Signor Bianchi, an accountant from Varese, told to his little girl the six nights out of seven he was on the road selling pharmaceuticals all over Italy.  How did  he keep his promise to her?  He called home on a pay phone at precisely at 9:00 pm and told her  a new one.  The stories lasted just as long as the amount of time his coin bought

These three stories show Rodari s  visionary side.  They are more serious, but are still delightfully imaginative in the way feelings of altruism and hope are aroused without preaching.

Universal History

In the beginning, the Earth was all wrong, and making it habitable was quite a chore.  There were no bridges to get across rivers.  There were no trails to climb up mountains.  What if you wanted to sit down?  Not so much as a shadow of a bench.  And if you were dropping from exhaustion?  There was no such thing as a bed, nor shoes or boots to keep sharp stones from cutting your feet.  If your eyesight was weak, there were no eyeglasses.  If you wanted to play a game of soccer, there were no soccer balls.  And there was no pasta pot or fire for cooking macaroni.  In fact, now that I come to think of it, there wasn’t even any pasta.  There was nothing at all. Zero plus zero, and that’s it.  There were only human beings and strong arms with which to work, so the most serious lacks could be corrected.  But there are still plenty of things still to be set to rights, so roll up your sleeves!  There’s plenty of work left to be done!

The Sidewalk Conveyor

On the planet Beh, they’ve invented a moving sidewalk that runs all around the city.  It’s like an escalator, but instead of stairs, it’s a sidewalk, and it moves slowly to give people time to look at shop windows and to get on or off without losing their balance.  There are even benches on the sidewalk for people who want to travel sitting down, especially old people or women carrying their groceries,  When little old men grow tired of sitting in the park and staring at the same old tree, they often go for a ride on the sidewalks.  They sit there, content and happy  Some read newspapers, others smoke cigars, and they all relax comfortably.

Thanks to the invention of this sidewalk, trolley cars, electric buses, and cars have been abolished.  There are still streets, but they’re empty of vehicles, and children use them to play ball.  If a policeman even tries to confiscate the ball, then he has to pay a fine.

The Words: To Cry

This story hasn’t happened yet, but it will surely happen tomorrow.  Here is what it says.

Tomorrow a kind old schoolmistress will lead her pupils in a line, two by two, on a tour of the Museum of Bygone Times, which houses a vast collection of things that are no longer used, such as a king’s crown, a queen’s long silk train, the tram to Monza, and so on.

In a somewhat dusty display case are the words “To cry.”

The young pupils of tomorrow will read the sign, but they won’t understand it.

“Teacher, what does that mean?”

“Is it an antique jewel?”

“Did it once belong to the Etruscans, perhaps?”

The teacher will explain that once upon a time, that word was widely used, and it was very sorrowful.  She will show them a vial that contains old tears.  Who knows? Perhaps a person beaten up by another had shed them, or a homeless child had wept them.

“It looks like water,” says one of the pupils.

“But it scalded and burned,” says the teacher.

“Did they boil it before using,?”

The young pupils simply couldn’t understand.  In fact, they were already starting to get bored.  And so, the good school teacher took them to visit other sections of the museum, where there were easier things to see, such as prison bars, a watchdog, the tram to Monza, and so, on all tings in that happy land of tomorrow will no longer exist.

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 gold 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.!