Raising Readers In Italy
Reading In Italy, Part 2
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I’m typing this up with murky, cloudy skies looming outside the window portending inevitable rainfall. These are my favorite days to write. Something about the melancholy of the outdoors inspires me. The irony is, as I’m writing this now, I’m mentally stepping into the glorious, idyllic, sun-soaked days of Italy. In my previous post, I talk about all of the bookshops I came across that inspired my curiosity about the type of reading culture that exists for kids in Italy.
Before even returning from my trip, I texted my friend Giulia on Whatsapp asking if she was free for a coffee to chat about this. It became imperative (if you know me, you know I have zero patience) for me to understand how Italian kids are encouraged to read and how they are taught.
Born and raised in Cremona, a small city on the banks of the river Po in Northern Italy, famed for its heritage of violin-making, Giulia immigrated to the US in 2014 and has lived here ever since. When she’s not running around after her stunning 5-year-old son, Lorenzo, she’s busy running her Italian confectionery company, Confetti Milano. Giulia inhabits that intersection of child-rearing that a lot of parents in America do: raising kids in American culture while also trying to teach them their own customs and language. It’s the way I grew up and I know how hard it can be; how much you have to fight to maintain the relevance of your heritage in another country. She was the perfect person to have this discussion with.
Raising her son in the US, Giulia has often shared with me her observations on how some things are similar and some very different when she reflects upon her own upbringing, how her Italian friends are raising their kids, and her mother’s perspective as a teacher of middle-grade kids. One notable difference she’s observed in the US: there is a much more active focus and involvement with in kids’ reading.
On reading education and culture
Case in point: her son’s US daycare would send home reading lists to support what was being taught in school. While she was shopping, she was alarmed when she saw workbooks geared toward pre-schoolers to help them learn their letters before kindergarten even started. I reassured her that this preschool pressure was a new development for me too—my US primary school days looked nothing like they do now (read Dr. Goodwin’s excellent piece on kindergarten and redshirting). Unlike in the US, Italians tend to not be as hands-on with teaching their children to read. The expectation is that this is their teacher’s job and that they will learn in school with parental support as needed at home. And for kids, their reading habits are very family-dependent. If the parents are readers, kids will likely follow in their footsteps.
Giulia continued, mentioning that reading also isn’t quite as social an activity in Italy as it is here either. Here there are organizations in the form of book clubs and activities centered around books that have very active participation. “For Italians, reading is much more personal, more intimate,” Giulia recalls. You may mention or discuss a book within the flow of conversation with friends but it’s typically not as a social, formal activity. I think this is true; with the widespread usage of virtual meetings, read-alouds, author meet-ups, and book clubs are accessible in even the most remote parts of the US.
On finding books
“Generally, libraries are thought more of places to study than to find pleasure reading,” Giulia informs me. This was a little shocking to me just because it’s so different from my relationship with the library. The library is one of my first stops when I want to read something new. Additionally, you’re more likely to buy books from bookshops in Italy. Although Giulia acknowledges, that’s changing and people are turning more to online retailers now like Amazon. The thought is that bookshop owners are artisans in their own right—they are the book experts. You can ask them about what you’re in the mood to read or tell them a few titles you liked and they’ll recommend books based on your tastes and preferences. That’s what Giulia often does when she goes back home to Italy; she asks her friends for book ideas and visits local bookshops for recommendations. Much of her son’s Italian book collection is sourced this way.
I love the personal connection of that experience. For many of us in the US, our local markets have crowded out the small independent bookstores in favor of big retail chains like Barnes & Noble, and, as some of you may remember, Borders. But the people who run bookshops are also the same people who love books so much they’ve dedicated their livelihoods to it. That level of dedication deserves honor and respect. It reminds me of the scene in You’ve Got Mail, when Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, wanders into the big chain bookstore that put her small, neighborhood children’s bookshop out of business:
Woman Shopper: Do you have the ‘Shoe’ books?
Book Chain Salesperson: The ‘Shoe’ books? Who's the author?
Woman Shopper: I don't know. My friend told me my daughter has to read the ‘Shoe’ books, so here I am.
Kathleen Kelly: Noel Streatfeild. Noel Streatfeild wrote Ballet Shoes and Skating Shoes and Theater Shoes and Movie Shoes... I'd start with Skating Shoes, it's my favorite, although Ballet Shoes is completely wonderful.
Book Chain Salesperson (turns to Kathleen): Streatfeild. How do you spell that?
-You’ve Got Mail
We spoke about what a cornerstone US libraries are for children’s activities and Giulia pointed out that that was a big change for her as well. While libraries in Italy may hold events and story time for kids, it’s still not as deeply ingrained in the culture as an activity for kids the way it is in the US. It’s so deeply ingrained here that it’s almost impossible to get a spot at our local library’s storytime. It’s usually booked up just a few minutes after registration opens. “That’s just not as common in Italy,” Giulia says.
This topic is near and dear to my heart and it’s incredibly important to Giulia too. It’s a thin line to walk with young kids because you want them to learn a new language (especially early on in their development when it’s so easy to pick up) but you don’t want to pressure them and risk scaring them away. “I try to speak to him in Italian but sometimes, especially after a long day, he’ll ask me to switch to English because he’s tired.” So Giulia does her best and tries to offer as many opportunities as she can to help him learn, namely through picture books.
At her baby shower, she asked her friends and family for Italian picture books to read to him. Every time they go to Italy or if anyone is visiting from Italy, Giulia tries to source new reading material for Lorenzo. If there’s a specific topic he’s interested in or characters that he likes, she tries to find Italian language books on them. She will also try to mix in popular Italian authors so that her son is exposed to some of Italy’s treasured children’s books as well.
If you’re trying to raise bilingual or multilingual children, I’m sure this will strike a chord with you. It’s a painstakingly slow labor of love and one we hope will pay off in the long run. If you’re in this boat, know you’re in good company! As someone raised by parents trying to ensure their kids were bilingual, it paid off for me. And now I’m trying to do the same with my kid so I fully appreciate the hard work and benefits of not only multilingualism but of innately understanding the culture of another country.
Lorenzo’s book recommendations…
Now, on to a few of Lorenzo’s favorite children’s books:
Buongiorno Carletto! (translation: Good Morning, Charlie!)
Written and Illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner
Recommended Ages: 2-4 years
Originally written in German, this is the first in a series on Carletto (Charlie in English) a young bunny who deals with topics most bunnies his age grapple with: morning routines, nighttime routines, etc. The first of the series, Buongiorno Carletto!, uses lots of simple language and repetition that will engage very young readers. Carletto’s mom searches high and low for Carletto in his bedroom to start the day before she finally “finds” him. The artwork has lovely little details—no surprise, considering Berner is famous for her wimmelbooks—which will be fun for your little ones to pore through.
Links to buy: Not available in English
Tre Piccoli Pirati (English title: Captain Jack and the Pirates)
Written by Peter Bently | Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury | Translated to Italian by Daniela Gamba
Recommended Ages: 3-5 years
The whimsy of this book is sure to satisfy any kid’s thirst for adventure and glory. This swashbuckling tale follows young Captain Jack and his friends, Zack and Caspar, as they build a sand boat to set sail on the high seas. What follows is a vivid, imaginary adventure that’s interwoven with reality—three kids having fun at the beach—as they attempt to capture pirate booty. I love that the text rhymes and lilts its way through the story and the typography changes size for emphasis and dramatic effect. Oxenbury’s (illustrator of the popular book, We’re Going On A Bear Hunt) pencil and watercolor illustrations switch between grayscale and vivid color with gorgeous results.
Links to buy: Bookshop.org*
A new one Giulia is excited to introduce Lorenzo to:
Viaggio In Italia (translation: Journey To Italy)
Written by Gianni Rodari | Illustrated by Elenia Beretta
Recommended Ages: 6-10 years
A stunning classic of a book that is really a collection of poems and stories by Gianni Rodari about different places in Italy. Gianni Rodari is a beloved figure in the world of Italian children’s books and has penned some of the most adored children’s stories in Italy. Beretta’s illustrations are magnificent; your kid will want to jump into the pages and explore the lush Italy of Rodari’s rhymes. While his work has been translated into many different languages, his work has debuted in the US only in the past few years. One of the US-available titles that I really enjoyed reading was Telling Stories Wrong*—one of the short stories that appear in Telephone Tales*. You can learn more about Rodari here.
Links to buy Rodari’s other US titles (Viaggio In Italia is not in English yet): Bookshop.org*
I’m curious—are you raising kids in a culture different from the one you grew up in? How does your culture influence your kids’ reading material, if it does at all? Hit the button below and tell us more!
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