Italian children’s book author Giovanni Francesco “Gianni” Rodari (1920-1980) loved humorous wordplay on the page, but he led a serious life in the real world, where he worked as a journalist and educator with a role in the Resistance in Fascist Italy as well as in the Communist Party. In the late 1950s, his two lives converged in his column for the newspaper L’Unità, where he answered the earnest questions of Italy’s kids. Rodari did so with facts, proverbs, jokes, and enchanting lyricism. A selection of those responses are now collected in The Book of Whys (Enchanted Lion Books, Jan. 23), whimsically illustrated by JooHee Yoon and translated by Rodari expert Antony Shugaar. Kirkus spoke with Shugaar by phone about the moral center and the sense of humor of this master, the only Italian to win the vaunted Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s literature, and an author whose belief in the power of critical thinking and freedom is particularly timely today. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was Rodari’s experience in Mussolini’s Italy?

He was born in 1920, in northern Italy, which means that sometime before he turned 10, Italy had gone Fascist. So that’s a fairly important point to set the table. He was strongly anti-Fascist and was actually a partisan for some time. 

How did his work in the Resistance translate into his children’s writing?

The core of Gianni Rodari’s work with children is how to free the imagination. So you can see where the intersection on that Venn diagram is: It’s the freedom of imagination, the ability to teach people to be decent and considerate of others. His idea for children is to play with language and concepts in a way that allows freedom rather than indoctrination and mindless rule following.

You’ve translated multiple Rodari books. What speaks to you in his work, broadly?

I would make a comparison to Lewis Carroll. I would make a comparison to Roald Dahl. And I would make a comparison to Italo Calvino, who was born a little later but died just a couple of years after Rodari, in the mid-1980s. All of these people are about a kind of pyrotechnics of the imagination. All of these people are about better living through nonsense.

You’ve seen the changes in kids’ literature over the years, right? Do you have kids?

I do. My kid is 23. 

OK, so, it’s been a minute since you’ve read kids’ books, probably.

It has been a minute—and, happily, it all turned out great. 

If you go to the kids’ shelves now, there are sounds and electronics and flaps on the books. Rodari didn’t have that, right? How does he keep a child’s interest today without that? 

There was a period, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, when people were saying, “This is the first time anybody’s done anything like this.” And it depends on what you mean by like, because people have [long] been doing things just like it without, you know, electronics. Take an example: In Telephone Tales, Rodari describes a town where they took a building, and they made it a building for breaking [things]. And they invited the kids in and said, “This is a building where you can just destroy anything you want. You can draw on the walls, you can shatter things, you can break things, you can just go wild.” Now, there’s no electronics in there. But if you tell a little kid that story, their eyes light up. I mean, all the synapses are snapping.

Which of the write-in questions from this book have stuck with you? 

There’s a really nice one in here—the question that a kid sends in is “Why, when a car drives through dry leaves, do the leaves rush after it?”

I love that one. It’s a beautiful illustration, too. 

[Another] of my favorites: He’s answering a question about Manhattan: “Why are the buildings so tall in New York?” And he answers it by saying, “Well, it was a very small island, and the island has a foundation of granite, [which is] a perfect platform to build skyscrapers on. The buildings grew tall because the land is expensive,” and so on. But then he has a little poem. He says: 

When it comes to skyscrapers
There’s no denying that
I’d rather lay out five acres
And enjoy them lying flat.
That way each floor
Is next-door neighbor to the next,
And even the poor
Can afford a duplex.

[It’s] the idea of skyscrapers where the highest suite is the most expensive, and so on down toward the ground. And he’s like, Just lay it on its side, and you have a community

This idea of kids asking questions of a newspaper is sort of a pre-Google artifact, isn’t it? I’m curious about the benefits of the old form, what we get from a child querying a newspaper rather than the internet. 

So this was like getting published in the newspaper, and you’re 6 years old. You have your name in there, or you even just have your question in there. And you can show it [to people]. So that’s one thing, and also I think it gave children agency and a sense of adulthood that they were interacting with the newspaper. 

Is there something very Italian about Rodari’s writing?

The Italians love to include children in their society. If you’ve ever seen Italians out on a Sunday—going to get an espresso or taking their walk or getting a box of pastries to take to the grandparents’ house for Sunday lunch—the kids are so central to this whole endeavor. The family is there to circle around the kids. And Rodari, I think, was about building a new generation after what was universally agreed to have been a catastrophic mistake. Not just World War II. Mussolini was in charge for almost a quarter-century. So there was a real feeling of freedom and “We need to train the next generation.”

What do you think is the right age for this book? 

Do you know the C.S. Lewis line, “A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story”? So, you know, it depends. It seems to me like this is the kind of book that would be perfectly fine to read to any school-aged child, I’d say from kindergarten up.

What did Rodari think was the purpose of children’s literature?

I think it was to make better people. But I mean, that makes him sound like he’s somebody with a program. He did have a program, but he also just loved children.

Mark Chiusano is the author of The Fabulist, a biography of George Santos, and Marine Park, a story collection.