Review of the Day: The Book of Whys by Gianni Rodari, ill. JooHee Yoon, translated by Antony Shugaar
The Book of Whys
By Gianni Rodari
Illustrated by JooHee Yoon
Translated by Antony Shugaar
Enchanted Lion Press
Ages 6 and up
On shelves now
I’m beginning to get the impression that Gianni Rodari was kind of a big deal.
Maybe it’s just the fact that the publisher Enchanted Lion Books has been doing a stand up and cheer job of publishing his books in the States (WITH new illustrations by hot illustrators, no less), one per year. Even so, I don’t have to tell you how difficult it is for Americans to pay attention to children’s book creators from other countries. We did pretty well in the past, but post-WWII we kind of got all “American First” on our literature for kids and that was that. For example, do you know who Bruno Munari is? Case closed. That’s why you can’t help but sit back and admire a publisher like Enchanted Lion. Not only do they introduce us to such great books as, Telling Stories Wrong, but they do so knowing full well that such books are singularly unlikely to win any kind of major literary awards in the States. Until now they’ve mostly relegated themselves to Rodari’s picture books, but with The Book of Whys they’ve significantly upped the stakes. This book doesn’t just not fit into our understanding of picture books. It doesn’t fit in anywhere! A wild amalgamation of poetry, philosophy, science, and stellar art, this is a book just as eclectic, wild, and whimsical as its creator. It’s honestly not like anything out there. Nor would you ask it to be.
Imagine a book of questions and answers. The questions are from children, and range from the philosophical to the infinitely realistic and practical. “Why do movies talk?” “Why don’t people get along?” “Why is the sea salty?” Originally submitted to a newspaper column run by Gianni Rodari, both questions and answers were tackled by Rodari himself. Often, he takes the question and twists it ever so slightly so that you can see it in a different light. Helping him in this endeavor is artist JooHee Yoon. When Rodari zigs, she zigs right alongside him. The end result is a peculiar little book full of poetry and jokes, oddities and the odd glint of reason.
In her Artist’s Note, illustrator JooHee Yoon says that, “My hope is for this book to inspire readers young and old to continue exploring this curious world we inhabit, to question the things we take for granted, and to never stop asking, ‘Why?’.” But what’s so interesting about The Book of Whys is, in part, where those “whys” were directed. The Italians, for whatever reason, have a longstanding tradition of getting some of their best children’s literature out of serialized features in their newspapers. Just look at Pinocchio if you don’t believe me. In Rodari’s case, from 1955 to 1958, kids across Italy sent questions to the newspaper l’Unita. There, Rodari would take them and spin colorful proverbs, stories, accurate answers (at least when they pertained to science), and poems as answers. The questions came from kids but lest we forget, it was Rodari who chose which ones to answer. It was he who came up with answers to queries like, “Why do we give names to stars?” or “Why are prominent citizens in southern Italy addressed with the title of ‘Don’?” Yoon notes that she never wants kids to stop asking why, but she might also mention that it is well worth hoping that adults will never stop coming up with goofy answers to those whys. After all, without a Rodari or two, these questions just slip off into the atmosphere, never to find their answers.
It didn’t take me long, reading through this book, to come to the inescapable conclusion that the unsung hero of this story is, in fact, translator Antony Shugaar. Enchanted Lion tends to turn to him when they’ve a Rodari to translate, which resulted in his winning a Batchelder Award in 2021 for his work on Rodari’s Telephone Tales. That book was impressive, but you know what it didn’t do? Rhyme! Enchanted Lion was kind enough to interview Shugaar in a series of posts later, and in one of the early ones he says of translation, “if you can do the thought experiment of saying, ‘How would this person have written this book if they had been born in America?’ (even though they wouldn’t have written the book in the first place), then you kind of do that, and then if you think about it in that way, you just find yourself a little bit reproducing the sound.” All well and good, but it still doesn’t quite take into account why Shugaar is as good as he is at not simply translating a poem but getting it to rhyme AND be funny in the same way it would be funny in Italian. For example, early in the book there is a poem inspired by the question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Here’s the ending of that poem:
“So thought a baby chick,
Perhaps thinking too quick,
For while it’s comfy in there,
There’s a shortage of air.”
Later there’s a question about “Why do people talk about ‘the palm of their hand’?” that had me trying to figure out if that phrase really was the same in English as it is in Italian. One may never know since Shugaar is as adept as maintaining rhyme and meter as he is inserting words like “coinkydink” into a line.
Another challenge? The sheer Italianess of it all. In the aforementioned interview, Shugaar mentions that, “Gianni Rodari is a national treasure in Italy. You can’t talk to an Italian who doesn’t know who he is. The Italians might not know who any given writer is, but Gianni Rodari will universally be known.” As such, he fills this book to brimming with references to Italian culture. One merely has to take it for granted that men drink cappuccinos on the regular, or that there’s a phrase that says, “It’s like shampooing a donkey’s head.” Shugaar couches it by beginning the query with an explanation of what the phrase means, but you know that there’s a high likelihood that some of that probably had to be added to Rodari’s original text.
Which brings me to the question of where illustrator JooHee Yoon fits into all of this. Her art serves as a rather perfect accompaniment to the oddities and weirdnesses of this title, but how did she get involved? The text of the book has been around for a long time, and it was originally published as “Il libro dei perche”. Since the publisher Enchanted Lion had already been translating Rodari for some time, and because Yoon has also published with them, it makes sense that they’d tap her. But reading her Artist’s Note at the end, she mentions that really, she only came across Rodari’s work during the height of the global pandemic of 2020. Here, I get the feeling that she’s having fun experimenting. One moment she might be shading hyper-realistic eggs on a page. The next, it’s wordless two page spreads that simply show an older sister and younger brother entering a forest of towering trees. It’s not that Yoon negates the Italian-ness of the book. Rather, she provides a kind of bridge between its original sensibilities and the sensibilities of 21st century American kids (who were never the original intended audience). I, personally, found them to be little drops of sanity in a sea of silliness. No matter how wackadoodle Rodari might become, Yoon’s art grounds the reader and makes you feel safe. There’s something to be said for that.
Unabashedly, unapologetically Italian, lacking in any easily-slotted categories, and filled with funny, sometimes brilliant, translations and poems, The Book of Whys is an oddity. In a sea of samey samey children’s books, it sticks out like a sore thumb. That isn’t a criticism, just an observation. My hope is that it’s the kind of book that will appeal to the child that also, at least on occasion, sticks out like a store thumb. Strange and silly, this title won’t make Gianni Rodari a household name in America, but would you want it to? Seems to me that those who know, and those kids who get to encounter him, will be better for the exclusivity of the experience. A strangely moving, beautifully illustrated, odd as heck little book.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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