Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Grammar of Fantasy by Gianni Rodari

The Grammar of Fantasy: An Introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories is my Fahrenheit 451 book. You know, when all the books are being burned, there are people out in the forest memorizing their favorites so the work will not perish. I'd be out there with this book. I've even written notes in it--I never write in books.

Why do I love it so much? Rodari was funny, smart and he truly understood kids. He packed this book with ideas, games, stories, random thoughts and serious buffoonery. If he were still alive, I'd be sitting at his feet. In his preface, Rodari writes:
I hope this small book can be useful for all those people who believe it is necessary for the imagination to have a place in education; for all those who trust in the creativity of children; and for all those who know the liberating value of the word. (p. 3-4)
Later he says: "In our schools there is too little laughter, if I may generalize. The idea that the education of a mind must be a dismal affair is among the most difficult things to overcome." (p. 14)

I love it that he has a chapter called Lenin's Grandfather. Here's how it begins:
This chapter is merely a continuation of the previous one. But I am too fond of the idea of a chapter title on Lenin's grandfather to give up the arbitrary caesura. (p. 20)
That cracks me up every time I read it. He goes on to explain that Lenin's grandfather kept benches under the windows in the living room, because the children liked to go in and out that way instead of through the door. He didn't forbid the behavior, he just made it a bit safer.

He writes about the fantastic binomial, taking two unrelated items to make a story. When he was a teacher, he'd have a kid write a word on one side of a two-sided blackboard and another kid write on the other side, at the same time. Then they would create a story from those two. He talks about story logic--for example, a character made of wood has to be careful around fire.

I've found great games in this book, such as "Little Red Riding Hood in a helicopter." Take a familiar story and add an unfamiliar element, then see what happens. Or "Fairy tale salad" where the characters from one story meet those of another (in adult books, Jasper Fforde's Nursery Crimes series do this wonderfully).

He was a puppeteer at a few times in his life. Here's something he says about puppets:
The true language of the puppets and marionettes is in their movement. They are not made for long monologues or dialogues. If Hamlet recites his monologue in a puppet play, there must be at the very least a devil who from time to time tries to steal the skull and to replace it with a tomato. On the other hand, a single puppet can maintain a dialogue for hours with its audience of children without tiring them, if it knows how to do this. (p. 72)
Trixie approves.

I first heard about Rodari in 1988, when I was in Bulgaria doing research on services for children in Bulgarian public libraries and reading rooms. My friend Vesselin asked me if I'd read this book. Nope, never heard of it. Before I left, he gave me a photocopy of the entire book, translated from Italian into Bulgarian.

I can read Bulgarian, but I'm lazy. I put that photocopy in the back of my file cabinet and forgot about it. Every now and then I'd search for the book at the university library, in case it had been translated into English. It was there in Russian, but because Rodari was Communist, it was not popular in the West. In 1996, Jack Zipes' translation was published. I bought it.

Did I read it? No. It sat on my shelf. In 1998 I was working on a library program that had at its base child-directed learning. I was learning about the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education (very cool!). When I asked a RE listserv for resources, the first response was, "Have you read the Rodari book?" I took it off the bookshelf, settled myself on the sofa and wolfed the book right down. I've now read it about eight times.


Erin said...

How did you get your picture so nice and large?

PriscillaHowe said...

I'm not sure--I think I began with a very large picture and clicked the "shrink to fit" button.

Tim said...

I'm looking forward to reading this one! Thanks for the heads up!

Rachel said...

Funny - I found this book today through a wrong turn, or misguided one. I'd read there was a library open to the public at Teachers & Writers Collaborative. There no longer is, but they let me browse the books they had remaining. I bought this one. I was so taken with it. Thanks for your review of it.

Birgit Funch said...

Rodari's book 'Lamberto, Lamberto,Lamberto' has been translated and is currently being offered by Barnes & Noble - and the book Grammar of Fantasy was mentioned - it's now on my wish list especially after reading your blog - thank you!

Priscilla Howe said...

Ooh, thanks for letting me know about that one.

Daniele Muscetta said...

I started translating some of his beautiful short stories here rodarienglish.wordpress.com

Priscilla Howe said...

Glad to hear it, Daniele! Thanks for posting the link here. I'll let other storytellers know.

My blog has moved from Blogger and is now at http://priscillahowe.com/content/storytelling-notes