Reviews 2012

Making the Italians: Poetics and Politics of Italian Children’s Fantasy

Making the Italians: Poetics and Politics of Italian Children’s Fantasy. Lindsay Myers. Bern: Peter Lang, 2011. 251 pages. $58.95 (paperback).

Over the last three decades, children’s literature has witnessed such a boom in the publication of fantasy books that this genre has also become the subject of considerable international attention. The majority of academic research has, however, tended to focus almost exclusively on Anglophone works preventing scholars and critics from getting a wider view of the genre on an international level. This tendency and the marginalised position of ‘minor’ children’s fantasy traditions in the international canon have, unfortunately, led to the wrong conclusion that the children’s fantasy has not been widespread outside the English-speaking world (223). Nevertheless, as Lindsay Myers clearly demonstrates in her work, Making the Italians: Poetics and Politics of Italian Children’s Fantasy, other countries such as Italy have produced a large number of fantasy books (3) in addition to worldwide known works like the Italian Collodi’s Le avventure di Pinocchio [Pinocchio], the French Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Le petit prince [The Little Prince] and the German Michael Ende’s Die unendliche Geshichte [The Neverending Story].

Italy and its production of fantasy books is indeed the case studied by Making the Italians, Poetics and Politics of Italian Children’s Fantasy. Before providing a detailed historical overview of Italian fantasy books, from their first appearances back to the 1870s to more recent works (including works published in 2010), Myers offers a careful consideration of the term "fantasy" and its connotations within the Italian language. The author rightly claims that, in Italian, the noun ‘fantasy’ (fantasia) has only the contextual meaning of ‘imagination’ and so has slightly different connotations from those in the Anglophone world. Such a conceptual difference behind the word ‘fantasy’ in English and in Italian is likely to have created the myth, which is debunked by Myers’s contribution, that the fantasy genre does not at all exist in the Italian children’s literature.

Myers’s research has the merit to have organised an extensive – and apparently non-homogeneous – corpus of fantasy books that Italian children’s authors have produced since the 1870s. Drawing from its analysis, the author has identified nine ‘subgenres’ of the Italian fantasy – each with its own distinct structural features – mainly according to nine historically embedded socio-political periods: “The Memory Fantasy” (1870-1896), “The Monello Fantasy” (1897-1908) – which is likely to have been born from Pinocchio, “The Microcosmic Fantasy” (1908-1915), “The Quest Fantasy” (1915-1918), “The Surreal Fantasy” (1919-1929), “The Superhero Fantasy” (1930-1939), “The Community Fantasy” (1945-1950), “The Pinocchioesque Fantasy” (1950-1980) – which clearly refers once again to Collodi’s masterpiece, and finally “The Compensatory Fantasy” (1980-2010). Even though the above subdivision seems to be rather categorical, Myers clarifies that these categories are not to be considered as strictly limited to one single period since some of them are, for instance, extensions of, and reactions to, the preceding sub-genre (224).

The aforementioned subgenres are presented in distinct chapters featuring the same structure. First, Myers provides the reader with historical notes and then, she illustrates the structural features and the structural, social and political context with particular attention to the external influences which might have had a role in the development of that particular subgenre. Finally, the structure and the purposes are described throughout the presentation of the three titles Myers considers to be the most representative of each subgenre.

The structural choice of Myers’s study, which aims at linking Italian children’s fantasy books to the environment in which they were written, demonstrates once again that, to achieve a better understanding and a more accurate perspective of children’s literature, a deep knowledge of the cultural, social and political context of the case study country is necessary. Such an approach has led the author to claim that Italian fantasy books have always tended to focus on local issues, and are often significantly entangled with Italian socio-political elements. This inward-looking trend might be another reason why Italian fantasy literature has been suffering from a marginalised position in the international canon.

A special mention has to be paid to the interesting choice of the title: Making the Italians. To readers familiar with the history of Italy, this first part of the title might remind of Massimo D’Azeglio famous quotation, who after the unification of Italy in 1861 said: We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians. Remembering that children’s literature has been considered a means to educate children and an effective vehicle for the dissemination of ideas, as maintained by scholars involved in studying children’s literature like Hunt (1994), it becomes clear the ticklish role played by children’s books in the complex and long identity-making process occurred in Post-Unification Italy.

As was inevitable, not all the books Myers discusses fit neatly within a single category. As Myers admits, there are many Italian fantasy books which display features of two or more fantasy subgenres. All things considered, the value of Myers’s study is not undermined and it has brilliantly achieved its main goal to demonstrate that Italian children’s literature encompasses a long tradition of fantasy works, and is not exclusively limited to the widely known Pinocchio by Collodi. Sharing Myers’s hope, Making the Italians: Poetics and Politics of Italian Children’s Fantasy might help to bridge the boundaries between two different critical traditions, namely the Anglophone and the Italian criticism, that have been significantly distant from each other probably due also to linguistic and cultural barriers.

Melissa Garavini
University of Turku, Finland

Work Cited

Hunt, Peter. An Introduction to Children’s Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.