“Once upon a time, there was a girl who was called Little Yellow Riding Hood.”
“Oh, right!” Little Red Riding Hood. Her mother called her one day and said, “Listen, Little Green Riding Hood…”
“Oh, right! Red. Her mother said: Now go to Aunt Hildegard’s house and take her this potato peel.”
Telling Stories Wrong combines the subversive delight of turning familiar children’s stories on their head with the joy of a well-carried-out running gag. In this charming semi-fractured fairy tale picture book for ages 4-8, the grandfather never gets the details right, with the story growing sillier and sillier as it continues. His ever-suffering granddaughter corrects him with increasing impatience each time he deviates from traditional fairy tale orthodoxy, which, of course, is the point. For deviate he definitely does.
When Little Red Riding Hood meets a giraffe rather than a wolf (and later on, a horse), the reader chuckles. So, too, when the grandfather has the wolf ask Little Red Riding Hood to multiply six times eight. When the grandfather randomly changes the color yet again, chuckles change into giggles and guffaws in sympathy for both characters—and perhaps the fond remembrance of twisting a story or two ourselves:
“Oh, right! And Little Black Riding Hood answered…”
“It was Little Red Riding Hood! Red! Red! Red!”
Beloved Italian journalist, teacher, and author Gianni Rodari (1920-1980) won the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1970 for his children’s stories, including Il romanze de Cipollino (Tale of Cipollino—Little Onion) and Telephone Tales (Favole al telefono). With its combination of the absurd along with its imaginative creativity, Telling Stories Wrong (a single story extracted from Telephone Tales) is an excellent entry point for his writing. Lovingly executed illustrations by award-winning artist Beatrice Alemagna—who considers Rodari a “spiritual father”—enhance the warmth of the story with great humor and a marvelous sense of play.
Is the grandfather hopelessly absentminded? Potentially. Having fun playing with his grandchild and switching things around because he gets bored easily? Perhaps. Most likely, though, he is probably repeating a much-loved storytelling ritual that the two share in which each fresh reiteration grows increasingly wild and off base. While the reader never finds out the whole truth for certain, the ending and illustrations throughout strongly indicate the latter:
“And the wolf said: Take the number 75 bus, get off in front of the cathedral, turn right, and there you’ll find three steps and a quarter on the ground. Forget about the three steps, pick up the quarter, and go buy yourself some bubble gum.”
“Grandpa, you really don’t know how to tell a story. You get everything wrong. But all the same, can I have a quarter to buy some bubble gum?”
“Sure you can. Here you go.”
And Grandpa went back to reading his newspaper.
Giving his granddaughter a hug, the grandfather picks up his paper again, satisfied at another story wrongly—but well—told.
Telling Stories Wrong
Written by Gianni Rodari
Illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna
Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar
2022, Enchanted Lion (Text taken from Telephone Tales, Enchanted Lion, 2020)
Awards (for Telephone Tales): 2021 Mildred A. Batchelder Award; 2020 Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s English Translation Prize
You can buy a copy here** or find it at a library.
*This review originally appeared in The Italian Riveter, a publication of the European Literature Network and is reused with permission. Review copy kindly furnished by the publisher.
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Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 80 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, German and Spanish into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her translations, Luisa: Now and Then and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Recent translations include Makhno: Ukrainian Freedom Fighter; Rosa Parks; Magical History Tour: Vikings; Magical History Tour: The Plague, Bibi & Miyu#2, LGBTQ YA manga Alter Ego, and the critically acclaimed A House Without Windows.