GOOD READS – CHILDREN’S BOOKS
So, you thought the gift giving was over and done after Dec. 25, did you? Well, in Italy children get gifts again on Jan. 6, the Epiphany, from La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch. Some Italian Americans (myself included) keep up the tradition despite being first-generation immigrants to the United States and other countries. The good news is that La Befana is poor, especially compared to Santa, known as Babbo Natale to Italian children. Usually, her gifts are few, small, and inexpensive.
Back in the day and back in Ischia, Italy, my father would put out his sister’s stockings (actual stockings) and La Befana would fill them with tangerines, walnuts, a piece of chocolate, and pencils. Since we’ve been in the United States, Befana has gotten a little bit more generous. One gift that is always a winner, for any holiday, is a good book. Over the years, I’ve been collecting some Italian and Italy-inspired children’s books for my now 5-year-old son. Here is a roundup of a few that would make winning gifts for the Epiphany or any day:
Clearly, Old Befana by Tomie dePaola is an appropriate option because it teaches children the legend behind the celebration of the Epiphany and the tradition of La Befana in Italy. Tomie dePaola is an award-winning children’s author, who has often infused his work with his Italian heritage. Other titles of his, in fact, make this list. This book, in particular, is educational and can help parents instill the idea of Italian traditions, and the illustrations are beautiful and typical of dePaola’s books. Seriously, my son and his cousins can’t get enough of Old Befana or the Strega Nona series, also by dePaola. (Ages 6 to 9)
All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel by Dan Yaccarino is the story of every American. It is a reminder that all of us come from somewhere else. And it shows children how hard immigrants had to work to pave the way for their children and grandchildren. In this book, you’ll learn how one man – and his shovel, which he passed down through the generations of his family – lived the American dream. The writer/illustrator credits his immigrant family and shows its evolution to explain how he came to have such a successful and prosperous life. The colorful images and easy-to-understand language capture the attention of little ones. (Ages 5 to 9)
Drawn to C is for Ciao: An Italy Alphabet by the late Governor Mario M. Cuomo’s participation in writing it, I am so glad I picked it up for my son. Truth is that I’m enjoying it more than he is. Cuomo wrote the book with Elissa D. Grodin and the illustrations are courtesy of Marco Ventura. Each letter of the alphabet gets a word related to Italy, Italians, and their contributions to the world. There’s a singsongy poem for each letter that is short and sweet, which is what I read to my 5-year-old son. But there’s also a longer explanation of the word and its history to the side of the side of each page. There’s so much history, so much to learn. It’s really breathtaking to consider what our people have accomplished. The introductory message from Cuomo really moves me. “I see America as a magnificent new nation of people who have come here bringing with them reflections of their own distinct cultures, joining with the people and traditions already here,” writes Cuomo. “Our beauty is in the harmonizing-not the homogenizing-of our people.” (Ages 6 to 9)
Tomie dePaola makes the list twice because he’s awesome. My own mother read the Strega Nona books to my brother, sister, and me. Now, I read them to my son and niece and nephew. Strega Nona, which means grandma witch in Italian, is part magician, part housekeeper and cook, and part lovable grandma. She teaches lessons about life and family, and Italian America wouldn’t be as well off without her. While I invested in the treasury, you could just get a copy of the original Strega Nona, which is more affordable and just as lovely a gift. In the original story, Strega Nona leaves her helper Big Anthony in charge while she’s away, and he ends up flooding the village with pasta. The kids will laugh out loud. Mine does every. single. time. (Ages 5 to 8)
Color & Learn: Easy Italian Phrases for Kids by Roz Fulcher is interactive because it is a coloring book, too. As kids douse the pages in Crayola red and green, they can also learn simple words and phrases in the mother tongue, Italian. The novelty of having an activity, such as coloring, encourages learning. And the images are as cute as the one on the cover. Some of the others include kids cooking and eating meals, celebrating holidays, and experiencing weather phenomena. While no one will become fluent with this little book, it is a great foundation for beginning to teach the Italian language. (Ages 4 to 8)
Di Meglio has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10. For more handmade crafts and party gear, visit the Italian Mamma store on Etsy.