From left to right and top to bottom, cover versions in Japanese, German, Catalan, Russian, English, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish of The Grammar of Fantasy by Gianni Rodari

Gianni Rodari: The magic of the children’s fable

At a time when classic stories are reformulated because of gender issues, it is important to see how the master Gianni Rodari already transformed them. The Grammar of Fantasy: a guide for parents, educators, writers and many more.


he brilliant master of the Italian fables, Gianni Rodari, was born in 1920 in the Piedmont town of Omegna. His mother was a worker and his father, who died when Gianni was only 9 years old, a baker. He had a hard childhood and had to pay for his studies as a journalist based on working as a teacher. He even gave private classes to German immigrants who had fled from the Nazis. In spite of everything, Gianni never remembered his childhood with drama.

The Grammar of Fantasy is aimed at all those who “believe in the need for imagination to have its place in education, to those who have faith in children’s creativity, to those who know the liberating value of the word”

On the contrary: from its vitality and optimism, he turned children into his most direct interlocutors and into something more than consumers of culture: into designers of creativity. He travelled through the schools of different cities and of different social classes, where he explained his original stories and observed the reactions of the children as a preliminary step to modify his writings.

So he began to write down the tricks that he discovered, or that he thought he discovered, to start up images and words. The refreshing and spontaneous ideas of Rodari became the ideology of the groups of educational renovation. In fact, he acted as a pedagogue and, from a meeting in Reggio Emilia with fifty other teachers, more than forty years ago, The Grammar of Fantasy was born, addressed to those who “believe in the need for imagination to have its place within education, to those who have faith in children’s creativity, to those who know the liberating value of the word “.

Winner of the Andersen prize, the highest recognition for authors of children’s literature, The Grammar of Fantasy reveals the magic of the fable and its ability to revolutionize everything. As the reader probably had already imagined, it is not a book of stories. It is true that Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf and other characters of Rodari, such as the little glass man, Piano-Bill and the chair that ran to catch the tram, appear, but they do so accompanied by references to Novalis, Vladimir Propp, Italo Calvino, Piaget and Wittgenstein. Therefore, small children’s heroes appear in the pages of the book not as protagonists, but as objects of reflection.

How are stories invented? There are many operations, some as simple and, at the same time, as rich as the so-called fantastic binomial: “It requires a certain distance between two words, it is necessary that one is sufficiently strange to the other, and its approach discreetly unusual, to force the imagination to start to build a kinship between them, to build a set (fantastic) in which the two strange elements can coexist. Also, you can choose to dissociate the words and bring one closer to new objects. For example, you can take the figure of a sofa and describe it with the words that would be used by anyone who had never seen one.

Rodari invites us to visit the office of his imagination and, not at all jealous, reveals the raw material and the manufacturing procedures that are used. Moreover, he does it through his lexical clarity, his intelligence, his ability to make the reader laugh and be aware that he can create the most genial of fables.

Another technique, for children more experienced in the world of science, is the so called fantastic hypotheses: What would happen if…? “And here everything is logical and human, it is loaded with new meanings to different interpretations. For example, what would happen if a crocodile knocked on the door asking you for an outbreak of rosemary?”.

The leitmotiv: it is by Playing and dreaming that a child learns and knows the reality that surrounds him. The key is in observing everything with irony.

He went even further. From a lapse a story can be born: we write in a computer by mistake Lapeonia instead of Lapland. We have just raised a new spring and fragrant land that we can explore as tourists of fantasy. And, of course, traditional stories can be filled: Little Red Riding Hood, instead of encountering the wolf, meets Puss in Boots. Or, even more, the story can be modernized and evolve to a beautiful story in which the wolf, while knocking on the door of the house of the grandmother, is surprised from above by a helicopter of the highway police. And everything from having given the children five words, four of which made reference to the girl dressed in red and only the helicopter was the one that broke the series.

Behind all these techniques that Rodari presents us, we discover a guiding thread that justifies them: the importance of the development of creativity and fantasy in children’s education. The leitmotiv: it is by playing and dreaming that a child learns and knows the reality that surrounds him: Last but not least, they do not need dragons or princesses to let the imagination fly. Stories can grow in the grayest reality and the most daily obviousness. The key is in observing everything with irony.