Board books, with their sturdy pages, impervious to being torn, flung from a high chair, drizzled with apple puree or even a little mild chewing, are of course ideal for babies and toddlers. And whether you plan to bring your child up to be completely bilingual, or would simply like him or her to enjoy a smattering of Italian, the beginning is the best place to start.
Board books are, above all, fun. Looking at them is, at the beginning, a game, a source of wonder, surprise and shared discovery, as your child sits on your knee, helps you turn the pages, points, laughs, repeats your words and demands "Again, again!" And after a while, a favourite book becomes a friend, so that he or she will pick it up without you, solemnly turn each page, lift each flap and "read" as they remember you doing.
Italian books are particularly enjoyable for very small children, with their high production values, colourful illustrations and expressive musical language. The Italian people are famous for their love of bambini, perhaps even more so now that they have so few of their own, and an enormous amount of care and imagination is put into the creation of books for the tiniest boys and girls. Whether you yourself are a native speaker of Italian or a complete novice, the simple text of these board books will be easy to read and enjoy together.
The Benny series by Nicoletta Costa, published in association with the Benetton clothes company, are particular favourites. Featuring a little troupe of animal friends, they include stories of everyday life, Benny va al mare and Benny va a scuola. These two little books have both lift-the-flap features and press out figures of the four main characters, which fit into slots on each double page spread, allowing your child to play out the story as it is read. A larger format companion title, Benny e le stagioni, explores the four seasons, while Benny e gli amici del mare and Benny e la montgolfiera are wipe clean soft books, idea for bath or mealtimes.
Among the most exciting and imaginative board books are those by Elisa Fasoli and Guisi Quarengi with Giulia Orecchi. In a large format (22cm square) these gorgeously illustrated lift- the-flap stories lead us into a world of vibrant mystery where the everyday and the fantastical are held in a gentle balance, and nothing is quite what it seems.
The writer and illustrator Tony Wolf is a favourite throughout Italy and his board books include the simple stories Quac and Tommy (the latter about a puppy - dogs in Italy very often have English names), stories that are also jigsaw puzzles, and a series of fantastical tales including Draghi, Gnomi and Folletti (Elves).
Closer to everyday life is the story Anch'io nel lettone, where a little teddy bear enjoys his first big bed. In I giorni della settimana, the days of the week are each celebrated by a different bright and colourful underwater fish, and, in the same series, Che tempo fa? is full simple rhymes for different types of weather - rain, snow, sunshine etc while I colori dell'arcobaleno does the same for colours of the rainbow, Maio fa il gatto for familiar animals and I sette note for musical notes . Baby Colori also introduces colours, with lots of pictures, common Italian nouns and questions to talk about with your child while Forme e dimensioni uses bright colours to teach two and three dimensional shapes.
In the same series as I giorni della settimana is I sette dinosauri, a rhyming story about seven friendly dinosaurs. Or, for the child who prefers their animals to be a little more accessible, a new series of little books, Orsetto and Porcellino tell the stories of a little bear and piglet and their families. For those who prefer machines and wheels, the board book stories Il trattore del fattore and La ruspa gialla star a tractor and bulldozer respectively, though most of their adventures take place on a farm, so animals can't be escaped altogether...
As well as original Italian titles, the best worldwide board books have also been translated into Italian, including Nella neve con il Papa (Snuggle in the Snow by Ana Martin Larranaga) the story of a father and baby polar bear, with a special double page format. The Magic Windows books with their textured pages and pull-tag features are available in Italian - and they include Nascosti nella giungla (Life in the Jungle) and Bzz...tra le foglie (A Bug's World).
Louise Morley's magic moving pictures books Big Wheels and Our Pets have been translated into Italian as I giganti della strada and Un cucciolo per amico and their illustrations, which change as the book is tilted, are a great success in both languages. For slightly older children, Pablo il pirata ( Pablo the Pirate in English) by Moira Butterfield and Karen Sapp includes a press-out figure of the central character.
A favourite character among English children, both in books and on television, has been Maisy Mouse. In Italian her name is Pina, and she features in the lift-the-flap story Dov'e Pina? as well as in a range of activity books. Another international star is Pingu the penguin and his little sister Pinga. A range of Italian language board books tell stories of the little penguins, generally with more, and more complex text than the other board books featured here.
The tales of Beatrix Potter have of course been international favourites for generations and several board book use her inimitable characters and illustrations in simple stories, some with an integral rattle to the cover. Similarly, the French classic Le petit prince (The Little Prince) has inspired its own simplified board book, Il piccolo principe sul suo pianeta.
The Giravolte series of spiral bound board books are suitable for slightly older pre-school children, having around fifteen words per page and featuring quirky original plots - a cycling magician, job-hunting penguin etc. as well as W e i calzini verdi, a funny and reassuring story about the first day at school.
Finally, for a special occasion, the board books Ho 1 anni and Ho 2 anni are the perfect way to celebrate and remember a child's first and second birthday. (For the third to sixth birthdays similar books are available with padded covers and paper pages). They include a special birthday story and pages for photographs, present records and party memories.
If you have any questions about any Italian language books, or are looking for particular titles, authors or subjects, please don't hesitate to contact me.
About the author of this Guide