Italy-bound books for all the family – Books and Places part 4

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Italy beckons and you have hotels and flights booked for the whole family to visit one of the most romantic nations on earth. Now to the packing – you’ve decided whether on the e-reader or in print, you want to encourage all the kids and your partner to enjoy a few inspirational books while eating gelati on the Spanish steps or dozing under the parasols on the beach at Rimini. Let me offer you a few literary temptations to tantalize the whole family about this seductive country. By the way, Italians love family!

Picture Books

This is Rome by Miroslav Sasek

We return to this classic Czech author – Take a trip through Rome, old and new – ruins of the Roman forum, Emperor Constantine’s foot, Piazza Navona and the “wedding cake” monument, throwing a coin in the Trevi fountain, St. Peter’s, secret passageways of Castel Sant’Angelo, and more. Playful illustrations capture the ancient history and fun in Rome today, this is a classic travel picture book, which does not date.

Gladiators – by Gail Cooke for 6-10 year olds, who want some action after visiting the Coliseum. This offers a pop-up scale model of the Coliseum and story of the gladiator games, from the gladiators who put on the show, to the spectators who watch, plus a map of ancient Rome, gladiator trading cards, and popular Roman board game called tabula. This could keep your kids happy for hours.

Strega Nona by Tomie de Paola

I felt I couldn’t mention Italy without citing at least one of this extraordinary Italian American author/illustrator’s works. Strega Nona is one of my favorites – a folk story of a witch-grandmother who has a magic pasta pot. Getting on in years, Strega Nona decides to hire Big Anthony to help her and he is clearly warned to stay away from the pot. Well the inevitable happens and chaos and pasta ensues after the wrong spell….

Chapter books/Middle Grade

da Wild Da Crazy Da Vinci by Jon Sciezska

Part of a Time Warp series for Middle Graders…  – The mirth-filled misfortunes of Fred, Joe and Sam, as they are hurled back to Renaissance Italy to look for da Vinci. When they fall into the clutches of Lord Borgia and Nicolo Machiavelli, Leonardo and the trio da Brooklyn come up with an invention to save the day. The lads will love this one.

The Diary of Melanie Martin by Carol Weston

Hilarious adventures of 10-year-old Melanie in Italy, “Or How I Survived Matt the Brat, Michelangelo and the Leaning Tower of Pizza.” In diary format, this is a typical tween’s experience of being on vacation in a foreign country with the family –  Melanie does the usual tourist travels, but the journal also narrates an internal voyage Melanie takes, a mix of typical annoyances and wonderful discoveries.

The Pirates of Pompei by Caroline Lawrence

I mentioned this wonderful historical middle grade author here last week. Any in the series will be lapped up by boys and girls of 8+, but I picked this one as it is highly likely if you get the chance on this once in a lifetime vacation, that you will visit the epic remains at Pompei. The kids will love learning more about this natural disaster through the eyes of Flavia, Jonathan, Lupus and Nubia.


Twilight in Italy by D H Lawrence. I read this first as a teen and believe it to be great YA material if you have a strong reader in the family. So many books on Italy are set in either Venice or Florence or the south (il mezziogiorno), but this short masterpiece by Lawrence is set up in the north along the borders with Germany – culturally epically distant from the south (in the Dolomites I always spoke more German than Italian!). The prose is so beautiful; let me simply quote you something. « The Italian people are called ‘Children of the Sun’. They might better be called ‘Children of the Shadow’. Their souls are dark and nocturnal. If they are to be easy, they must be able to hide, to be hidden in lairs and caves of darkness. Going through these tiny chaotic backways of the village was like venturing through the labyrinth made by furtive creatures, who watched from out of another element. And I was pale, and clear, and evanescent, like the light, and they were dark, and close, and constant, like the shadow. »

The Vanishing Point by Louise Hawes

This superb historical novel recreates the adolescence of the most famous female artist of the Renaissance period. Set in 16th century Bologna with an overbearingly misogynistic father, we discover how Lavinia Fontana has to dupe the men of her day to be able to learn and grow in her gift. The reader will fall under Hawes Renaissance spell – a book that’s hard to put down and will be read long into your sultry Italian nights, even after a four course pasta meal and bottle of Chianti ! It will be a fight between teens and parents for this one.


I am not scared « Io non ho paura » by Nicolo Amaniti.

Midsummer in the heart of rural Tuscany in the 70’s – a timid, fearful boy narrates from his adult perspective, the fear of that summer – not only the fear of getting caught having discovered a young boy imprisoned by his father after a kidnapping, but the family fear, the fear of being trapped in a backward dead end…. This is a very powerful, evocative suspenseful book that will give the reader some real insight into the time and place it describes and a little into the modern Italian psyche. I believe this was Amaniti’s debut novel – a real winner. For the keen among you, this was made into a movie and could be rented to pratice your Italian while on holiday.

Italian Neigbours by Tim Parks

If you are a north American or Brit considering a vacation or move to Italy, this is a must read. Yes, it is a very Anglo Saxon perspective, but that’s just who Tim Parks is, a British novelist who has lived 20 odd years with his Italian wife in the Verona province. Italians with all their foibles, contradictions and idiosyncrasies, just as we all have – the mama mentality and why 40 year old men still bring their washing home to mama – how despite being deeply traditionally catholic, the real mores are as modern as they come – how floor-mopping is often taken to obsessive heights… and much more… You’ll be laughing out loud and reading passages regularly to your partner.

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

I admit being a Dan Brown fan – I think he tells a ripping yarn, myself.  I suspect my preference for Angels and Demons over the Da Vinci Code, is the Roman setting. Read this after you have visited a bunch of churches in Rome, as well as the Vatican, and your imagination will run wild with the heated, sordid, intriguing pursuit around the city. There is an awesome twist at the end, which totally caught me out. Harvard symbologist, Langdon, is back in action trying to discover the links between the legendary secret society the Illuminati, dating back to Galileo, and a brilliant, but murdered, physicist and his discovery of antimatter. Be prepared though, the Catholic church and papery do not come out pristine white in this novel.

Despite living in France and being a faithful Francophile, I have to confess that I have a bit of a love affair going on with my nearest neighbor. I have read so many excellent books on Italy, I found it very hard to limit my choice. Have you any books you want to add to this list?

This includes Books 68-70 in the Read to me picture Book Reading Challenge

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12 Responses to Italy-bound books for all the family – Books and Places part 4

  1. I know Tor Seidler said that one must make time to read, and I wholeheartedly agree, but he obviously has no idea of the riches that are poured in front of us every time you do one of these posts! How is one supposed to read all this? Nearly every one of these books holds appeal for me, particularly the gladiators one (it has a pop-up? I love pop-ups!), the two YA novels, and Italian Neighbours.

    To your list, I would add Little Bo in Italy, which introduced me to a number of places I knew little about (as well as to the Coliseum cats, whom I hadn’t encountered before, somehow); and Andrew Greeley’s White Smoke: a novel of Papal Election, which gives some nice snippets of Rome and the Vatican.

    • Joanna says:

      Yes, I think the list is a little overwhelming for one, Beth 😉

      Little Bo in Italy should be added! It is a gem. Thank you for suggesting Geeley’s White Smoke. I had a quick look on Amazon and am sure I would enjoy this. I was actually in Tuscany in 1978 when Pope Jean Paul ii was elected – as exciting as being there for the world cup win in 82!!!

  2. Wow, Joanna. Such a comprehensive list indeed. I love that the range is from picture books to adult novels.

    I am particularly intrigued by the YA novels that you have recommended, I’d definitely check The Vanishing Point out.

    Re picture books, I lovelovelove Tomie de Paola. I knew about her when we were doing our wordless picture book theme and I was enchanted by the artwork and the simple narratives that moved me.

    I also enjoy reading Dan Brown – I’ve read his Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol – i’ve heard a lot of good reviews about Angels and Demons but haven’t had a chance to read that yet.

    I hope I can visit the Bologna Book Fair soon. Next year’s my target, we shall see how that goes.

    Oh yeah, are you going to post your own summer reading list?

    • Joanna says:

      Myra, I too am a huge fan of Tomie de Paola and plan on doing a post or two just dedicated to his work. We have a wonderful DVD in the school library, where he takes you out into his studio, a huge, old renovated barn at the bottom of the garden, and discusses his life and passions.

      I too would LOVE to get to Bologna but it falls during a working week for me. But if you come maybe we can meet up in Nice or somewhere the weekend before? 😉

      I shall be posting my summer reading list, part of which will be accomplished sitting in a few public libraries in the US!

  3. Patricia Tilton says:

    What a variety of books! Agree with Beth, to read so many books. My daughter and I loved Tomie de Paolo’s books, including Strega Nona. He was in Dayton many times, so we have a number of autographed books. I love his style. Also a fan of Dan Brown and have read all of his books. I wondered if you’d mention Angels and Demons. (Have you seen the movies?)

    I enjoyed your selection of middle grade books — could see myself in one of them. The Pirates of Pompei caught my eye. And, Twilight in Italy caught my attention as did Vanish Point, because I would enjoy reading an historical novel about a famous female artist.

    So many to pick from. Excellent and well-witten review on each book!

    • Joanna says:

      Pat, I have seen the movies and was enamoured by neither. I have read all Brown’s books, though, with pleasure. Have you read the latest, The Lost Symbol?

      Tomie de Paola has written and/or illustrated over 200 books for children, I think I have probably only read around 3O. What a thrill to meet him and have signed copies. Do you know that I have never been to a book signing?

      I guess I was a bit sneaky putting in a classic literary author like Lawrence into YA, but I loved such classics as a teen, and it is a really short novel, nothing like the length of say Sons and Lovers.

      Glad you enjoyed the reviews, Pat.

  4. Diane says:

    Wow Joanna, so many to choose from, and what wonderful reviews.
    Funny you should mention Tomie de Paola as I am reading a book of his and intend to do a post on him. Stay tuned.

  5. Janice says:

    Lovely list, Joanna. I would add Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. A couple of newly translated editions have been published in the last few years, including one by Robert Brock. After laughing (and gasping) our way through the novel with our then 9-year-old, we were able to visit the charming town of Collodi, where there is a green, leafy park devoted to the imp. One of my favorite memories of that day was watching the puppet show. Although my family speaks minimal Italian, we were able to understand and enjoy the show.

    • Joanna says:

      Janice, thanks for dropping in, Pinocchio is a great idea and very Italian. It is great to then be able to visit somewhere related to the book. Tuscany is that right?

  6. Thanks for sharing the link to this page on my blog. Of course I’ve read Strega Nona, but the others are new for me. We’ll check them out!

    (Btw… I met Tomie de Paola at the NE-SCBWI conference last year. He was great fun- and so approachable!)

    We seem to have many things in common, Joanna. Thanks for visiting my blog which lead me here! I just subscribed.

    • Joanna says:

      Indeed, I do think we have much common ground, Michelle.

      I would love to meet Tomie de Paola…. I have seen him interviewed at his home and in his amazing barn/studio…

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