by Lina Vergara Huilcamán

This story starts with a bus heading to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and a bookseller from Imola, Arianna (Ariadne!), who greeted me and clearly told me that she wished for Denti di ferro (The Tooth Gnashing Witch) to be reprinted as soon as possible, and encouraged me to watch the videos of Alfonso Cuccurullo’s readings available on the Web, one of which was about Un piccolo cappuccetto rosso (Little Red Hood). I’m just terrible when it comes to names and, even when it is important to remember them, I am likely to transform them according to the time and the surroundings, but Arianna had told me about a video on a tiny little red riding hood… so, after no less than a fortnight, I checked out who this Alfonso was and how he read. I was so thrilled by his way of performing stories that I immediately got in touch to interview him and share this encounter with ILLUSTRATI’s readers, but I asked him to meet in the bookshop Il Mosaico, in Imola, because I also wanted to get to know Arianna better.
At the beginning I didn’t know that Arianna was handing out to me the end of a thread that seems to be endless, and that goes from hand to hand and from heart to heart among those who love books, storytelling, and above all children! So, what was supposed to be a double interview has turned into a quadruple one (for the moment).


First encounter. ALFONSO. Who picked me up at Imola railway station in the company of his little dog Frida and brought me first to have a decaffeinated coffee and a fresh-squeezed orange juice and then to the bookshop Il Mosaico.
I didn’t do well at school, I failed, then I quit studying… it was military service that changed me. As I had quit studying, I had no excuse for not leaving, and during that year I started reading.
Before then, I had read nothing but comics, particularly Asterix, thanks to an amazing librarian in the small village where I lived. I used to go to the library almost every day and she never said to me read a book but she always set aside my Asterix for me and was very accommodating. Over time I realized that reading a comic book can be an important educational experience, because you need to imagine things, like when you read any other book, you need to imagine that space which is neither described nor drawn and is essential to the development of one’s way of thinking. Back to the barracks, that’s where I started to read IT by Stephen King, one thousand and two hundred pages in six months during which I carried the book with me everywhere. Nothing has been the same since. Back home, I realized that something had happened, that I had lost one year of my life with my friends, I didn’t know them anymore and felt bewildered. We used to meet at a coffee bar where we played five-a-side football or billiards, or we watched Formula 1 on tv… and then one evening, one Friday evening, while I was watching my friends watch the race, I felt a terrible anguish inside. I was not going to spend my whole life at the coffee bar! Luckily one of them, another screwed up kind of artist, a crazy guy, told me: “Listen, I am taking drama classes, it’s free, wanna come?”. Rather than wasting my time at the coffee bar I decided to go with him. I attended a course for six, seven months, just as an auditor, wondering how the others could be so self-confident on stage. I was very shy. But on the last night the teacher asked me to try and perform something silent, to improvise a sketch involving a newspaper with another student, with whom I still perform every now and then, and when we were done everybody was laughing. “Pardon…” the teacher asked me “how many years have you been doing theatre?”. The point is that in that sketch we couldn’t talk but only produce sounds, and when I was a little boy I used to play with toy soldiers and puppets, positioning them all around the room and giving them each a different voice and a different character. It turned out my childhood toys had been my drama school, and that’s where all the sounds I use in my stories come from. That night, the night of my first public performance, the teacher asked me if I wanted to do something for six months with an important director. His name was Davide Montemurri. He had rented an empty building in the centre of Imola and was rehearsing a different scene in every flat. I was working at the time and I rehearsed at night. There were only professional actors and actresses, I was just an extra but each time I got in there that man, who used to call us all “little fiends”, told us wonderful stories about theatre. After the six months came to an end, we performed a show in Bologna at the Circolo Pavese. I remember that I was very pale, I sweated, I had palpitations… “Little fiend, don’t worry… ” he told me “you’re a badass.” I don’t remember anything about the show, except for a very strong emotion. After everything was done, and when nobody was around anymore, I was sitting in the stalls looking at the empty stage and wondering: “So what should I do now, as I enjoyed it so much?”. The following year, Montemurri came back to hold a course, at the end of which he told me: “Alfonso, you are talented, you should attend a school”. And I went home with this idea.
An endless fight with my parents began, I had a permanent job, I made paper rolls for cash registers, but I was resolute and asked for a part-time. I worked in the morning and in the afternoon I went to school until late evening from Monday to Friday, for two years and a half. It is hard when your parents do not believe in what you do, but maybe this encouraged me to work harder. In this school there was a teacher, the director of St. Petersburg’s Theatre school, who taught me to feel. He couldn’t speak a word of Italian, and a tiny interpreter translated everything for him, but he only needed to listen to the sound of our voices to tell if there was something wrong. It was a hard school, with elimination exams every two months, there were thirty of us at the beginning and just six at the end. After finishing the school, I got a job at a discount store. A lady asked the cashier whether she knew someone who did theatre and the cashier, who was my sister-in-law, dropped my name… so I took a leave of absence to see whether I could make a living as an actor. It was 1999, so I’ve been getting paid for this job for twenty years now.
And what about the readings?
After touring for a year with a theatre company for adults I realized that I didn’t like it and an aunt of mine from Como, an art education teacher, asked me to try and hold a theatre workshop with her young pupils… I had so much fun I thought that maybe I had found my path in life. I started to send projects to libraries and to read the amazing stories I found in those libraries, and this is how I started collaborating with Nati per Leggere (Born to Read) throughout Italy. Nati per Leggere is a project for the promotion of reading among children aged 0-6 years promoted by a group of librarians and paediatricians and I collaborate with them both doing readings and holding training courses for parents and teachers, and also for voluntary workers and trainers. They needed somebody who specifically worked reading aloud. I have become a national trainer, one of the two persons who do this job today. The other one is Flavia Manente and over time we have collaborated to educate trainers in each region of Italy. I started working as a trainer on request of teachers for whose classes I used to do readings. After listening to my performances, they often asked me if I could teach them too. I love training teachers, and choosing the books is the most important part of the work we do. They can learn to perform readings, but choosing the books is hard because they are likely to analyse them instead of spontaneously offering them, in order to prevent problems with parents, so it also becomes important to justify each choice. Children are never the problem, they naturally welcome stories but adults’ prejudices greatly influence the impact of readings. It is essential that teachers are serene and I find it exciting to help them see a story from a different perspective. I am interested in every narrative form which may help us understand ourselves and each other better—be it a book or a show, the important thing is to interact with each other through storytelling. The work we are doing together with teachers and parents may encourage families to reconsider things in a different way.
One of the projects I love the most was developed in Umbria, where I held workshops for children aged 0-6 years, for both high and technical school students, and for teachers. With students from high and technical schools we did an experimental project called “Forte chi legge” (Reading is cool), financed by the regional council, although not by the culture department as one might expect, but by the health department starting with the idea that reading is good for health and thanks to an open-minded person, Dr. Giaimo. For a couple of years, I first worked with high school students with the purpose of teaching them to read to young children, but then last year we decided to involve technical school students and it was hard but amazing. This is the picture of the class the first time we met: six/seven young people who were hardly looking at me, their caps low on their forehead and their feet on the desk. I introduced myself for what I was, I simply told them how it felt to be with them at that moment, as a human being, and they were impressed. I told them I was wondering whether it had been fair to accept that job because I wanted to earn my salary and not to steal it, but I was aware of the fact that no good can come from constraint. I, for one, didn’t want to be forced to do anything when I was a young boy. I had a little book with me, Lettere di un cattivo studente (Letters from a bad student), a series of fictional letters sent by a student with dyslexia to his parents, his much-hated teachers, the minister of education… and the students identified themselves with the protagonist of the book and re-evaluated themselves, they think going to school is just a waste of time. “My goodness, what are you reading to them… they don’t understand anything!” some of their teachers told me. But they opened up, and we talked about sex, love, and then we discussed about children’s books and what we could do together. We started with funny books and then moved on to scary books… who has never been scared, who has never been the protagonist of a disturbing story? Did you never meet the lunatic woman in the village? My method was: I read you the books that you are going to read to children afterwards, books with little text and therefore easier, because I needed to reassure them. I also read other stuff appropriate for their age. But the hardest and most exciting part is always the emotional approach. The emotional analysis, namely what happens inside the characters’ minds and hearts… this is the true secret of reading a book: to be in the characters’ shoes and feel what they feel in order to find the musical key of the voice to be used. Even the sensory aspect is very important: when a story begins, you can’t help feeling the environmental fascination of the exact place which is being described. We have been accustomed to read mechanically, without feeling the density of the text, we put letters together without being involved. Maybe an illustrated book is more intense than a novel; comparing books for adults to books for children, I came up with the idea that the first ones are like wine, with a lot of ingredients that are a bit diluted, whereas books for children are distillates in which every drop of text is essential, like grappa. It is really hard to write books for children, because they require a great talent for conciseness, but also the capacity to evoke the correct dynamics. In Umbria, on the one side we have done good to the children, who need to listen to beautiful stories, and on the other side we have given older boys and girls the possibility to redeem themselves and feel re-evaluated by the youngest ones who hanged on every one of their words as they listened to the story. Seeing these young people come out of the library after the reading and talk about the emotion sprung from the meeting, the admiration aroused in the youngest children, was an amazing experience, and those who managed to better interact with younger children were precisely those who were considered to be the worst at school, the so-called dunce. I too was a dunce.

Alfonso Cuccurullo, Imola, Thurdsay 2nd of May 2019

As I was chatting with Alfonso it turned out he is a member of the Cooperativa Il Mosaico, in Imola, which includes the bookshop of the same name. Since I grew up in the Padan Plain, cared for by a WW2 partisan, in my memory and in my heart a cooperative is a group of people helping each other to get by in the best possible way. A cooperative was something good, for everybody, and it seems it still is nowadays…

antonella e arianna1

Second encounter. ANTONELLA. A new character. Together with Arianna, she runs the bookshop Il Mosaico but she is also a founding member of the Cooperativa Il Mosaico in Imola (and she loves dogs!).
I’ve always loved to read and share my passion for reading, and I happened to attend a training course for a youth center in Imola, where I met Stefania Costa. We were selected and we started working together, and we found ourselves sharing the same passion for books as a means of entertainment. Twenty years ago, we realized that it was necessary to do something for kids, something involving books. In the small towns near Imola, librarians were also bureaucrats, which means they were overwhelmed by so many tasks they could hardly play their role. At some point, municipalities realized that if they left these people manage libraries, libraries would cease to exist, therefore they decided to stop hiring librarians and to outsource their management. So together with Stefania, who is now the chairman of the cooperative, we won the contract for the management of the city library of Mordano, namely the management of purchases, loans, service delivery, and that is how we became the Cooperativa Culturale Il Mosaico, which is engaged in library management, educational services, pre- and after-school activities, summer camps etc… Today we manage many libraries (almost ten!) with a trained staff.
We both loved books, each one in her own way, and a series of events brought us together and led us to the foundation of the cooperative, and from the cooperative to the bookshop, which was my childhood dream, and Arianna’s as well. It all happened by chance, we took over a bookshop run by a girl and in December 2012 we opened in via Emilia Est, until September 30th, 2017, when we moved here in the main square because we needed more space for our activities.  
It was a new challenge, for us as a cooperative, to open a children’s bookshop here in Imola, where there weren’t specialist bookshops. The bookshop was born out of our passion for books and our desire to create a place for culture.
We are a sum of skills and professionalism with a common passion for books and their popularization, working together and sharing the same financial administration.

Antonella Nicoli, Imola, Thursday, 2nd of May 2019

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Third encounter. ARIANNA and IL MOSAICO bookshop, in Imola. She is the one who handed the thread out to me and silently listened to Antonella telling me about the cooperative. The one I decided to meet again in Bologna to learn more.
I didn’t study to become a bookseller, I studied theatre at university, it is something I have always loved. As I was doing some research on Cervia’s puppeteers I was invited to the Arrivano dal Mare Festival, in Cervia, and fell in love with it so deeply that I didn’t hesitate when they asked me to work with them! I first started hanging around backstage to fix and prepare the puppets, then I moved to the booth. I met Sergio Diotti and fell in love with storytelling, so I began to write my dissertation on the storyteller figure and the rediscovery of the fulesta, a man who travelled and told tales (le fole) in exchange for something to eat. Then I graduated and kept on working for the company until I got pregnant and decided to quit.
So I started to work for the cooperative Il Mosaico, running workshops with books and readings, then I met Emanuela Petralli, coming from the world of dance-theatre, and together we put up shows and organized the Strade Festival, a festival of street theatre and puppets taking place during the summer near Imola, which is completely free because it is fully funded by the municipalities involved. Together we created some beautiful shows, such as FREAKS IN 4/4, and then BIANCONERO. PROCESSO A UN LUPO E A UNA STREGA (Black-White. Trial of a Wolf and a Witch), but then I started working at the bookshop, and staying in a place after so many years touring, always on the van and far from my son… The bookshop was a safe place, a beautiful place where I felt good. A shelter where I started a new life. This is what I want to do, it’s like a dress that fits me well.
I attended a training course for booksellers organized by Fastbook and held by Romano Montroni, who got in touch at the end of the course and asked me to be part of the scientific committee for the Premio Strega Ragazzi, which is an important mark of recognition for a bookseller, and of course I said yes. The following year he asked me to teach a course for booksellers, explaining them how to run a specialist bookshop and get by in a moment like this. I taught the course with Antonella.
By the way, how do you get by?
I think a bookshop must offer a lot of different activities, but the most important thing is the location, which is essential, we are in the main square in Imola, where people get to see you. The bookshop must become a place where you arrange to meet, where people want to go. It has to be cozy and welcoming.
Every month I organize two readings and over the years I managed to gather a group of mums: it is important to discuss with them, day after day, they can help you a lot, nowadays mums pay attention to a lot of things. Books must be carefully selected. We don’t have a whole lot of books, first of all because we don’t have enough place, nor enough money, which we prefer to spend on books that you can’t find everywhere; it isn’t competitive to have the same books you can find at the mall, also because we don’t offer discounts. We generally deal directly with publishers, we always pay on time, it’s hard but financially we’re doing well. Luckily, an account clerk of the cooperative works for us in the morning, and over time she also took over the bookshop accounts and put things right, taught us how to calculate profit margins, established a monthly budget for our purchases and, what is most important, established sales targets. She has changed our life! Managing accounts is a fundamental part of running a bookshop.
We are also part of the Coordinamento delle librerie indipendenti, a network of around twenty independent bookshops from Northern and Central Italy that meet once a month in Milan to examine new releases, choosing and reviewing some of them for its bulletin.
We are an independent bookshop! We are part of the cooperative, but we don’t have commercial partners. We love our job, and we love books! And we can proudly say that our bookshop plays a cultural role in our town. To me, it’s a magical place, overlooking the square, with its back garden… The three of us have a good personality, each one with her own peculiar (and complementary) skills: Antonella has been a librarian for years and writes mainly improvised posts on Facebook driven by her feelings and emotions, Manuela studied illustration and updates our Instagram account and then there’s me, coming from the world of theatre, dealing with orders and reviews, also on Facebook.
We all love working with people, we love organizing activities that encourage reading! There’s a good alchemy, a good harmony inside here that we love to share with other people—that’s how we work, it’s the only way we know.

Arianna Di Pietro, Imola, Thursday 2nd of May and Bologna, Wednesday 22nd of May 2019

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Now imagine (or recall, if you’ve been there) the Book Stock Village at the Turin International Book Fair, which, for those who might not know it, is the area dedicated to children and kids. It’s the middle of May and, oddly enough, the sun is shining. Dozens of smiling women from all over Italy wearing a t-shirt with the Nati per Leggere (Born to Read) logo. A room full of their enthusiasm and applauses. On stage, Alfonso and Flavia Manente invite, one by one, the volunteers from different regions to read the book they’ve chosen, which they will give as a gift to the following volunteer (from another region). Nati per Leggere is celebrating 20 years of activity…

alessandra elisa

Fourth encounter. ALESSANDRA and ELISA.
Nati per Leggere (Born to Read).
Nati per Leggere was born after an Italian paediatrician, during a visit to a hospital in Boston, discovered the American project Reach Out and Read. Back to Italy, and after assessing the project’s scientific validity, the paediatrician reported his experience and in 1999 Giancarlo Biasini (Associazione Culturale Pediatri), Igino Poggiali (Associazione Italiana Bibliotecari) and Giorgio Tamburlini (Centro per la Salute del Bambino)—then chairmen—founded Nati per leggere, delegating the recently founded Centro per la Salute del Bambino Onlus to manage the project.
ALESSANDRA: The first thing we did was to get in touch with Altan, who comes from our region, and ask him to create a logo for us. Then we printed our first leaflet and we sent the first packages to paediatricians—there were five of them at the beginning, then six, then ten…
The administration office of the Centro per la Salute del Bambino manages and coordinates everything, in collaboration with both the Associazione Italiana Biblioteche and the Associazione Italiana Pediatri. The three chairmen take care of all the political activities at a governmental level, but the real driving force is the administration office. Regions can act independently, they consult the administration office and follow national guidelines, receive materials and training, but they rely upon their own resources, structures and organizations.
Nati per Leggere is a national program for the promotion of reading addressed to families with children aged 0-6. Today the project has a national coverage and involves more than 2000 municipalities. Local projects are promoted by librarians, paediatricians, educators, public authorities, cultural associations and volunteers.
ELISA: We are a sum of many pieces, each one doing what they can. That’s our strength: the network. Everyone plays their part, but we share the same mission, the same vision.
NpL is an activator which changes a small family which in turn, together with another family, ends up changing a community and then a whole region. This is our aim: to make change happen. After following our program, some mums work hard to open bookshops or libraries in towns where there was none before, and then they volunteer to keep them open to the public. Other people inaugurated NpL reading areas, in Tuscany a paediatrician opened a library. And we also have Bibliobuses, vehicles travelling around towns where there are no suitable places. In Campania some people created a reading area in a convent. NpL grows where there is a physical space but, more than that, where there is a will to go on. NpL, and especially books, make this possible. For those who are already accustomed to reading, books belong to libraries and bookshops, and people who hang out at these places already have a basic awareness, but we want to reach out to all those children and all those families that are not as familiar with books, and this is why NpL works a lot with paediatricians. If you go to a vaccination center or a pediatric practice, you might not expect to find a book there, but then if you find one, something may occur and then one thing leads to another…
Nati per Leggere aims at promoting reading within the family since birth, as reading to children has positive effects on their cognitive, linguistic, emotional and relational development, with a deep impact on them well into their adult life.
ALESSANDRA: NpL focuses on making people understand the importance of mental health. It is essential for us (and for the State) to understand that projects like this have a deep impact on the human capital and the GDP as well. All investments made at a young age guarantee long-term gains. Besides working on the cognitive aspect, children also work on the artistic/aesthetic one and succeed in expressing themselves better and in a number of different fields. By better accepting themselves as human beings and by achieving better results at school—and above all by avoiding school dropout—children improve their social skills, develop a richer and more flexible critical thinking, and might reach a better economical position. It is likely that a young reader, once grown up, won’t turn into a social burden. It’s important to correctly assess the consequences and act in advance.
The voice of a parent reading builds a strong and safe connection with the child who is listening. The connection grows stronger through the words coming from the book and parents and children connect and empathize through the invisible thread of the stories and the magic of the voice. This is the essence of Nati per Leggere: to provide parents with the tools to create an unbreakable bond with their children.
ELISA: We don’t censor anything, we read about death, illness, because they are part of life. It is important to get rid of stereotypes, we often like to throw in some thought-provoking observation which often leaves them speechless or disoriented, asking them for example whether they would read a particular kind of book. We want to make people think, this is why we work with families and not only with children. One day children will read by themselves, but our first aim is to help families create a sense of unity and intimacy around the book, around the story. Yes, some stories are scary of course, but sometimes more so to adults than to children. NpL works with adults and their relationship with children and their environment. Sometimes adults do not read certain books because they hit a nerve, and that’s where censorship comes from. We try to reach out to families, through what we call parenthood support, through all those resources—such as books, games and music—that help parents feel more self-confident and create a different ground.
We don’t have to be afraid of diversity, we have to be able to deal with it. We have to be able to choose and be conscious. We are not sheep, each one of us has their own opinion.
Then, of course, censorship doesn’t affect just contents but also words, since the words we use every day are not always the ones we find in books. So in a book you’ll read ‘bird’ instead of ‘birdie’ or ‘injury’ instead of ‘boo boo’ or ‘owie’. At NpL we think it is important to avoid over-simplification, in order to expand experience, and we also insist on reading every single part of the book, the name of the author, of the publisher, everything!
ALESSANDRA: We have some keywords: the first one is precocity—to start from early childhood—the second one is network—which means a lot of people doing different things, different professionals with their different skills—and universality, since all children, boys and girls, have a right to stories. This is at the heart of what we wish.
When I was a very little girl, we lived with an uncle who was a musician and a writer, he was the man of learning in our family and he was the one who encouraged me to discover the pleasure of books and music. As a teenager I used to buy tons of books, entire series, I was especially fond of adventure books. Kids read if they grow up among people who love reading, if they see a lot of books at home, if they see their beloved ones read… Some studies have investigated this phenomenon: the more books they have at home, and the more their families read, the higher is the possibility for children to become good readers. For this same reason, libraries too are essential.
ALESSANDRA: To change Italy! To offer all children an opportunity for early development, to reach up to 100% of all paediatricians, to let the Italian government pass a law that allows us to do it (we’re working on this), a bipartisan law, not a special one, since it mustn’t be something special for a State to take care of kids from very early childhood. A book, a small book, prepares you for life by letting you know more about the others and yourself.

Alessandra Sila, Head of Education, Nati per Leggere and Nati per la Musica | Elisa Colombo, Head of Communication, Nati per Leggere
12th of May 2019

Thank you Arianna for handing out a thread to me in a moment when I was feeling quite disappointed and isolated in my little two-dimensional bubble. You gave me the precious opportunity to meet people who believe in what they do, and who work together day after day for a common, universal, democratic love: BOOKS. You gave me a fragment of their enthusiasm and you helped me understand that things are not what they seem, that it’s not true that the forces of darkness are going to win, because there’s a whole network of people fighting every day for a better world, a world made of culture, tolerance and diversity. These people are not dominant figures on social media, television or other media, they are real, and generous, people who live among us. They are not photoshopped, they are not corrupt, and you are not likely to find them at glamorous parties at night, but they like to read a book, which they’ll share the day after with those willing to listen.
Let me conclude with a sentence by Alfonso, and a quote of his choice.
Books offer us the opportunity to talk about anything, they make us omnivorous wth regards to human circumstances, without any specific goal. Books are like a gift you have to give very lightheartedly: “Take life lightly, for lightness is not superficiality, but gliding above things, not having weights on your heart” – Italo Calvino.