Once upon a time there was a little girl…

Topipittori is a small Italian publishing company, created in 2004 by Giovanna Zoboli and Paolo Canton, whose self-proclaimed aim is ‘to produce picture books which can contribute to the intellectual and emotional growth of children’. Their Almost Classic Tales collection is devoted to fairy tales and fables. Ancient tales of adventurous children, brave boys and wise girls, magical objects and mysterious creatures. Tales from the past, illustrated by visionary talents from the present.

They have kindly allowed us to use and translate this post, which first appeared on the Topipittori Blog, following the publication of their version of Little Red Riding Hood: Once Upon a Time There Was a Little Girl, with Giovanna Zoboli’s words and Joanna Concejo’s illustrations.

Almost Classic Tales is a collection of fairy tales (both folk tales and those penned by an identifiable author), classical myths and fables, lost tales from distant cultures and lesser-known versions of stories we know and love. Each book is lovingly ‘retold’ by a writer-translator, without referring to existing translations. Each illustrator is chosen according to his or her narrative vision. The collection is based on the conviction that fairy tales are a fundamental part of each child’s development with their wealth of imagery, narrative and language.

Each book in the collection is thoughtfully put together in order to make the most of the chosen story (at least, that is our hope). Because as Albert Einstein once said, ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales’.

Although I have often worked with fairy tales as a publisher, it had never occurred to me as an author to dedicate myself to retelling one. Indeed the first fairy tale we published in the Almost Classic Tales collection was Chiara Carrer’s, The little girl and the wolf. Little Red Riding Hood is the most retold fairy tale of all time and exists in countless versions. But it had never crossed my mind as something I wanted to do.

Illustration from C'era una volta una bambina by Giovanna Zoboli and Joanna Concejo. ©Topipittori

Illustration from C’era una volta una bambina by Giovanna Zoboli and Joanna Concejo. ©Topipittori

You need to be very motivated to retell a fairy tale, working as if it were a necessity. I have always been somewhat perplexed by retellings decided at the drawing board, with the aim of ‘modernizing’ or ‘edulcorating’ the texts to make them more suitable for the children of today, leading them far from that past which produced much harsher and scarier tales. (In The Importance of Being Scared, a review of a reissue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska defends Andersen’s writing of scary stories for children and she defends the virtues of their impact). Without mentioning that these new retellings often seem to me to be the fruit of ill-advised and poorly executed commercial strategies. If we look at Calvino or Perrault or the Brothers Grimm or Andersen’s fairy tales it becomes obvious that the language and structure involved call for a very precise and peculiarly sensitive set of skills. So, unless you really know what you are doing, you are better off leaving fairy tales well alone.

Illustration from C'era una volta una bambina by Giovanna Zoboli and Joanna Concejo. ©Topipittori

Illustration from C’era una volta una bambina by Giovanna Zoboli and Joanna Concejo. ©Topipittori

Some time ago, a Korean publishing house offered us a version of Little Red Riding Hood, illustrated by Joanna Concejo, who we often work with. Or to be more precise, Luca Notari, from Èditions Notari, was interested in doing a French edition and he showed it to us in the hope of finding a European partner to publish with. And that was how we got a pdf containing just Joanna’s amazing illustrations. The text, we were told, would be the Brothers Grimm version. I have nothing against their version. But I had the impression that the story that emerged through Joanna’s images didn’t perfectly fit the Grimm’s one. As I pored over the pictures I saw a story that was very similar to the Grimm’s one, but which also embraced elements from other versions of the story.

Illustration from C'era una volta una bambina by Giovanna Zoboli and Joanna Concejo. ©Topipittori

Illustration from C’era una volta una bambina by Giovanna Zoboli and Joanna Concejo. ©Topipittori

But not even then, did I realise that I wanted to rewrite Little Red Riding Hood. The illustrations interested me greatly, they were dramatic, mysterious, wild. And I wanted to understand the story that Joanna was telling through them. So I looked and I looked at them, until one day I started writing. I didn’t know I would rewrite Little Red Riding Hood until the moment I started actually doing it. And I did it because I knew that that was the only way I would understand the story that was being told through the pictures.

Writing is an extremely precise way of researching things, because it adds substance to a purely intellectual act. It’s like drawing. You can imagine an object but until you actually draw it, you don’t really know how you perceive it. The same goes for what you think you know. Many thoughts and ideas can’t withstand the writing process. They lose definition, consistency, form, are burnt up as they are written down. Writing is a foolproof test. Never think you are in control, because it is always the writing that leads the way.

Illustration from C'era una volta una bambina by Giovanna Zoboli and Joanna Concejo. ©Topipittori

Illustration from C’era una volta una bambina by Giovanna Zoboli and Joanna Concejo. ©Topipittori

I have often based my writing on images, so I was familiar with the process. I have worked this way with illustrators such as Guido Scarabottolo, Francesca Bazzurro, Julia Binfield, Massimo Caccia and Francesca Zoboli. It’s not about inventing something ‘poetic’ based on or inspired by the illustrations. It is much more complex and demanding and interesting than that. When your writing is inspired by a picture, there is nothing arbitrary about what you put on paper. In that picture there is usually one, and just one, thing that works, And you have to find it, understand which one it is, that is if the picture allows you.

Illustration from C'era una volta una bambina by Giovanna Zoboli and Joanna Concejo. ©Topipittori

Illustration from C’era una volta una bambina by Giovanna Zoboli and Joanna Concejo. ©Topipittori

Which, if you consider it, is not very different from the selection process that you use when you create either a visual or written narrative sequence. You can’t go forward until you find just the right piece. It’s a gradual process of trial and failure, of getting progressively closer to a resolution: whether this process is slow or speedy depends on each single case.

And this is why it took some time to write Once upon a time there was a little girl. Joanna’s images are so dense that it is not easy to glean the meaning. They are disquieting. I realised that every time I turned a page the story took a different direction. And then, of course, I had to measure myself with the long tradition of all the Little Red Riding Hoods that had gone before me, which greatly reduced all possibility of interpretation. Limits, be they frustrating, are also full of solutions. And I reached a turning point when I realised that in those pictures there were two other main characters besides the little girl and the wolf. Two well-hidden characters, but who are still there for all to see.

The covers of the Korean, French and Italian editions.

The covers of the Korean, French and Italian editions.

It was then that I realised that any ambiguity coming from Joanna’ illustrations depended on them, an unspoken presence which affected the explicit part of the story, continually changing its course and direction. But then, this sense of ambiguity underlies all versions of Little Red Riding Hood, and is most likely one of the reasons behind the story’s success throughout the years. The story remains unresolved, open-ended, even though each version offers its own conclusion, there is always the sense that other endings are possible.

Before looking at Joanna’s illustrations I had never considered this ‘hidden’ aspect of Little Red Riding Hood. This ancient subtext has revealed itself through the images. So, in short, if I had never thought about rewriting a fairy tale (never mind Little Red Riding Hood) before, now that I’ve done it, I think that it was one of the most interesting writing experiences that I’ve had so far.
And no, I’m not going to tell you who the two hidden characters are. If you are interested, you can find out for yourselves, doing exactly what I did, without reading my words.

Giovanna Zoboli

Translation by Maria Cleary

Comments are closed.