Book review of The Book of Whys by Gianni Rodari, JooHee Yoon

Between the years of 1955 and 1958, Italian author Gianni Rodari wrote two newspaper columns for children: “The Mailbox of Whys” and “The Book of Whys.” With delightful illustrations by JooHee Yoon, The Book of Whys revisits Rodari’s whimsical responses to questions sent in by children throughout Italy. In a brief introduction, translator Antony Shugaar explains that Rodari replied not only “with the simplest and soberest of answers” but also “with wild imaginings that utterly reframed conventional thought until a purer logic shone through.”

The collection begins with a question sure to captivate young readers: “Why are grownups always right?” Rodari’s endearing rhymed verse response concludes with a confirmation “that ‘grownups’ are always right / Except for when they’re wrong.” This willingness to engage with uncertainty is a hallmark of Rodari’s style, as is the way he moves from science to ancient history to silly digressions, like in his reply to the question, “Why can cats see in the dark?” which starts seriously but concludes with verses about cats lamenting how they “can only dream of bacon.” Rodari also plays with proverbs, often to challenge them. When responding to the question “Why is gold so precious?” he refers to the “silence is golden” proverb, noting how it isn’t always true, especially when addressing injustice: “Those in the wrong just keep on going if those in the right have nothing to say.” In this way, Rodari invites his readers to engage with larger questions,including ethical ones. 

Yoon’s illustrations are an apt accompaniment to this collection: simple and straightforward colored pencil drawings evoking a childlike feel. Each piece provides a splash of color as well as a distinct design element, with some illustrations filling a whole page, others occupying only a small corner, and a few more unusual choices, such as the two-page spread featuring a border of walking figures. Together, art and text combine for a unique,wonder-driven work that will please adults and children alike.

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