Like many people, I have a favorite book. Cultural conventions would have me say that it is something by the likes of Dostoevsky, Voltaire, Shakespeare or another world-renowned writer or philosopher.
In reality, the book I like the most is a children’s book.
One of the most vivid memories I have of my childhood is that of my parents reading me Telephone Tales by Gianni Rodari.
One tale, in particular, “The Young Shrimp,” struck me so much that I can say without any doubt that it has largely shaped who I am today. The courage of the protagonist to explore the world by doing things in a different way from what he was supposed to do has been a lesson that I have brought with me in my adult life.
Today, after more than 20 years spent promoting human rights, I have learned that education – especially from an early age – is the most important ingredient to a cohesive society.
So no wonder that when I became father, six years ago, I turned to tales like Rodari’s to help my children see the world with open minds. We read many books, and some are very good in translating ethical values, and in feeding my children’s natural curiosity.
But in times of growing populism, nationalism and polarization in society, I felt the urge to take a more proactive approach to resist the temptation to turn in on ourselves and retreat to the false security of our own communities.
I told myself that I had to combine my ambition to protect human rights with my passion for children’s literature. So last year I started inventing and writing tales with my children as a game to try to stimulate their reflections on human rights and democratic values.
The game caught their interest and step-by-step I built up the story, which will be published in October as my first picture book, “An Unexpected Friend”.
It is a tale about diversity, prejudices and friendship, where two friends from different worlds, a young ant and a young spider, play together, taking advantage of their diversities, until the day their families’ deep-rooted prejudices pull them apart.
What happens next provides parents with elements to discuss with their children a contemporary societal problem such as the rejection of the “other.” It also stirs the discussion about when disobeying orders is the right thing to do.
This book is the first of a series that I am going to write to get children closer to questions relating to human rights and to help them reflect on contemporary issues. I see it as a natural companion of my human rights advocacy work and as a result of Rodari’s young shrimp’s unconventional exploration of the world.
This book stems from my firm belief that, if education is the best antidote we have against the threats to our freedoms and democratic values, children’s literature is education’s best driver to form the necessary antibodies.
Stefano Montanari is a journalist and human rights advocate based in Europe.