Interview: Luigi Ballerini

It was a fair autumn morning when I met Luigi Ballerini, the Italian writer of children’s and young adult books who travelled to the Boekenbeurs to promote I am Zero and (Im)perfect, two of his books which have been translated into Dutch. Armed with a coffee and the few Italian words I can pronounce without making a complete fool of myself, I had the pleasure to chat with him in the Grand Café De Singel.

You wrote quite a number of awarded children’s books, but one that intrigued me immediately is Miss Euphorbia. What is it about?

Miss Euphorbia is a very special pasty baker. She runs a little shop, which is always empty. There is nothing on the shelves. That’s because Miss Euphorbia bakes pastry specifically for your needs. She chooses the right ingredients to make you happy, so for every customer she uses a different recipe.
Miss Euphorbia became an international success and was even translated into Chinese, and I believe that is entirely because of the very strong main character. Children even write letters to Miss Euphorbia, asking for pastry recipes that will make them happy. Answering all those letters has become quite a big job. (laughs)

I am Zero on the other hand reads like a classic thriller, in which a little boy escapes from a secret agency that kept him in a virtual reality environment to train him as a super soldier. What I like most of all about this book, is the way Zero experiences common things for the very first time, using all his senses fully. It reminds me of the story of Kasper Hauser, also a boy who came out of nowhere. Was this old tale the trigger for this story?

(smiles) Let me tell you the true story behind I am Zero. I was working all Sunday long, looking up a lot of things on an iPad. Later on I went to church. I tried to listen to the priest, but I was too tired to focus and could not hear him or see him very well. So unconsciously I tried to ‘zoom in’ on him, using my thumb and index as I would do on an iPad. And that’s when the ‘what if’ behind I am Zero hit me: what if a boy would spend his entire life seeing things as through an iPad, and then suddenly experience the real world?

A very strong scene in the book is when Zero has just escaped and ends up in a snow shower. The way he sees and feels snow for the first time, throws you right back to your earliest childhood memories.

This was entirely on purpose. I fear there is a big risk for our young ones to lose the ability to use their senses fully. A tablet PC, to stick with the example, will only provide visual input. There is no touch, there is no scent. I am concerned that the younger generation will forget the full possibilities of the body, that they will lose practical skills. In this particular scene I wanted to show that stimulating all senses is very necessary.

You are a psychoanalyst. How does this influence your books?

The main part of my job consists of dealing with problems between adults and children, where I help to restore the relationship. In this context I meet a lot of girls who are unhappy with how they look, and I always hope that in time they will get rid of these issues. I was also surprised to see that also a lot of boys struggle with the same problem, that they are also locked in ‘the jail of looking good’. This is not only true for their appearance, but also for their performance. There is a lot of pressure in our society on young girls and boys to be perfect. So this brought me to the ‘what if’ for (Im)perfect: what if there was a society in which everybody was perfect, would it bring happiness? A dystopian story was the perfect vehicle to explore this scenario fully, which lead to (Im)perfect.

Considering the impact a book can have on the reader, do you think children’s books should be recognized more?

I believe that writers of children’s books have a huge responsibility, and that it needs to be used in a proper way. I can immediately spot a children’s book that has been written with a predefined message in mind. I don’t like that. If you start from the message you run a high risk to write a pedagogue’s lecture, while in children’s books the power of the message should be in the story. I think writers of children’s book should be careful not to manipulate. The should make sure to stimulate thinking, which is not the same as to make them think like the writer.

Which children’s books had an impact on you?

Definitely Seacrow Island by Astrid Lindgren. This is the story of a bunch of boys and girls who spend their summer holidays on an island. I have always been fascinated by Astrid Lindgren’s books. I like the way the children in her book can live without adults and the freedom they have. In Astrid Lindgren’s books, children are truly powerful. I’d also recommend My name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok.  This book taught me what being a father is about. (smiles) My wife is a teacher of Italian literature, and we always fight over the question which single book you would save if you had to choose.

Even though my time was up, Luigi and I continued to chat. About dystopian fiction, and about why it pops up more prominently at certain times in history. About the right book for each kid, about the pleasure of writing bad characters, about books without catharsis. And I am sure we could have talked a lot more if that wouldn’t have been terribly rude to the colleagues that came next. Grazie mille e alla prossima volta, Luigi.