Author: Edmondo de Amicis
Publisher/Year: Henry Holt and Company/1886 (original in Italian in 1886)
Genre: Children's literature/Politics (?)
Theme: A look at different morals in the form of stories about various children, as read by a nine year old from an upper class background
This is a fairly controversial and historic book, ostensibly a children's book aimed at teaching morals but in effect turning into a reflection of the writer's own political leanings and further down the line got co-opted by the Fascist regime as a means of propaganda about how an ideal citizen should behave. I almost didn't pick this book, but I eventually decided that it's still a fascinating look at Italy during the post-unification years, and perhaps even more so in terms of how it came to be used by the Fascists.
The concept itself is fairly basic, as captured by Wikipedia:
The novel is written in a diary form as told by Enrico Bottini, a 9-year old primary school student in Turin with an upper class background who is surrounded by classmates of working class origin. The entire chronological setting corresponds to the third-grade season.
Enrico's parents and older sibling interact with him as written in his diary. As well as his teacher who assigns him with homework that deals with several different stories of children throughout the Italian states who should be seen as role models – these stories are then given in the book as Enrico comes upon reading them. Every story revolves around a different moral value, the most prominent of which are helping those in need, having great love and respect for family and friends, and patriotism.
It's fairly straightforward as a premise on its own. The writing, from what I can make out across the English and Italian versions (my Italian is slightly rusty, alas), is not exactly minimalist in style, but is aimed quite clearly at children, written in the style of many parables. That said, unlike your average moralistic parable, there is clear political subtext at play, with an underlying theme that a good citizen is an unflinching patriot, one who will do anything for their nation without question. This possibly had its roots in de Amicis' leftist views, and was of particular significance after Garibaldi and Vittorio Emanuele II unified the country, with de Amicis of a strong opinion that the unified country needed absolute loyalty to progress. I'm not sure how pleased he would have been to learn that his work would be adopted by Fascists many years later and made mandatory in schools as a way to reinforce the idea that everything must be done in service of the nation (and by 'nation,' I mean Mussolini's Fascist regime).
In its own way, the book paints a picture of Italy as it was right after unification, and the sentiment of many at the time who supported the new nation. It is, however, a distinctly biased book in many ways, and many have since attempted to reinterpret the characters in the book. Each character is distinctly defined to represent a particular moral lesson, and while this obviously makes them fairly simplistic and one-dimensional it also makes them fairly clear to understand. The themes covered in the book, while controversial, may well resonate with many readers, and remain relevant in many ways.
Overall, I wouldn't recommend this as a book for the sake of reading as an adult. But it's a good work to read to understand the sentiment of the times, and for an understanding of its place in Italy's history, both in literature and in politics.