By Leslie Lindsay
You just have to mention the words “Italy” and “leaf” and you’ve got me. Throw in a story about friendship and I’m there. Having been an Italian aficionado for most of my life (don’t ask why, according to my Ancestry DNA results, I’m only 1% Italian), I was enamored with this children’s story by Mary Felicani, who I can assume is Italian, penned this charming story of a young Italian boy, Carlo and his quest for friendship.
Set in another time (medieval), and another place (Italy), the message is universal. Yet it’s Mary’s deft use of sensory detail that brings the story to life, thrusting me back to an ancient time when the values of friendship and belonging were just as resonate then as they are now.
I’m pleased to have Mary back this week to chat with us about her book, THE MAGIC LEAF, her love for Italy, and how we can help our children cultivate friendship.
Leslie Lindsay: Mary, it’s a pleasure to have you join us again. Thank you! I’m just in love with THE MAGIC LEAF, mostly because I love Italy, but you’re Canadian…though guessing by your last name, you’re also Italian? Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for setting THE MAGIC LEAF in Italy?
Mary Feliciani: Leslie, thank you for having me back and making me feel at home. Yes, I am Italo-Canadian. I chose my hometown in Italy as a backdrop because the story has a meaning or a moral. It seemed reminiscent of a simpler time and place. I still had fond memories of the hometown that I left as a child.
L.L.: I had to do a little research and learned Roseto is indeed a real, southeastern medieval town in Italy. Like the book, Roseto is hill town nestled in an enclave of low mountains, winding roads, and thick-walled homes to keep out the heat. It reminded me a bit of Corniglia in the Cinque Terre, yet different.
Mary Feliciani: Leslie, I can’t believe how thorough you are. I was born in Roseto, Italy. My family immigrated to Canada when I was 6 years old. Subsequently, all my education has been in Canada. I understand Italian quite well, but like most people who leave a country when they’re young, my comprehension is better than my oral language.
When my children were small, our annual vacations were to the beaches along the eastern coast of the United States and provinces in eastern Canada. It wasn’t until 2011 that we took a family vacation to Italy. We returned again in 2013 visiting neighbouring countries as well.
The Roseto in Italy has a connection to the Roseto in Pennsylvania. If you like research, google the Roseto Effect, and you will learn of an intriguing study conducted there in the 1960s. I wasn’t aware of the Roseto Effect when I wrote THE MAGIC LEAF, but the more articles I read about it, the more meaningful my message of friendship becomes. Roseto is all about a sense of community.
L.L.: I have to talk a bit about sensory details, for a moment, because you use them beautifully here—and I think that’s such an important part of children’s literature. Kids don’t often have the experiences adults have acquired, so we have to bring those experiences to them. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to bring that town to life?
Mary Feliciani: Believe it or not, I still had a cognitive map of the town. I could visualize the town square and from that point of reference, see the location of my aunt’s house, my maternal grandmother’s house, my paternal grandmother’s house and my own home. I also recalled where my nursery school was and the uniforms we had to wear.
I asked my mother and my older brother to fill in same of the blanks. I also employed postcards, old photos, and made use of a magazine that is published by the town and sent to subscribers in other parts of the world. My mother still receives the town’s magazine.
Feasts in a small town were a really big deal back in the day. Everyone participated – even toddlers were part of the parade. Children would experience sights and sounds that wouldn’t be duplicated until the following festival.
L.L.: Those sensory details pair well with the illustrations. A children’s author has a particular challenge that adult authors don’t usually encounter: they need an illustrator. I’m curious what your experience was like working with Tina Durocher? Did you have a vision for the illustrations, or did she bring those to you?
Mary Feliciani: Thank you for asking, Leslie. Not everybody includes the illustrator when discussing a children’s book. The illustrations are half of a picture book, and just as important as the text.
I was extremely fortunate to have found Tina. Her work is not only beautiful, but unique. As a small publisher, I hire people that free-lance. Tina and I didn’t know each other before we collaborated on the book. We used to meet at a Tim Horton’s halfway between Toronto and Mississauga (where I live). So much happens at a Tim Horton’s, eh!
I would verbally describe the mental image I had for a specific illustration. She then drew a linear of what she thought that I wanted. The linear was just a partial illustration without any colour, and that is how I decided if we were on the right track. If I agreed to the illustration, then she would complete it. Besides Tina and my first printer, all the other people I have worked with have been online.
L.L.: Without giving too much away, can you talk a bit about the title? Is there, indeed a magical element to Carlo’s story?
Mary Feliciani: Some readers see the magic in the friendship. Other children can relate to a time that a friend has helped them feel better about a problem. Or, they have experienced time flying when they are with their friends. All three of these scenario can apply to the story. Some older children can see a placebo effect, even if they don’t know the terminology.
L.L.: I think friendship is kind of magical…when two people, whether young or old, there’s a bit of an unseen magical connection that takes place. Can you talk about that, please?
Mary Feliciani: When I read the story to school children, I tell them that friendship is just as important as you grow older as it is in your childhood. Sometimes they are surprised I say that. I wrote the manuscript for THE MAGIC LEAF while I was at the University of Toronto studying psychology. As a young adult, I was very idealistic and was hoping to find the one theory or the one famous psychologist who had all the answers. But what I learned was that there wasn’t a theory which could explain everything, and even among psychologists, there were differences of opinion. I began to believe that having a good support system in combination with whatever theory one might subscribe to, was very important. I realized that friendships were necessary even as we grow older. Walking life’s journey with a friend makes everything easier.
L.L.: Before you wrote full-time, you were an elementary school educator with an emphasis in psychology. Did you see a “problem” with friendship at the elementary level? What might be done to help ease those years?
Mary Feliciani: I spent half of my career teaching various Special Education classes and the other half in the regular classroom setting (grades 1-6). Children are really good souls; they just want to be accepted by their peers and by their teachers. Some children have the social skills to make friends easily, while others may have a more difficult time. Schools are always encouraging students to be more inclusive in their play and attitudes.If there is a problem, a parent and/or teacher might be able to put it in perspective.
L.L.: Do you have plans for another children’s book? Can you talk about that, please?
Mary Feliciani: I think that bullying has been a hot topic for a number of years. When I write, it is the topic or issue that inspires me. I feel compelled to write. My latest eBook,BIG AND SMALL IN THE MIRROR, is about bullying that happens in the school environment. It is the first of a trilogy about bullying. I am currently writing the second book of the trilogy, THE INVISIBLE BOY. As always, there is a twist to the title.
L.L.: What should I have asked but may have forgotten?
Mary Feliciani: Your questions were wonderful! I have never discussed the setting of the story in the way that I presented Roseto to you.
Leslie, I could talk to you forever. You are so good at making the conversion flow. We could talk about books, we could talk about teaching, we could talk about travel…
L.L.: Mary, it’s been a pleasure to read THE MAGIC LEAF and connect. Back to those sensory details…I could definitely use some warm Italian sun now that we’re smack in the middle of gray and dreary here in the Midwest.
Mary Feliciani: Well, I’m in Canada. Right now it is warm enough, but damp and cloudy. We are experiencing the same thing. Hopefully I can find the time to take a vacation this summer. Thank you so much for the opportunity to met you and your readers. I hope that we can chat again in the future.
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