Children in Italy and Switzerland know Martin isn’t like other wolves. They also know that’s exactly what makes him so special.
Words Kasey Jackson
Book Illustrations Simona Mulazzani
Martin hasn’t quite figured out how to howl at the moon just yet. This wouldn’t be an issue if he weren’t a wolf—howling at the moon being sort of a prerequisite to being a wolf and all. In fact, he doesn’t even seem the least bit interested in the moon. Instead, he can’t seem to stop staring at the bright red cherries that dangle from the branches of a woodland cherry tree. His mom comforts him, all the while the wolf pack leader’s words stuck in her head: “He will never be a real wolf.”
This is how we come to know Martin, the little wolf. He’s the star of the children’s book, “Martino Piccolo Lupo,” and he’s become a familiar character for tens of thousands of children across Italy and in parts of Switzerland. And he’s teaching them something without having to try all that hard.
The book was conceived and realized by publisher Carthusia Edizioni, together with the authors Gionata Bernasconi and Simona Mulazzani, with supervision from the ARES Foundation (which specializes in autism resources and development).
“This particular story is bound with a social, positive message,” says Rosy Pozzi, communications officer for Foundation ARES. “Patrizia Zerbi, publisher of Carthusia, asked for our availability to participate in a focus group to collect on the theme of autism, voices and experiences of educators and parents. Her goal was to create an illustrated book where autism could be dealt with through metaphors. They wanted to tell a nice story about autism and try to explain what it is without being too heavy or too scary or too sad. We started to work together and immediately asked the Kiwanis foundation in Lugano for support, and they believed in our project. Everyone believed in this beautiful story.”
Pozzi says it took a strong team of passionate people to pull this together—an international team.
“ARES is a Swiss foundation,” Pozzi explains. “The editor is Italian. And Kiwanis is international. But what happened is that Kiwanis Italy-San Marino District Chair for Autism Guiseppe Bertini carried this on—almost by himself—in the beginning. He was the champion. He pushed hard for this project. We started with Kiwanis in Varese and after a while, other Kiwanis clubs came together. Giuseppe has such great communication between Kiwanis in Switzerland and Italy. It’s been such a great success.”
Giuseppe says the goal is to get the book into as many schools as possible. Right now, he says, the book has reached 6,500 teachers (meaning more than 150,000 children) thanks to support from the Kiwanis Foundation of Lugano, Switzerland, and the Kiwanis clubs of Varese, Como, Pavia, Pavia Ticinum and Pavia Visconteo in Italy. With this much Kiwanis support across the Italy-San Marino District, the book has been distributed for free to first-grade teachers in all primary schools in the districts and provinces covered.
Maura Magni, president of the Kiwanis Club of Varese, explains the importance not only of the story itself, but also the additional materials created to help teachers with the lesson.
“Instead of going personally to every teacher to explain the project, as we did in the beginning,” she says, “we created a tutorial that includes a video with an actor who reads the story and an interview with a school headmaster, an interview with a teacher, an interview with Giuseppe to explain how and why Kiwanis is involved, an interview with the editor, an interview with the education secretary, an interview with the mom of a boy with autism and an interview with the author. We shared all of this with Kiwanis clubs so they can then go out and share with the teachers.”
There’s additional material for discussion in the back of the book as well as thoughtful messages from those involved in the project.
“At the end of the story, we include special content for the teachers,” says Pozzi. “We put some suggestions for the teachers on how to use the book and what can be done inside the classrooms to work on the story. There are many levels. You can decide how deep you want to go. If you want to just read the story, that’s OK. But if you want to go deeper, you can.”
It’s a simple message on the surface, but there’s a lot to this sweet story.
“This is a poetic story, a very powerful story for young children,” says Patrizia Zerbi, Carthusia’s editorial director. “‘Martino’ is a therapeutic, engaging and delicate book that faces autism in its peculiar character and, above all, in relation to others. Through metaphors, the aim is to go beyond fears and appearances.”
Author Gionata Bernasconi agrees. He uses these metaphors to highlight the value of differences.
“When a story is universal, everyone reflects his own experience,” he says. “Very young children feel empathy for Martin. Older students find there is an important theme of inclusion.”
In their own words:
Author, Martino Piccolo Lupo
A story is like a voyage. It has a departure, an arrival and a world to discover between them. Moreover, so many travelers: teachers telling and children listening, captured by the same adventure. Each one with his own background which finally will be enriched by a new experience: the enlargement of our intimate and personal horizons and the sharing of this experience with people.
The main character of this story is Martin, a wolf pup who can’t howl at the moon and is fond of eating cherries. At the very beginning, the pack leader believes that Martin will never be a real wolf. Only when Martin meets a scared goose and a hungry fox, everyone in the pack will find out who the wolf pup really is. Because you have to see past appearances to really know Martin. You have to see through the fog in order to say, “Welcome to the pack, little wolf!”
Using a metaphoric language and giving animals the role of characters, the book faces autism’s characteristics and relational features, with the aim of encouraging a positive relationship with autistic children, overcoming stereotypes and fear. The story is built up with metaphors and implied references to autism, which draw a symbolic path very immersive for young children.
Metaphors are fundamental to preserve the poetry of the story, but for a better and proper use of the book in classrooms, it’s important to understand how the metaphors are connected to autism.
Here are the main metaphors:
The wolf: an animal which is often stuck in stereotypes, like autistic people.
The fog: confusion and ignorance of people who are unable to see past appearances.
The howl: the different communicative development of autistic people.
The pack: mates, brothers and society, connected to exclusion/inclusion of autistic people.
Cherries: limited interests and sensorial aspects connected to taste of autistic people.
The butterfly: sensorial aspects connected to physical contact of autistic people.
The fox: shallow people, unable to overcome fear and prejudices.
The goose: the role of the experts, who can overcome fear and prejudices.
Communications officer for Foundation ARES
In “Martino,” we never mention autism. But we are lucky because Gionata is an author, yes, but he’s also an educator specializing in autism. Inside the ARES Foundation, we have some pedagogists, creative people as well, who participate in focus groups. So it was quite easy to put together something that really makes sense from a scientific point of view. And this is something we are very firm on. … We want the information about autism to be carried on with scientific meaning, not just because it’s nice to be heard as a story, but because it has to have many contents that the teachers can actually use with the children, informing them properly about autism. At the ARES Foundation, we work every day to spread correct information and a positive culture about autism. Unfortunately, you can easily hear lots of silly things about autism. It could be dangerous for people to be misinformed.
It’s also important that at the end of the story, Gionata really wanted to give this message that Martin doesn’t recover from autism and that instead he’s accepted. But he’s also told to behave in order to be accepted. We can teach the child all the things he needs to stay within social life. We can teach children how to cope within the classroom and with their friends and family. And the metaphors Gionata uses are so important to explain this and to explain the characteristics of autism.
Images from “Martino Piccolo Lupo”, © Carthusia Edizioni 2015/2016 Milan Italy, tale by Gionata Bernasconi, illustrations by Simona Mulazzani
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.
To download a printable PDF of the article, click here.