Roberto Innocenti

HCA Acceptance Speech, Copenhagen, 7 September 2008

Mine is a lonely, almost monastic, occupation.  For many hours each day, while I am working, I ask myself questions, make suggestions and draw up hypotheses for myself, and supply the answers myself, obtaining some small certainties among the many doubts.

I do not try to imagine my public – who my readers might be and what they might be like, or what I could do to meet their tastes or guess their possible preferences.  It would be a very imprecise “market research”, but could end up by seeming like those real ones, which concentrate only on quantity and tend to over-simplify.  I think that I am a rather complicated person, and so all I can do is hope that in the world there are other complicated people.  I work, therefore, trying to please myself.  I think that I am my own most severe critic, to judge by that fear which precedes the publication of each book.

The number of copies sold is not in itself a favourable judgment, necessarily.

If every reader gives a different opinion, considering that fortunately the ways of seeing and interpreting a book are different, it is alarming, if thousands of copies are sold, to think of thousands of different opinions.

During periods of intense activity, the voice of my thoughts is calm and persuasive, speaking my language correctly, without dialectal inflexions.  When I begin to talk, emerging from the long silences of work, my voice surprises me; it is not pleasant and authoritative like that which I hear inside me, and it has a strong Tuscan accent.

Mine is a pleasing occupation and I like it very much.  If on the surface it is undeniable that the largest part is the drawing and the painting, in actual fact, and also I hope in the end result, it is clear that what I am trying to do is tell a story.

This seems to me to be an enormous privilege, which makes working a pleasure and gives me a deep sense of contentment, both in what I am trying to do and in my daily life, which helps me to find the correct colours and to feel myself less alone.

My work is addressed to the public, but it is not like in the theatre, where the judgment is instantaneous and reactions are shown immediately.  Moments of tremendous tension will dissolve in an instant, so the actors hope, into an ovation.

Even when a work of mine has been finished for a long time, I learn only the number of copies sold, and in how many different languages.  And it is when I meet the real, not the virtual, public, made up of people, mostly young people, in schools, that my occupation becomes wonderful, and then I wish I could have another hundred years to tell another hundred stories, maybe just bringing the style up-to-date.

It has been amazing to discover, after years of atrocious doubts, that children understand everything and are not afraid but even love the complications, and that simplifying on their behalf does not mask a sacrifice on the author’s part but a competent ignorance.  Simplicity is quite a different thing: put together with culture and children’s play, it is the summit I would like to reach.

Illustration is a means of story telling with many advantages and more than a few limits.  It does not need translation to be understood in every part of the world, but it does not reach the depths, which can be reached by the written word.  I envy writing because of its ability to describe thoughts, sensations, the inner “I”, the hidden emotions.  Seeing the protagonist certainly does not help one to identify with him.  But as a recompense, telling an illustrated story, or a story parallel to that of the text, the information and the background given can be enlarged, the social and historical context can be described, and one can wander freely in the landscape and even hint at other secondary stories.

So, together or separately, the written words and the fixed images are a type of culture and an irreplaceable patrimony.

I believe it is not necessary to mention again the importance of the work of IBBY.  To promote and diffuse reading is, apart from a duty, certainly a recognized and satisfying commitment, but I think that even today there are places and regimes in the world where reading, and therefore knowledge and culture, are not welcome, or even bring risks.  There are places where apart from commitment, courage is needed.

I have already written somewhere that I lose myself in words and find myself in drawings.  I will try to thank IBBY with whatever words I can find, and I hope they will be suitable.

We all know that the Nobel prize exists and that it will be awarded to someone.  I do not think it will ever be awarded to me.  The same applied to the Hans Christian Andersen prize.  I did not expect to win it.  It felt as if in a crowded airport my name was suddenly announced, preceded by an important honorary title.  In fact, I have been interviewed by newspapers and journals, radio, and TV, almost as if I were a footballer or had become famous as a fashion designer.

I would like to add a brief note to my thanks, something I feel the need to explain.

The first book designed by me was entitled “Rosa Bianca”.  I had imagined it would be for Italian children, Italian parents, Italian teachers, and for the schools of the Republic of Italy.

I had succeeded with great difficulty in finding the right state of mind to relate in a clear and I hope sensitive way, a sad and horrific page of our contemporary history, suitable for opening up a dialogue between children and adults.

The book was refused by Italian publishers, even by the most authoritative ones.  Perhaps they considered that it would be imprudent to publish the extreme consequence of the most abominable Italian invention: fascism.

It was published by many foreign publishers; the children, the parents, and the teachers who used it for many years were only foreigners.  Rosa Bianca was my own little Alice who showed me the way into that Wonderland which is called The World.
Foreign publishers gave me greater freedom, and the dignity which the work now recognizes.  For a long time this has been the situation, and for this reason the rights for my books are not in Italy.

I cannot change this even if for some time now I have been published successfully in my country and in my language, starting with “C’era una volta….”, and today with “La Margherita”.  But it is in Italy that I have my closest friends.

I have explained all this because “Rosa Bianca” has become my personal thermometer for taking the temperature of democracy in Italy.  At present a wicked witch has turned it into a fable with no place or time, because Contemporary History and Geography have been removed as teaching subjects from the 5th year of Primary school in the Italian Republic, a republic born and founded on who knows what.

My thermometer leads me to believe that Italian democracy is not at all well in health.  I, as a citizen of the Italian Republic, which was born of the Resistance and founded on work, am waiting for it to recover.

I was afraid that the most difficult part to express, of all the things I wanted to say, would be the thanks, with the dangers of using obvious, rhetorical and banal phrases. I was very worried. However, it is not at all difficult. Thinking about my life as an illustrator over the last twenty-five years, and with some negligible work before that, I remembered that, with the exception of some Italian publishers at one time, all the other people – writers, colleagues, publishers, librarians, critics and journalists, have always been an open and friendly world. Even when I was only on the fringes, they demonstrated their kindness and their “differentness”, which surprised me. I hope in all this time to have repaid the friendship and solidarity, which seemed to me to be shared amongst all of us. The feelings I described, which this lonely occupation provokes, are perhaps what unites us all, and maybe why we recognize and applaud each other, communicating with possible and impossible languages. I thank IBBY, the Jury, this wonderful city of Copenhagen that is hosting us and our celebration, and while I continue to ask myself “Why me?” I must say that I am very happy to be a part of this world of yours, a world without frontiers.

I would like to wish IBBY and its work ever-increasing satisfaction and success.

September 2008, translated from the Italian by Dilys Soria

For original Italian version, click here.