Wednesday, May 23, 2012

PIPPO THE FOOL by Tracy Fern

Fern, Tracy E. Pippo the Fool. Illus. Pau Estrada. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, 2009. Ages 4-7

Renaissance Florence has announced a contest to see which architect can design the best dome for the cathedral, and Filippo Brunelleschi is very excited. Called “Pippo the Fool” by the townspeople, Brunelleschi is a talented goldsmith but wastes time “designing peculiar machines and sketching outlandish structures no one wanted to build.” This extraordinary contest is perfect; it could be his chance to shake of the title of “fool” and show the city his “genius.”

When his plans are laughed out of the contest without a fair and thorough examination, Pippo sets out to prove that his designs can work, building a scale model of his dome. No one can dispute its beauty, architectual prowess, and craftsmanship, and he scores the win. In building the actual dome, however, Pippo must work with Lorenzo, his bullying arch-nemesis, and he considers quitting on that basis alone. He realizes, however: “I would truly be a fool to allow my pride to be bigger than my dome”--a valuable lesson about cooperation. Pippo does all the work while Lorenzo does nothing. But one day, while Pippo stays home sick, the judges realize the inept Lorenzo has no idea what's going on with the dome, and he is fired immediately!

Fern includes excellent detail, particularly after Lorenzo's canning: “[Pippo's] head stopped hurting, his back stopped aching, and he ate a nice veal chop, a handful of plump figs, and a wedge of cheese.” Finally, when the dome is completed, the townspeople hail Brunelleschi as “Pippo the Genius,” and he can breathe a sigh of happiness. “Finalmente,” he says, “a nickname perfect for me.” Having self-confidence all along allowed him to push pash his opposition and succeed in building his dreams.

The author's note in the backmatter expands the more complex history behind the simplified plot. Older readers or parents might find it historically interesting. The illustrator's note documents her extensive research of Renaissance artists, their quirks, and their work.

The illustrated Pippo is shorter and smaller than most of the other characters, as if he is the runt of the city, and perhaps appealing to kids who find themselves picked on for size. He often appears with a cat, curled up asleep wherever Pippo is working or presenting. Lorenzo, his enemy and opponent, however, is large and obnoxious, much like the villain from Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

The framing pages at the beginning and end of the story depict a country landscape, which I found ironic since the entire story takes place within the city of Florence, and the plot revolves around building, not countrifying the land. However, the country landscape situates the story within the city of Florence, which would have been surrounded by miles of rural farmland.

Overall, the art strongly reminds me of that of Tomie de Paola, particularly in works like Tony's Bread or Strega Nona. The faces are wide and expressive, and the pages are filled with rich color. Pippo the Fool is not only an approachable, enjoyable work of storybook history, but also a nice work of art. Definitely a keeper for the family book collection.

Reviewed by Marisa Behan

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