In November 2008, a teddy bear named Giovanni left California, safe and snug in his little box, and traveled all the way to New York. He was the first. And with his journey, the Italian Children’s Market was born.
Isabella Centofanti, creator of Giovanni the Italian Speaking Bear and the Italian Children’s Market, reflects fondly on that initial cross-country trip, imagining the joy on the face of the very first child ever to hold Giovanni and hear him talk. Since then, thousands of such journeys have brought thousands of Giovannis to homes everywhere in the U.S. and as far away as Canada, Europe and Australia. Yet to this day, each Giovanni is dispatched as lovingly as if he were the first one, or the only one. It will always be so. Because Giovanni is special; without him, there would be no Italian Children’s Market.
A brief note accompanies Giovanni on his journey: Buon viaggio, little Giovanni! Have a safe trip, and when you arrive, love and be loved! And loved he is! This November, Giovanni the Italian Speaking Bear and the Italian Children’s Market celebrate 11 years of introducing young Italian Americans to the wonders of their heritage.
Isabella is often asked: Where did it start? How did it all begin? And without hesitation comes her steadfast reply: With my family and our trip to my father’s birthplace when I was a little girl.
The year was 1967 and for Isabella and her siblings, the Abruzzese village of their father’s birth was a whole new world. Marane Palazzo had dirt roads, stables, farmland, animals, and an atmosphere rich with work, song and sheep bells. Solid earthy people sang heartily while tending fields and flocks and scrubbing clothes at the fountain; children finishing chores that began before daybreak donned black smocks and ran laughing with muddy shoes to get to the village school on time. What fun and adventure, that little school! No one there spoke English so there was nothing to stop Isabella and her siblings from readily embracing the language, dialect and all! In December, the family of seven walked the snow dusted highway from the village to Sulmona where in Piazza Settembre, bronze Ovid suddenly had white epau-lets and a white skullcap. Then, in Piazza Garibaldi, there were hand-warming chestnuts to buy, rolled in brown paper and of course their Christmas tree, a small one bearing roots, with branches awaiting real candles. Experiences like these, and so many more, left indelible prints in Isabella’s mind.
Fast forward four decades. Because of memories like the ones made that year in the Italian vil-lage, Isabella Centofanti created Giovanni the Italian Speaking Bear.
“It’s about being aware of our roots,” she says. “Knowing our roots deepens our knowledge of ourselves. ” She continues by explaining with admiration how in the early 1950’s her father brought his German bride to Youngstown, OH, where together they weathered storms, enjoyed sunny times, earned a living, and raised five children.
“Here at the Italian Children’s Market, a family business, we are yet the children of Old World parents,” says Isabella. “We still feel a connection to the ancient village soil and cobbled streets that harbor our roots. But what about our children and our grandchildren? How can we help them feel connected?
“Many of the youngest among us are separated by time and distance. At the same time, they are like fresh new leaves on a tree that not only embraces generations of family but spans an entire ocean. Parents and grandparents strive to connect these little leaves to the tree to which they belong. Again and again, they wonder, How do we do this?”
It was while deciding how best to introduce their firstborn son, then a toddler, to his family’s her-itage that Isabella recalled the childhood stories her own parents would tell around the dinner table. Laced with German and Italian, it was their voices engaged in song, story and laughter that answered the question How? The answer? Through language! Thus, in 2008, Giovanni the Italian Speaking Bear was born, a cuddly companion for a child’s first venture into his or her heritage.
Over the years, the Italian Children’s Market has become an ever-expanding online store where one can find Giovanni (of course!) plus books (in English, Italian or both!), toys, games, CDs, DVDs, im-ported Pinocchio items, unique clothing, and more! Each item is created or hand-picked by Isabella her-self with the purpose of introducing children to the land, the language and the culture of their ancestors.
This Christmas, Giovanni is joined by his sweet little cousin, Giuliana. (She speaks Italian, too!) He has been waiting a long time for her to come and join him. We all have!
Welcome, Giuliana! Benvenuta!
Visit Italian Children’s Market online at: www.ItalianChildrensMarket.com or call for a catalog: 310-427-2700.