Friendship: more than a word


Following in the spirit of last week’s Secret Language series… today’s post has something to do with secrets as well, and since it’s Sunday, I thought I’d also relax with an lovely children’s picture book that I found in a bookshop in Pescara.

What is it? I wish I knew.

E' Una Parola Arianna Papini

E’ Una Parola
Arianna Papini

Ask an Italian a difficult question,  one of those one million dollar ones that are so tricky to find the right answer to, maybe a definition for something  that you just can’t put your finger on, and they will reply:

E’ una parola! 

Literally, this translates as “It’s a word” but what it actually means is:  I wish I knew!

It’s also the name of a beautiful book by Arianna Papini, published in Italian by Kalandraka.

The story starts with the statement “It’s a word“, which automatically raises the question “what word is it?” in the reader’s mind. 

Each page then presents an answer to the unasked question,  in a combination of short sentences and exquisite illustrations.


Explaining to a child the core concepts of life, like friendship, trust, standing up for each other and staying together through good times and bad, is often easier said than done. When faced with some of the more tricky  “Why?” questions from their children, I’m sure a lot of parents have often been tempted to respond “I wish I knew!”

As the author commented this summer in an interview (available in  Italian here), social networks and celebrity cults seem to have altered the way we think about friendship. So she decided to explore the real, and much deeper, meaning of friendship using this Italian play on words – it’s a word, it’s hard to define, what is it – to make up a guessing game for children.

In fact, as you turn each page, the first thing you see is a picture on the right depicting an aspect of what the secret word may be (only revealed at the end) before the eye moves to the left to have your interpretation of the illustration described in words.  These short “clues”  – never more than five or six on each page – offer just the right degree of explanation for the engaging visual narrative and gentle journey into something adorable, in the company of the equally adorable animals.

What is it?  Sharing a special place

What is it?
Sharing a special place

In thirty beautifully illustrated pages, which could easily cross international borders with a minimum of translation, Arianna Papini suggests that this thing, as yet unnamed, is:

A feeling

Not worrying about how we look

Having someone to turn to when things get tough

Hoping that the game will last for ever

Dreaming the same dream

What is it? It’s friendship.

What is it?  It's friendship.

What is it?
It’s friendship.

In an interview published in Italian here, the author explains her decision to use animals to tell her story:

“I love animals. They can tell us a lot about ourselves. They help us to see our weaknesses because they have a different way of looking at us which allows us to take a step back from our  life as humans <snip> .. they are silent companions who tell us a lot of important things through body language alone, but only essential things,  like love, hunger, sleep. Animals are just like children, they don’t need words to speak to us, we care for them, and while they are grateful for that, they carry on living their lives.  I wrote the words for this book thinking about children’s lives but I loved the idea of bringing them to life through animal characters.  Then I noticed that the animals I was drawing were all different from each other. That’s when I realized that in this book, just like all my others, the most important thing is living side-by-side with diversity. I believe that meeting people who are different from ourselves is one of the greatest opportunities life presents us with. <snip> Living with diversity generates complexity, and complexity is what inspires art, music, theatre and every other type of narration that human beings are capable of. “

E’ Una Parola is a delight to read and the perfect example of the power of a picture book.

Author Arianna Papini has written and illustrated more than 70 books for  La Nuova Italia, Fatatrac, Edicolors, Lapis Edizioni, Città Aperta, Carocci Editore, Avvenire, Coccole e Caccole, and Kalandraka . She has won received widespread acclaim and numerous awards for her writing, and several books have been published in France, Spain and Great Britain.

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