Smart, usually in a three-piece suit with a pair of wire-rimmed round glasses resting on his long nose, the well-read Rattus Emeritus of Mousomorphic Literature and Neo-Ratonic Comparative Philosophy enjoys nothing more than unravelling mysteries or exploring fantastic lands.
Publisher of The Rodent’s Gazette in his hometown of Mouse Island, the anthropomorphic mouse named Geronimo Stilton is easily one of the most adventurous and kind-hearted rodents ever to have burrowed into the hearts of kids. When not managing his newspaper, Geronimo goes on often side-splitting adventures with his stylish sister Thea, mischievous cousin Trap and fave nephew Benjamin.
For many young readers across the world – at least 150 million at last count – Geronimo is as real as any of their best friends in the neighbourhood. And because the books are in first person, the kids are convinced the rodent, and not Elisabetta Dami, is the author of those fabulous tales of mystery, fantasy, fun and adventure.
So when children in the UAE had the opportunity to interact with the author of the bestselling Geronimo Stilton series at the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival earlier this year, a frisson of excitement raced through the exhibition hall the moment the petite and genial Elisabetta, dressed in a black knee-length dress with a shawl to match, entered the room.
A warm, shy smile playing on her face, she addressed them with a soft assalaamu aaleykum, leaving the kids shrieking in delight. Later, during the Q&A session, questions came thick and fast: ‘Where’s Geronimo right now?’ one asked. ‘What’s your next book about?’ another wanted to know. ‘What do you like most about Sharjah?’ piped up yet another.
‘This is the first time I’m visiting your city,’ the 61-year-old told the audience. ‘But it’s so beautiful and full of culture and heritage, I might return soon.’
She would later tell me that Geronimo too would likely be paying a visit to the region soon!
Quite like her much-loved character, Elisabetta too loves adventure and travel. ‘Since I was a kid, I’ve loved to explore, and the few things other than writing that give me immense joy are visiting places, trekking, mountain climbing and running marathons,’ says Elisabetta in an exclusive interview with Friday.
The lean and fit author has run marathons in the Sahara desert – ‘70 miles in five days’ – climbed peaks in Nepal and explored part of the North Pole. ‘I’ve even slept in an igloo,’ says the author who possesses both a pilot’s and a parachutist’s licence.
Just back from a scientific trip in a natural reservation in Africa, the excitement – and a bit of tan – still evident on her face, Elisabetta, who is extremely media shy, reveals with child-like enthusiasm how she grabbed the opportunity to have an unforgettable ‘close encounter with gorillas and elephants. It was such a lovely moment’, she says.
Many of her adventures find their way into the award-winning Geronimo Stilton series that has sold more than 140 million copies – a couple of hundred copies were sold on the meet-the-author day in Sharjah alone if the queue snaking out of the book kiosk was any indication. Translated into 28 languages and with 249 editions, it is one of the bestselling book series ever written.
With more than 75 books on Geronimo Stilton, 30 more on his sister Thea Stilton, and innumerable anniversary, mini editions, mini mysteries, special editions and graphic novels on characters Elisabetta has created, kids are clearly spoilt for choice.
‘A reason Geronimo Stilton books have become popular is because they are about adventures, about having fun while also highlighting the importance of good values, says Elisabetta softly, almost embarrassed to take credit for her success. ‘This is the secret that makes them somehow unique. The little colourful illustrations are an added attraction.’
The author of over a hundred books, Elisabetta herself grew up reading books ‘that have a value in them’ such as The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which incidentally was voted the best book of the 20th century in France, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
Reading is one of the best habits you can inculcate in a child, she stresses, adding, ‘a book is a child’s best friend’.
It surely was hers. Born into the world of books – her father Piero Dami owned an international publishing firm, Dami Editore – Elisabetta as a child enjoyed pottering around in the family business and, later as a teenager, helped her father by proofreading pieces. At age 19, she penned her first short story.
‘My father was my mentor,’ she says, her voice resonating with pride. ‘He loved books and inspired me to write and read.’
Gnawed upon by the travel bug during her tours around the world with her father, the Italian quickly developed a thirst for adventure. Among her many exploits are crossing the Sahara in an off-road vehicle, returning a couple of years later to run a 100km race across it, and completing three New York marathons. She has also visited scores of countries on almost all continents.
‘I love all countries,’ she says, when I try drawing her into revealing the most interesting place she has been to. ‘Every place I’ve visited has become a learning experience for me. They are all beautiful; the world is a blessing for us all.’
Elisabetta believes meeting and interacting with local people can provide experiences that can last a lifetime. ‘It happened even on this trip to Sharjah. I’ve met so many people here including several [Emiratis] and have learnt so much. These experiences teach you some lessons that can come in useful at some point of your life. It’s up to us to transform all our experiences into something that will inspire us for life.’
Not surprisingly, it was one of her life experiences that led her to create her now-famous character Geronimo Stilton. ‘It was in the 90s that I discovered I’d never have children,’ says Elisabetta, her voice soft, accent typically Italian.
Extremely fond of kids and keen to do something for their well-being, she decided to start volunteering in children’s hospitals in Milan ‘to bring a smile to the faces of children who were in pain’. To that end she would tell them ‘stories of a funny little, clumsy, tender-hearted, adventurous mouse named Geronimo’.
So engrossing and entertaining were the stories that the children would look forward to Elisabetta visiting them regularly at hospitals, regaling them with fantastic tales of mysterious lands, remarkable adventures and wonderful kind-hearted individuals, all subtly highlighting values such as honesty, kindness, gratitude and respect.
‘At that time I never imagined that they would become so popular and successful all over the world.’
But why a mouse, I ask.
‘That’s a question kids often ask me,’ she says, with a laugh. ‘Mice, just like children, are curious of everything. Be it in a museum, cave, train or island, mice, like children, enjoy exploring. Geronimo sets out to inspire children to be curious because curiosity leads to knowledge and helps inspire reading. Curiosity can be a great motivator.’
Elisabetta, who published the first Geronimo Stilton book Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye in 2000, credits her curious nature to explore new places, meet new people and acquire knowledge with helping her create a bestselling series that she is proud of. ‘Geronimo’s books are sincere and honest,’ she says. ‘All Geronimo books are born of experiences I – or my friends – had because Geronimo always sets out to be very sincere to his readers by researching extensively before teaching them something. One important lesson, for instance, is that travelling with friends is much more fun than travelling alone.’ Thus there are subtle pointers in her books on what kids need to look for when choosing friends, how to cultivate and maintain healthy friendships, and why sincerity and honesty in relationships is mandatory in the journey of life.
Travel, she continues, also offers lessons in resilience ‘which is very important in life. Teaching children to adapt to new situations helps make them stronger. There are few ways other than travel to expand your mind and world.’
In the process of expanding the mind, has she also upgraded her knowledge of technology? Does she lean towards the printed or the digital book? ‘Personally, I love printed books,’ she says, ‘because it has several advantages. The print book does not require to be charged, does not require the internet to download or read, can be taken everywhere you go including in the middle of the Sahara desert where charging could have been an issue.’
Elisabetta, who is all praise for her father for ‘teaching me all life’s important lessons’, says that she has made it her life’s mission to touch children’s hearts through books. ‘Every time I write a book for children, I think that they will soon become adults, and the seed of the good values that Geronimo plants in their heart will flourish and grow into strong sturdy trees.
‘He teaches kids that kindness is precious, that little gestures of kindness can improve our lives and the world.’
What plans does she have for Geronimo?
He will continue doing all the things children enjoy reading about, she says. ‘Keeping in mind how Geronimo was born, I still visit paediatric hospitals to honour the experience and to remind myself that the reason I write is not for fame or for success but to share with children my love for exploring and learning and to impart good values.
‘Geronimo books are born from my heart with the desire to become a mother to so many children. My life is a very happy story because I have become the mother of millions of children around the world.’
Elisabetta’s 3 tips to get kids to read more
1. First, set a good example – let them see you reading, let them see you with a book in your hand. Show them you love books.
2. Read together with them at night before they go to sleep but also on other occasions.
3. Accompany them to the bookshops and choose books with them. Share with them the moment of choosing a book together. Remember, children often might not listen to what we say; but they see and repeat what we do. So read books, and children will pick up the habit.