Kidlit author shines spotlight on Florence flood

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Though the great flood in Florence happened well before she was born, it became a lived experience for Karen Greenwald during extensive research for her children’s book on the catastrophic event.

Award-winning children’s book author Karen Greenwald has never been to Florence, and yet she feels a deep connection to the Italian city.

That’s because for three years, Greenwald conducted research and interviews about the overflowing of the Arno River in 1966, which dumped about 600,000 tons of mud and sewage onto Florence. The tragedy left more than 30 people dead, hundreds injured and thousands homeless. It also damaged nearly a million books — including rare and historical ones — from the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze alone.

Greenwald’s latest children’s book, “The Mud Angels: How Students Saved the City of Florence,” spotlights the incredible volunteer work done in dire conditions to save as many books as possible.

The author talks to Fra Noi about why she chose to write about the flood of the Arno, how the book is a celebration of her late mother’s love for art, and her connection to the “Mud Angels” and the people of Florence.

Karen Greenwald

Elena Ferrarin: What led you to write children’s books?

Karen M. Greenwald: I was a typical bookworm and around 8, I decided that someday I was going to write a book. In law school, I took a course called “Literacy and the Law” and, along with the class, you had to tutor a student in an economically challenged neighborhood and you had to write a picture book. Then you had to write an analytical paper discussing the more high-level things we learned in class and how you integrated that with picture books. I felt a complete shift in how I felt about picture books. There are so many levels of learning in picture books. It just excited me. Then I started practicing law, and I forgot about it. Then in 2016, my dad said, “Remember that book you wrote? Whatever happened to it? You should do something with it.”

EF: Why did you pick the 1966 flood of the Arno and the Mud Angels as the subject of your latest book?

KG: I was talking to my (former) college roommate at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I said to her, “I want to write about something that deals with the international community, youth and the environment. A community that comes together and does something important to change the world.” She said to me, “Do you know anything about the Arno flood of 1966?” I Googled and saw a reference to the Mud Angels and … mic drop. That was it. Also, my mom died a month before I started working on this and I wanted to do something that celebrated my mom. My mom started teaching me about fine art around age 8. She would teach me about artists, but not just their paintings — she’d teach me about their lives, their culture, the world they came from, and how those impacted their art and how their art impacted the culture around them. My mom inspired a passion for art in me. So, the book is also a connection between my mom and me.

EF: How did you go about your research for this book?

KG: I couldn’t travel to Florence, so I started with online walking tours of the city. I must have watched 30 of them. Amazon was giving virtual tours with tour guides, and I did about 10 of them with a focus on Florence and Italian history. I also did “normal” research — reading everything I could online, reaching out to libraries in Italy, in particular in the Tuscany region and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Then I found the CEDAF (the Documentation Centre on Florence Floods) and the director became an amazing resource for me. He was so generous and kind.

EF: Who did you interview for the book?

KG: I interviewed 16 Mud Angels from Florida State University. The students went to Florence to study abroad. (After the flood), they were given the option to leave as soon as they could, and 120 of them said they wanted to stay and help. I think the 16 I talked to were a good mix of people. The interviews were fascinating — some were four hours long! By talking and listening to them, (the flood) changed from something that happened in 1966 into something that became tridimensional for me.

EF: Can you describe what it was like after the flood?

KG: In the library, the Mud Angels were digging through the mud — the women wearing skirts — and formed what looked like a water brigade, passing books from hand to hand, up the stairs, while the air was filled with kerosene and gas. The image of these students from all over the world, from every cultural background, forming this chain to preserve these books, to preserve Italy’s history — it’s a poetic, extraordinary moment that I felt should be captured and shared. I do believe the Mud Angels represent the best in humanity. My book is focused on the library, but there were students going to churches, synagogues, apartments, helping residents and store owners. The Florentines were trying to save their own homes and trying to find a way to protect their children. They had no heat, no running water, no electricity. I didn’t put this in the book because it’s for children, but there were dead bodies, raw meat and sharp objects in the mud, and there was concern about bacteria.

EF: What is it like to write a picture book?

KG: It’s really like learning a different language. You’re not supposed to use adjectives, because the pictures are the adjectives. My illustrator for this book, Olga Lee, lives in Moscow. I was allowed to give my comment on the illustrations, and the comments I made were beautifully integrated. One of the things I love the most about her art is that she has an unbelievable sense of perspective. She did such a spectacular job. I can’t imagine anybody else illustrating this book.

EF: How did you manage to distill all the information you gathered? You said your book consists of only 498 words, and a total 893 words with your author’s note.

KG: It’s not easy. I have so much content and there are so many things you want to include. It’s difficult to keep yourself to the structure you’ve committed to, but I have a sense of what needs to be there. The rest will go into a teachers guide and a Scouts guide. That’s where I can put information that didn’t fit the narrative, but that would be useful in a classroom.

EF: How do you feel about this book?

KG: I do feel an emotional connection to all this, for sure. I am so proud of the relationship I developed with the people involved, and I am so grateful for the people that supported me and stood behind me.

EF: Are you planning to visit Florence?

KG: I desperately want to. I haven’t been able to travel since the pandemic, but I hope to very soon. I am supposed to do an event with the CEDAF in the fall. That is very exciting. I have such love for the city of Florence — I kind of feel like I lived there for three years.

For more, click here.

https://www.karengreenwald.com/the-mud-angels

 

The above appears in the July 2024 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Elena Ferrarin

Elena Ferrarin is a native of Rome who has worked as a journalist in the United States since 2002. She has been a correspondent for Fra Noi for more than a decade. She previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Herald in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, The Regional News in Palos Heights and as a reporter/assistant editor for Reflejos, a Spanish-English newspaper in Arlington Heights. She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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