Dante for fun: kids books that retell the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso

As mentioned, I'm in Florence, Italy with my daughter for a speaking gig. We toured the Palazzo Vecchio on the first day, and happened on a bust of Dante, and I began to explain the story of Dante, his exile, and the way he damned all his enemies to the most grotesque tortures in his epic poem. My kid was fascinated -- being sentenced to an eternity to boil, head down, in a lake of filthy blood, is pretty fascinating when you're six!

When we got to the gift-shop, we discovered an improbable set of childrens' picture books that retell Dante for young people: it's called "Dante for fun" and it comes in three volumes (naturally): Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

Of the three, the best is Hell, which skates a very fine line indeed in trying to illustrate Dante's awful tortures while keeping everything kind of light and cartoony. The prostitutes wallowing in poo and diviners with their heads on backwards, weeping into their butt-cracks are the two best examples of the weird visual shenanigans that illustrator Valentina Canocchi gets up to in trying to bring the dark side of Renaissance theology to six year olds.

I have to be frank: these are not great books. I believe they were originally published in Italian, and the translation to English is rather lacking. The type is set in Comic Sans, which is not a good sign. The theology is only cursorily explained and required a lot of additional discussion. And, of course, the material itself is profoundly unsuited to children's literature.

That said, we had a great time with these, precisely because there are such huge gaps in the adaptation. Explaining heresy, carnal sin, avarice, treachery, and the other sins to my six year old while keeping it simple and kid-appropriate was a hilarious and delightful exercise. The theology is also so darned banana-pants that it was almost Dr Seussian in its weirdness, which we both appreciated.

All in all, these are more impressive for their unlikeliness than their excellence. But if you find yourself needing to explain Dante to a small child, they are a surprisingly useful aide.

And if you're looking for an adult Dante translation to make you experience the wonderment of one of my favorite literary works at all time, allow me to recommend John Ciardi's translation (it probably helps that Ciardi is a great poet who also produced amazing children's poetry).

Dante for fun: Hell

Dante for fun: Purgatory

Dante for fun: Paradise