No Fairies, No Witches: The Revolutionary Children’s Books of Bruno Munari

January 26, 2023 | Wendy B.

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Pablo Picasso called him “the Leonardo of our time.” Among his inventions: a machine to wag tails of lazy dogs (never built). A chair “for very short visits” with a seat at a 45-degree angle (built, beautifully). A children's bed combining a cockpit with a jungle gym. A beautiful half-clock/half-sculpture, mass-produced so everyone could have one. Toy monkeys with bendy arms. He also designed book covers for Italy’s most prestigious publisher. And he produced over a dozen amazing children’s books meant to provoke kids to “be free and aware of their power.”

He is Bruno Munari. A few of Munari’s books are still available to borrow from the library, but most are now out of print and hard to find. Not to worry, though — you can still come and see them at the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books.

From January 30 to April 15, 2023, you can explore Munari’s books as part of our exhibit, Bravo, Pinocchio! 600 Years of Italian Tales. And even when the exhibit is over, you can still ask to see his books any time!

Collage of whimsical book covers and a portrait of Bruno Munari
Top left: Bruno Munari. Photographer unknown (caricato sul sito da, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.

About Bruno Munari

Bruno Munari (1907–1998) was a Milanese artist, industrial designer, editor and author. He began his career as a member of Italy’s Futurist art movement. Later, he left the Futurists because of their association with Fascism. He went on to a long, prolific and playful career in publishing and industrial design. Among his goals: to democratize art, and make creativity available to everyone.

Design as Art book cover
Design as Art by Bruno Munari. (Available to borrow in print and ebook.)

Munari’s children’s books

Munari started writing and illustrating picture books after his son, Alberto, was born. He published all of these three books below in 1945. Like most of Munari’s early picture books, they feature quirky illustrations, flaps to lift and surprising plot twists.

In later picture books, Munari experimented with transparencies and cut-outs. Nella Notte Buia starts with a night studded with hole-punch fireflies. It then takes us on a walk through tall grass shrouded in mist (via layer upon layer of translucent paper). Finally, it leads us into a prehistoric cave deep underground, cut in jagged holes from paper with the rough texture of rock.

In The Circus in the Mist, Munari combines layers of translucent paper with colourful, die-cut pages. Together, they recreate the feeling of walking through a fogbound city, into the sensory overload of a circus, and back out again. A non-linear story lets readers find their own path through the book.

Nella Notte Buia
Nella Notte Buia, 1956 by Munari.
The Circus in the Mist
The Circus in the Mist, 1969 by Munari.

From 1972 to 1976, Munari directed a children’s book imprint for Einaudi called Tantibambini. On the back covers of the books, he summarized his philosophy of children’s literature:

“Simple tales and stories where we find no fairies, no witches, no luxurious castles, no handsome princes, no mysterious wizards, for a new generation of human beings who are to refuse inhibition, submission, and should be free and aware of their power.”

This translation of Edward Lear’s Nonsense Poems (below) was the second book Tantibambini published. To make sure these books would be available for everyone, Munari set the price at only 300 lire or about 60 U.S. cents. In fact, the price contributed to the imprint’s downfall. The books were so unprofitable that many booksellers didn’t bother carrying them.

Poesie Senza Senso
Poesie Senza Senso by Edward Lear, 1972.

In his quest to help children become “free and aware of their power”, Munari began experimenting even more with his books. Below is his unconventional alphabet book subtitled “Let’s write a book together”. The letters are organized, not in alphabetical order, but “according to the difficulties they present in being learned by the child.” In his introduction, Munari encourages children to cut letters out of magazines and glue them into the book. “For [the child], it will be like hunting for insects in the grass of a meadow, being careful not to confuse ants with grasshoppers.”  


In another experiment, Munari created a collection of “Prelibri” (or “Prebooks”). They are miniature not-quite-books for preschoolers. In the book’s introduction, presented as a dialogue between “A” and “B”, Munari writes:

“A: So even for a three-year-old child it would be a good thing to begin to familiarize itself with the book as an object, to recognize it as a cultural instrument or as a poetic medium, to assimilate that knowledge which facilitates existence.

“B: Knowledge is always a surprise; if one sees what one already knows, there is no surprise. Little books should be available, all different from one another, but all books, each with a different surprise in it, suitable for children who can’t yet read.”

“Surprises” in the twelve Prelibri in our collection include die-cuts, transparent overlays, yarn, paper of different colours and textures, pictures of ants and one sewn-in button.

I Prelibri cover
I Prelibri by Bruno Munari. 1980.

Munari was always trying to give his readers more control. The “book” shown below is an assortment of unbound pages of different colours and textures, some with illustrations and some without. Munari encourages children to take the book apart, draw in it, paste photographs into it and reorganize it according to their own ideas. The more fantastical the narrative they create, he suggests, the more fun.

La Favola delle Favole cover
La Favola delle Favole by Bruno Munari. 1994.

You can see these Munari books and more at our exhibit Bravo, Pinocchio! 600 Years of Italian Tales (January 30 to April 15, 2023).

Further reading (available to borrow)

For kids

Bruno Munari’s ABC
Bruno Munari’s Zoo

For adults

Munari’s Books by Giorgio Maffei
Bruno Munari: Square, Circle, Triangle