Francesco Tirelli’s Ice Cream Shop

Tamar Meir (author), Yael Albert (illus.), Noga Apple­baum (trans.)

  • Review
By – August 12, 2019

The cov­er art on Francesco Tirelli’s Ice Cream Shop fea­tures a smil­ing boy walk­ing with a grand­fa­ther­ly man, each enjoy­ing a mul­ti-scoop cone of bright­ly col­ored gela­to. The read­er, antic­i­pat­ing a tale of inter­gen­er­a­tional friend­ship and deli­cious food, will not be dis­ap­point­ed but will also be sur­prised. This new trans­la­tion of an Israeli pic­ture book moves from Italy to Budapest, from a young boy with dreams of open­ing an ice cream shop to a suc­cess­ful busi­ness own­er who risks his life by shel­ter­ing per­se­cut­ed Jews. Bright­ly col­ored pic­tures with sub­tle details allud­ing to his­tor­i­cal events and deeply thought­ful text ele­vate this sto­ry to a mod­ern clas­sic of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture for children.

The sto­ry begins with Francesco’s child­hood. A sense of fore­shad­ow­ing accom­pa­nies a pic­ture of him play­ing with toy sol­diers, mil­i­tary planes, and a small wheeled cart labeled gelati.” When he moves to Budapest and con­fronts skep­ti­cism about his plans to open a shop, he per­sists in his belief that pas­try-lov­ing Hun­gar­i­ans can be con­vinced to buy ice cream. The set­ting is sin­gu­lar as Albert depicts a tru­ly Mid­dle Euro­pean café, with pipe-smok­ing men and fur-coat­ed women enjoy­ing del­i­ca­cies such as, Zser­bó cake” and stuffed Gom­bóc.” Through­out the book, sim­ple expla­na­tions alter­nate with spe­cif­ic allu­sions to time and place, immers­ing the read­er in a dis­tant and for­eign setting.

A young Jew­ish boy, Peter, becomes a reg­u­lar patron of Francesco’s store, but even before Nazis occu­py the city, the pic­tures have alert­ed young read­ers to fright­en­ing changes. Not every­one in Budapest is as friend­ly and unprej­u­diced as the ice cream store own­er. A two-page spread shows Francesco serv­ing a smil­ing crowd of cus­tomers, while the swasti­ka and styl­ized Aryan face on a poster in the cor­ner point towards tragedy. Jews with down­turned faces and glar­ing yel­low stars affixed to their coats walk through the snow against a back­drop of tanks and sol­diers. Meir’s words real­is­ti­cal­ly express Peter’s fears: But Peter’s fam­i­ly was very afraid. They were Jew­ish, and they were no longer want­ed in Hungary…Who would help them?” Peter, his moth­er, and his father embrace in a kitchen with a Hanukkah meno­rah set unob­tru­sive­ly next to a pitch­er and scale; suit­cas­es and a hasti­ly over­turned chair sig­ni­fy the chaos to come. Albert switch­es her col­or palette, using black and blue back­grounds and fig­ures to high­light the changed cir­cum­stances of the characters.

A Hanukkah cel­e­bra­tion becomes part of Francesco’s coura­geous deci­sion to help his Jew­ish friends. Peter is an active par­tic­i­pant in res­cu­ing the win­ter hol­i­day of reded­i­ca­tion, even as he is hid­ing in a place where there are small bot­tles with tan­ta­liz­ing aro­mas, but there is no hanukki­ah.” The strik­ing image of hid­den Jews reclaim­ing their obser­vance is poignant. The book’s con­clud­ing pic­tures of an adult Peter with his grand­chil­dren in Israel, along with neat­ly placed memen­tos of his past, are both haunt­ing and celebratory.

Francesco Tirelli’s Ice Cream Shop is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for chil­dren but will also be appre­ci­at­ed by adults because of its excep­tion­al art­work and intel­li­gent text. A brief Epi­logue” fills in facts and informs read­ers of Francesco Tirelli’s recog­ni­tion by Yad Vashem.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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