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The Mud Angels: How Students Saved the City of Florence - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

This amazing historical picture book, based on true events, recounts the hopeful and inspirational story of a diverse group of young people braving noxious mud to save books and artifacts threatened by the 1966 cataclysmic flood in Florence, Italy.

Book cover - flood water and mud swirling cars, railing, limbs, and books in front of Florence's Central Library.

The Mud Angels: How Students Saved the City of Florence

Author: Karen Greewald

Illustrator: Olga Lee

Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company

Ages: 4-8

Historical Fiction


Themes:

Community, generosity, bravery, hope, and environmental disasters.


Synopsis:

Based on real events, this story shows how a team of international volunteers worked together to save priceless artifacts after a flood.


When the Arno River floods the city of Florence, Italy in 1966, it leaves slimy, smelly mud everywhere. A young girl watches students from around the world, many from the US, help save the town's rare treasures, earning themselves the nickname Gli Angeli del Fango, the Mud Angels.


Opening Lines:

Mama says are city is so old,

even the tiniest stones have

secrets and stories to tell.


We are linked to Florence's past by my great-great-

great-grandpa (that's a long, long, long, time ago).


His hand-printed, older-than-old, one-of-a-kind

book is in the Central Library.


That's where all the words filling all the pages of

every book ever written in Italy are supposed to live,


safely,


waiting to be read.


What I LOVED about this book:

Using a young narrator, based on an actual child (as relayed in the back matter), Karen Greenwald expertly places the reader directly into the events around the Arno river flood of Florence in 1966 in this remarkable historical fiction. While she notes that this initial spread, of the girl admiring a relative's book in the Central Library may not have occurred, the young girl did interact with the American college students who stayed at her family's hotel during this event.

Internatl spread - a mother, father, and young girl look at a relative's old hand-printed book in the library.

Text © Karen M. Greenwald, 2024. Image © Text © Olga Lee, 2024.


Olga Lee's stunning illustrations are so full of light, personality, and movement. She wonderfully captured the excitement of the college students, and the beauty of Florence and the peaceful river. Little did they know how the city would change their lives and they in turn would change it.

Internal spread - six college students (four girls and two guys) sightseeing & taking pictures in Florence on a street near the Arno river.

Text © Karen M. Greenwald, 2024. Image © Text © Olga Lee, 2024.


In a sudden shift with the turn of a page. Olga gorgeously shows the sudden, tumultuous, raging torrent of the Arno river. Combined with Karen's lovely lyrical language, "heaved a wild wave at the road," they viscerally portray the sheer volume and force of this unusual flood. And the sudden transformation the city underwent.

Internal spread - roiling, swirling flood waters rising from the Arno riveer to race through Florence's narrow streets, carrying cars and debris

Text © Karen M. Greenwald, 2024. Image © Text © Olga Lee, 2024.


But

in the earliest hours,

after a rainy November night,

the normally calm Arno river running

right through Florence

suddenly

heaved

a wild wave at the road.


Water

lept

over the river's

stone-stacked

walls,

swirling,

whirling,

and racing

up

narrow streets.


For eighteen hours, this unprecedented flood roiled and rushed into buildings, carried cars, trees, and debris throughout the city, climbing higher and higher. "Then / quietly, strangely, / almost peacefully, / the river rolled / back to bed." Leaving massive amounts of stinky mud. Hazardous mud full of gasoline, chemicals, animal remains, and lots of debris. Mud that covered everything. I love the gentle lyricism that Karen uses to honestly convey the subtle shifts that occurred in Florence in a way that kids (and their adults) can relate to.


Once the water receded, many college students (Americans and others), braved "the filth and awful orders and risks" and headed to the central library. For days, they dug books out of the noxious mud, passing them in a fireman's carry out of the basement trying to rescue artifacts and the library's treasures - Italy's history. Olga's created a powerful image of young adults, splattered in mud, working by lantern light, to save the books. For months, described as "new waves," people from all over the world poured into Florence to help the city dig out, creating "a human chain that grew and grew and grew." A beautiful, touching ending names these amazing helpers angeli, or Mud Angels.


This is a stunning historical picture book on a little known event to many readers. An event that changed the lives of these students and the city of Florence. Fifty-eight years later, this story is still relevant today, as climate change causes more frequent and devastating ecological events. This book offers an example of the compassion, determination, resilience, selflessness, and hope we will all need in the coming years. The author's note provides additional information on the book's creation and the Mud Angels. It's a poignant and powerful story.


Resources:

Photo - child's hands tying the binding on a homemade book.
  • learn to bind your own book (here).


  • watch how a restorer repairs rare, old books (here).


If you missed the fun interview with Karen Greenwald, find it (here).


This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions and resources see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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