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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Rediscovering Pinocchio

Allan D. Nass

Carlo Collodi, the original author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, said of himself, "I was the most irresponsible, the most disobedient, and impudent boy in the whole school." With this realization, he persuaded himself that he was losing the good will of teachers and the friendship of fellow students. Then, he explained, "I too became a good boy. I began to respect the others and they in turn respected me" (Commire, 1971, p. 76). This article takes a fresh look at the sophisticated lessons wrapped in this classic children’s tale.

The bedtime story ritual was well under way. The lights were turned down low, and they cast a warm glow on the two young children who were tucked snugly into their beds. Their covers were pulled up around their chins, and their eyes were round with anticipation. The silence in the room was palpable. "Keep reading, Daddy!" the 3-year old finally blurted out. I sat on the edge of the bed staring at the book in my hands. The 6-year-old chimed in, "Daddy, what’s wrong? You said you would read us Pinocchio." It had suddenly occurred to me that the story I was reading was very different from what I remembered from my own childhood.

I continued the story in my best Geppetto voice. "Do you see those children?" I read, "They are going to school. Now that you are a little boy and not a puppet, you must also go to school." My daughters rolled their eyes and giggled at my accent. As I continued the story, I marveled at the exquisite way in which the fable depicts the transition a child must make to become a young man or woman. I was suddenly aware of all of the "Pinocchios" I’ve known in my life. I also had forgotten how accurately this fairy tale depicts the conflict in a youth searching for identity and the vital importance of a reclaiming environment.

Pinocchio is the story of a troubled lad searching for self-worth, self-esteem, and positive discipline. He is in desperate need of, and unconsciously seeking, what the authors of Reclaiming Youth at Risk described as a "circle of courage" (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 1990). Brendtro et al. drew from the teachings found in traditional Native American wisdom, which identify independence, mastery, belonging, and generosity as the universal ingredients necessary for positive childrearing.

The character of Pinocchio is that of an awkward youth snared by the pitfalls of the adolescent stage of development. He is a vulnerable adolescent who, in today’s world, would undoubtedly be labeled as a maladaptive juvenile delinquent suffering from attention-deficit disorder, lacking impulse control, and needing external controls and supervision. Additionally, early childhood trauma, family disruption, a single-parent home, and negative peer influences are clearly present as environmental risk factors and precursors of Pinocchio’s straying misadventures.

Pinocchio does a remarkable job capturing the dynamic and contradictory forces found in burgeoning youth everywhere. The idiosyncratic and ungainly way in which teenagers grapple with decision making is a universal dilemma that is clearly portrayed in this drama. It poignantly captures the adolescent’s capacity to rationalize destructive and self-defeating behavior. It was suddenly apparent to me that this fable provides a diagram of the human psyche and offers a map for understanding the quandaries with which many of its youngest members grapple.

An authoritative scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell, recognized the magic of classic children’s stories in capturing suffering, healing, and unfathomed wonder (1972). These familiar fables possess magical and spiritual symbolic and universal themes; they are permanent vestiges of the human spirit. Campbell conjectured that the purpose of these old tales and images is to keep us in touch with our "secret and motivating depths" (p. 24).

An Italian author, Carlo Collodi, wrote the famous children’s story Le Avventure di Pinocchio (1883-1965) toward the end of his life. It is an archetypal fairy tale of the inward conflict associated with the process of change, growth, and development. It is also noteworthy that Pinocchio contains the prescription to remedy these human dilemmas. Like many classic stories, fables, and myths that have weathered the passage of time, it carries the symbolic blueprint for social and emotional conflict and the potential for resolution: Pinocchio has many unhappy adventures as he progresses from his wooden and dependent state to true independence as a real boy. He finally attains fulfillment and happiness when he completes his symbolic quest for the psychological foundations of courage.

If you have forgotten some of the intricacies of this allegorical tale, allow me to outline the main features. Pinocchio is the creation of a kindly woodcarver named Geppetto. As a toy puppet, he is subject to the commands of his maker. He is totally dependent on Geppetto, who makes him walk and dance by manipulating his strings. Geppetto truly wants a real boy, so he makes a wish, "Star light, Star bright. First star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight!" (Disney, 1986, p. 9). The Blue Fairy appears, and with a wave of her magic wand makes his wish come true. Blue is the symbolic color of divine intervention and represents the intervening miracle of the gift of life.

Now Pinocchio has the freedom to move on his own. The fact that he is still awkward and wooden typifies the transitional nature and uncertainty found during the pubescent state. "You may be a real boy some day," the Blue Fairy instructs, "but first, you must prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish" (Disney, 1986, p. 14). This becomes the symbolic test that Pinocchio must pass to prove himself worthy of achieving the rite of passage from a dependent wooden toy to an authentic, independent person.

Besides his freedom, he is also given "that still, small voice" – a conscience – in the form of a cricket named Jimmy, whose unwavering commitment to Pinocchio is expressed through his consistent and dependable comradeship. He hops tirelessly after Pinocchio to provide unconditional acceptance, regard, and guidance. Jimmy models the vital reclaiming quality of "presence" (Krueger, 1995).

Pinocchio begins his journey toward independence full of enthusiasm, good intentions, and confidence. He immediately falls into trouble, however, as he is influenced by circumstances and external influences. Like many youth I’ve known, Pinocchio is driven by a strong need to fit in and be accepted. He is led astray by mischievous friends. One such chum is a fox named J. Worthington Foulfellow, who explains, "my friends call me Honest John" (Disney, 1986, p. 28).

The dubious characters Pinocchio encounters personify the predatory elements that feed on innocent and naive children everywhere. Pinocchio’s lack of experience makes him highly susceptible to negative peer influences and criminal elements. "School!" sneers Honest John. "Why waste your time going to school?" "Come with us … we’ll make you a star" (Disney, 1986, p. 31).

Lured by the temptation of instant gratification, Pinocchio quickly forgets his original quest and is abruptly caught up in circumstances that are beyond his ability to control. The wooden boy succumbs to the youthful qualities of experimentation, narcissism, and rebellion. When his actions lead to his being locked up in a cage, he responds by concocting elaborate excuses laced with rationalization and lies.

It is at this point that the Blue Fairy intercedes in the youth’s conflict cycle (Menninger, 1976; Powell, 1989; Wood & Long, 1991) by facilitating self-discovery. Her problem-solving approach to Pinocchio’s conflict is to engage him in a life-space interview (Redl & Wineman, 1952). She conducts a highly empathetic interview that emphasizes the importance of effective communication while recognizing that problems may be a catalyst for positive change.

Her commitment to understanding Pinocchio’s version of the story conveys a strong sense of acceptance, even as his nose continues to grow longer and longer with every prevarication. "You see, Pinocchio," the Blue Fairy explains, "A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face" (Disney, 1986, p. 47). When confronted by the discouraging results of his poor choices, Pinocchio is supported in learning from his mistakes and offered opportunities for redemption.

Pinocchio faces another challenge when he is lured to Pleasure Island by the promise of games, toys, and all the candy he can eat. As a result of his unconscionable actions, he turns into a donkey. Once again Jimmy follows Pinocchio to the source of the problem and intervenes in the crisis by demonstrating unconditional acceptance, understanding, and nonjudgmental guidance.

When Pinocchio returns from Pleasure Island, he learns that Geppetto, while searching for him, was swallowed by Monstro the Whale. At the bottom of the ocean Pinocchio finds Geppetto in the cavern-like belly of the whale. He saves his father and carries him on his back to shore. When they arrive, washed up on the beach, Geppetto discovers that Pinocchio is lying face down and lifeless in the water.

Geppetto carries Pinocchio back to the village. He lays Pinocchio on his bed and kneels by his side. "Little Pinocchio, you risked your life to save me," sobs the old man, lowering his head in sorrow. The Blue Fairy appears once again, waves her magic wand, and declares, "Now you have proven yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish. Today you will become a real boy. Awake, Pinocchio, awake!" (Disney, 1986, p. 92). Like countless other time-honored tales, rebirth is symbolically manifested as a vital component of the transformational process.

Surrounded by his family and friends, the lifeless wooden boy arises as a living person. He is resurrected by the authentic trials and tribulations of his experience and the reclaiming environment provided by those who care for him. Redemption, forgiveness, and salvation are central themes of his catharsis and are facilitated by the vital quality essential for reaching troubled youth: the spirit of love (Brendtro & Ness, 1983). By demonstrating perseverance over the tumultuous challenges of the growing up process, Geppetto and Jimmy teach us that "love is exactly as strong as life" (Campbell, 1972).

Pinocchio demonstrates how vitally important it is that children have continuous support and guidance from caring adults. Despite the seemingly inescapable problems Pinocchio faces, the guardians in his life continue to place him in the center of their circle of support. Their persistence in surrounding him with a reclaiming environment allows him to receive the vital lessons from his struggles and challenges.

Despite the exhausting effort, the circle of committed and compassionate caregivers in Pinocchio’s life never falter in providing respect for his journey. By nurturing the positive qualities of healthy connection and attachment, Pinocchio’s supporters find that a strong bonding takes place in their relationship with Pinocchio. Through their actions, Geppetto and Jimmy illustrate that creating a sense of belonging is a more essential need than self-esteem or self-actualization (Maslow, 1962).

The story shows that until belongingness occurs, the development of a healthy self-concept and conscience may not be achieved. This may suggest an important clue for addressing the staggering increases in juvenile delinquency, crime, and violence in our contemporary society. In the absence of nurturing, consistent, and healthy relationships, children and youth will seek out and find alternative attachments. Pinocchio’s realization of interdependence with those who care for him is the culmination of his journey.

The Polish physician, child advocate, and innovative educator, Janusz Korczak (1878–1942) personified this absolute devotion to and respect for children. Although he understood that childrearing is challenging and exhausting work, he resisted the notion that we must eventually tire of stooping to the child’s level of intellect. Instead, Korczak emphasized that the real work is in having the courage to rise to the challenge of providing greater sensitivity, understanding, inclusion, and involvement. He concluded that the true accomplishment is when we learn to raise our experience of troubled youth beyond the limits of blame, accusation, and threat to embracing the most reluctant and resistant (1991a, 1991b). We must lift our capacities to teach by example the indispensable principles of courage and caring.

As I gazed upon the peaceful, sleeping faces of my own children and quietly went about the business of turning out the lights, I found myself genuinely admiring the colossal efforts of Geppetto and Jimmy in their tireless pursuit of Pinocchio. Their child-centered commitment to him conveys an ageless wisdom known by heroic parents, educators, and advocates everywhere. The commitment to reclaim troubled youth is a covenant, a sacred pact and responsibility toward caring for life’s most precious resource.


Brendtro, L. K., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (1990). Reclaiming youth at risk:Our hope for the future. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

Brendtro, L. K., & Ness, A. E. (1983). Re-educating troubled youth; Environments for teaching and treatment. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Campbell, J. (1972). Myths to live by: How we re-recreate ancient legends in our daily lives to release human potential. New York: Bantam.

Collodi, C. (1965). The adventures of Pinocchio (M. A. Murray, Trans.). New York: Grosset & Dunlap. (Original work published 1883)

Commire, A. (1971). Something about the author: Facts & pictures about contemporary authors and illustrators of books for young people. Detroit: Gale.

Disney, W. (1986). Pinocchio. New York: Penguin.

Korczak, I. (1991a). The child’s right to respect (F. P. Kulawiec, Trans.). Washington, DC: University Press of America. (Original work published 1925)

Korczak, J. (1991b). When I am little again (E. P. Kulawiec, Trans.). Washington, DC: University Press of America. (Original work published 1925)

Krueger, M. (1995). Nexus: A book about youth work. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Maslow, A. (1962). Toward a psychology of being. Princeton, NI: Van Nostrand.

Menninger, K. (1976). The human mind (3rd ed.). New York: Knopf.

Powell, N. (1989). The conflict cycle: A useful model for Child and Youth Care workers. In M. Krueger & N. Powell (Eds.), Choices in caring. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Redl, F., & Wineman, D. (1952). Controls from within. New York: Free Press.

Wood, M., & Long, N. (1991). Life space intervention: Talking with children and youth in crisis. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

Nass, Allan D. (1997). Rediscovering Pinocchio. Reclaiming children and youth. Vol. 5 No.4. pp239-241

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