While most children these days are having to spend their school hours indoors on Zoom, Fiammetta Melis takes her online classes in a pasture among the Val di Sole mountains, 3,000 feet above sea level in Northern Italy’s Trentino region. Fiammetta, 10, sits with her laptop at a small desk in the middle of a lush valley—her own makeshift classroom—ignoring the bleating of 350 goats to focus on her teacher’s voice. While her father, Massimiliano, tends to the animals, producing milk and ricotta cheese, Fiammetta pores over schoolbooks, learning math, history, and geography. It’s a routine the pair has gotten used to since the start of the pandemic.
Fiammetta’s mother is a social worker and her father is a farmer, which means neither can work from home. They moved from Sardinia two years ago in search of a better life, but when the pandemic closures started, Fiammetta’s parents faced a new hurdle: they couldn’t leave their daughter home alone. The mountains were a surprisingly happy solution.
“She is a great student,” says Massimiliano, “and working up here will help her learn to adapt to different environments. Thankfully the Internet connection is good, and she can follow all her courses. When she isn’t busy, she gives me a hand with the animals.”
Though she misses her classmates, Fiammetta loves being with her dad in the open air. “In the mornings,” she says, “we look for somewhere flat to put my table and chair. We turn the computer on so I get straight to class, and we find small stones so the wind doesn’t blow the pages of my books.” Instead of distracting her, Fiammetta insists, the environment actually helps her to concentrate: “I like studying here. It makes me motivated and more interested in my classes.”
And in terms of future plans, Fiammetta has very clear ideas. She never wants to work in an office and wants to be more like her father. “I want to be a forest ranger,” she says. “They get to be on horses all day, and I love horses.”
One day the writer Bruce Handy was out for a run in New York’s Central Park. As he plodded down the path, a dog with a big red ball clenched between his smiling teeth came bounding toward him, slobber and tongue a-flying about. “A dog just looks so insanely happy sometimes,” Handy says of that sight, “and I just thought, Wow, the happiness of a dog with a ball in its mouth. What’s happier than that?”
But life can be a little scary sometimes, too, and more than a little complicated—especially for a kid. Is there anything more agonizingly anguished, for instance, than choosing a flavor of ice cream? But think about the cold and melting delight you get once you do pick! Or how about the terror of leaping into the air from the high dive? But, oh, the glee—for a brief moment you’re flying!
Things have a way of being two-sided—for every problem, everything that wrinkles your brow and makes you want to cry out, a slight tweak in perspective can reveal the way forward. This is what Bruce Handy, author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, hopes to convey in his upcoming children’s book, The Happiness of a Dog with a Ball in Its Mouth, publishing next week.
“Happiness is not just a simple emotion,” he says. “There are different kinds of happiness and different sorts of ways to arrive at happiness.”
Together with the delightful art of Hyewon Yum, Handy shows that childhood can be as complicated a time of life as any other, with emotions as raw and valid as those that adults experience, but that with the right mentality, we can always find the joy a dog feels with a ball in its mouth.
The Happiness of a Dog with a Ball in Its Mouth, by Bruce Handy and Hyewon Yum, will be published on March 30 by Enchanted Lion Books