You might think with all the commotion in the boot of Europe that Italy has been honoring a national hero. Michelangelo, perhaps? Garibaldi? Dante? The answer should be as plain as the nose on your face. It's Pinocchio's 100th birthday. In 1881 the mischievous puppet was dreamed up by Carlo Lorenzini, a civil servant who gambled—and often lost. Using his mother's hometown, Collodi, as a nom de plume, he wrote 15 installments for a children's newspaper. Debts retired, he ended the tale, which he considered just "a little nonsense," by having the villainous cat and fox hang his hero from a tree. But public pressure forced Lorenzini to invent a blue fairy to retrieve Pinocchio from the grave and chaperon him through 21 more episodes.

Since then the saga of the block of wood who would be a boy has been analyzed by theologians (for his "resurrection" after death), Marxists (for his lowly status) and Freudians (for his elastic nose, which grows with each white lie). Pinocchio has been translated into more than 87 languages, including Hebrew and Japanese. Most Americans know the story courtesy of Walt Disney's 1940 animated classic, but the fable has also been the subject of seven other films. There have been more than 100 editions of the book in English, the newest of which was adapted by Marianna Mayer and illustrated by Gerald McDermott (Four Winds Press, $14.95).

Re-doing Pinocchio was McDermott's idea, not Mayer's. She knew the Disney version and was not amused. "I love Disney," says the 36-year-old writer, "but I thought his Pinocchio was dopey. I saw it when I was five, and I kept wondering, 'Why is he so stupid?' " McDermott, 40, was persistent, so Mayer picked up a 1920s translation, which she found more wooden than its hero. But she also discovered "the original tale was not Disney's story at all!" He had tidied up and mellowed the plot considerably. He added such cuddly favorites as Cleo the goldfish and the kitten Figaro, and eliminated some brutal creatures that Lorenzini had pulled from Italian animal fables. Disney made the wood-carver Gepetto into a clock maker and, for economy's sake, collapsed a number of characters into one, Jiminy Cricket.

Delving into the original version, the Italian-American Mayer (née Marianna Ammirati) found that the puppet was not a dullard at all—and Lorenzini's tale became an emblematic story of free-spirited childhood for her. "I was very impudent as a kid," she says. "Like Pinocchio, I was always in trouble. Nobody could tell me how to do things either. It's the conflict in Pinocchio that makes him wonderful."

Born in Queens, N.Y., the daughter of an accountant and a onetime ballerina, Marianna decided early on to become an artist. While studying at the Art Students League in New York, she met and married Mercer Mayer, who is now an award-winning illustrator of children's books. Marianna began to collaborate by writing the texts. But after 13 years the marriage ended. Now Marianna lives in a 1730 farmhouse on 15 acres in Roxbury, Conn. with her dog, Max, a briard, and her horse, Lea.

She has two more juvenile books coming out in 1982 and is considering writing a novel. "Fairy tales," she allows, "have given me a sense of optimism that I probably wouldn't have had. That's why working on them is wonderful—they are my friends." None more close than Pinocchio.