His new and retold folk tales go straight to a child's heart
Wilmot Flat, N.H.
There is no other way to Wilmot Flat and the house where Tomie de Paola lives except by taking a series of narrow country roads that twist around stands of maple trees and ponds that are as yet strangers to pollution. And once you get to Wilmot Flat, there is not much else besides the author-illustrator's neatly trimmed old farmhouse, which placidly graces its distinguished spot across from a Civil War monument.Skip to next paragraph
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Such is the tranquility of the white clapboard home with tidy pots of mums on the doorstep that it is difficult to comprehend the flurry of activity that goes on inside. But at almost any hour of day -- and often night -- Tomie de Paola, who has just published his 100th children's book, is hard at work, on his way to producing 100 more.
But quantity is not the most remarkable aspect of Mr. de Paola's work. He has the simple, extraordinary ability to make the charm and wit of his folk-art picture books connect with the three- to seven-year-olds they are designed for. In a nationwide poll conducted by the International Reading Association in 1978, children listed more of Tomie de Paola's volumes as their favorites than those of any other author.
High on that list of favorites are Mr. de Paola's jewel-toned picture books of retold folk tales a genre in which he skillfully matches pre-Renaissance-style art with the wry humor and pathos inherent in the old legends.
When one passes through the door of his house, the influence of folk art and traditions on his work becomes evident in the many samples of primitive sculpture. In a corner of the airy white living room, wonderfully disproportionate carved human figures from Mexico stand, confronted from another corner by the works of a virginia carver. On top of the white laminated coffee table a group of children swings on a long pole carved from caribou horn by Eskimos.
Along the wall leading to the converted barn that now serves as his studio, a collage of Tomie de Paola's illustrations shows how his own work harmonizes with what he collects. Among the characters on display are the troll-heroine of "Helga's Dowry," with her piano-key grin and patched peasant garb; the little Italian juggler of "The Clown of God"; bumbling Big Anthony and Grandma Witch of "Strega Nona"; and the lovely moonlit couple of "The Prince of the Dolomites." Most recent and most prominently displayed is the cover scene from "The Night Before Christmas," a book in which de Paola uses his own house and village to illustrate the old Clement Moore ballad.
Pulling his stool away from the drafting board over which he labors 10 to 12 hours a day, Mr. de Paola muses on why folk tales and art have inspired such work.
"The folk fairy tale was a very important part of my life," he says. "I think it's a form that touches children of any era. Children have always had the same basic concerns, most of which deal with how to get along in the land of giants that they live in. Folk tales, although set in different cultures during different times, address those basic concerns."
But children reading or listening to a de Paola book such as "Strega Nona" would probably be too amused at the humorous story to know that the old Italian tale serves such a serious function. In the 1975 Caldecott honor book, Big Anthony disobediently uses Grandma Witch's magic pasta pot to conjure forth some dinner. When he is unable to make the pot stop producing, he has to eat the miles of pasta engulfing the enraged village.
In preparing a folk tale such as "Strega Nona," de Paola researches as many versions of the story as he can find, trying to uncover the "root" tale. "I've been fascinated to find that tales change a great deal over the years, and that different cultures have many stories in common," he remarks. "Even with something so well known and comparatively recent as 'The Night Before Christmas' I found that there are many variations."