His new and retold folk tales go straight to a child's heart

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.

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."

Although "The night Before Christmas" is the 100th book he has published since he began writing children's books in 1968, it is the first set on home ground. The charming, onedimensional cover scene depicts the dozen or so buildings that make up Wilmot Flat. Most of the illustrations of the 160 -year-old ballad envision the interior of his house as he thinks it might have looked in 1840. Patchwork designs border each picture, directly influenced by his own collection of early American quilts.

The book resembles the work of an American primitive painter, a comparison that Tomie de Paola, despite his years as an art student an d teacher, would consider high praise. "I think the folk artists were wonderful because they were so uninhibited," he says. "They didn't worry about the ego. "They were just concerned with painting and decorating."

But only part of his work is based directly on folk traditions. Some of his most popular works are rooted in the years he has spent teaching and illustrating textbooks. Referred to in the trade as "concept" books, works such as "The Cloud Book," "The Popcorn Book," and "Michael Bird-Boy" are cleverly disguised wasy of teaching about the environment. "Michael Bird-Boy," for example, is the thoroughly entertaining story of what happens when a small boy (who puts on a bird suit each morning) does something about the pollution emanating from a factory manufacturing Genuine Shoo-Fly Artificial Honey Syrup. While Michael Bird-Boy solves this problem, young readers learn, among other things, about the way bees make honey.

No matter what sort of book he does, Mr. de Paola finds the text, not the illustrations, to be the biggest challenge. "The space for text in a picture book is incredibly limited, and it is impossible to be too concise," he explains. "A paragraph has to be compressed into a single sentence. And then, too, you have to be very conscious of the way the book sounds,m because it is likely to be read aloud to the child."

When he formulates an idea for a picture book, Tomie de Paola's first impulse , naturally enough, is to begin with the pictures. He restrains himself, however, and completes the text first. Even his wordless picture books are begun with a "film script" outline. the finished product will then go to one of his three publishers, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Holiday House, or G. P. Putnam's Sons. "The reason I work for three houses is simply because I have three terrific editors whom I rely a great deal."

Adorning the top of one wall in his studio is a pink banner with paper cutouts of some of his characters, a gift from schoolchildren in Minnesota. Across the bottom it reads "Merry Christmas Tomie" with the "o" in his name shaped like a heart. The observant children knew that the heart is one of two traditional folk art symbols that figure prominently in many of his illustrations. The other is a white bird.

Such banners are not something he receives every day, but mail, most of it adoring, he does. "I don't really know why children respond to my work," he says. "My guess is only that it is simple and honest. My pictures spring from an emotional place inside myself. I don't use them as a stage to show off my talent."

"Young children can tell right away when you're not being honest," he maintins. "I don't buy the commonly held idea that children have short attention spans. If a message rings true, they will sit and listen."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.