AT the age of 4, Tomie de Paola announced to his mother that he wanted to be an illustrator. ``And it never entered my mind to be anything else. ``But,'' he admits rather ruefully, ``it took me quite a while to convince an editor to take my work - one even told me not to come back until I learned to draw!''
Today, Mr. de Paola (pronounced de-POW-la) is one of the most popular and prolific illustrators in the field of children's literature.
In 1967, after completing a bachelor of fine arts degree at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., de Paola moved to San Francisco, where he taught art and design, and received a master of arts degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts.
``The time I spent in San Francisco helped me solidify in my thought that I would be an illustrator,'' he says.
``San Francisco also helped me to raise my consciousness - about women's issues especially - and to realign my thinking about antiwar and peace organizations.''
De Paola, who comes from an Irish-Italian family, also spent a lot of time working at the Sacred Heart parish there.
One incident in particular helped him to get in touch with the child within himself. Just before one Christmas, de Paola helped the young parish children to make life-size figures for the church cr`eche.
``The kids could make whatever figures they wanted,'' he recalls, ``and we ended up with five kings. When the children came to midnight mass, they were very proud of the cr`eche. It was truly beautiful.
``But on Saturday, the parish priest called, and he was very upset. Someone had tried to destroy the cr`eche figures.'' Dismay is still evident in his voice.
The attempt made de Paola realize that while we may love our children, we don't necessarily like or respect them as people or believe that their feelings and questions are really important.
It wasn't until de Paola returned to Boston, however, that the impact of the cr`eche experience was reflected in his work. ``This gave me the courage to write books about questions I had had as a child, but hadn't had answered,'' he comments.
``It also allowed me to approach the emotion level of my books as a child. Children are always being told to grow up - but if I grow up,'' de Paola continues rather impishly, ``how can I write books for children?''
One of the first books de Paola wrote was ``Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs,'' published in 1975. Based on the death of his grandmother, he says it was a highly personal and challenging book to write.
``My grandmother's death made a large impression on me as a child, and it was scary to write about,'' de Paola remarks.
``Also, at the time, very little was being written on death.''
With the publication that year of ``Nana,'' ``Charlie Needs a Cloak,'' and ``Andy, That's My Name,'' de Paola became an overnight success.
These days, he publishes six to 10 books a year, travels widely to promote his work, gives book talks at schools, and does author signings at bookstores.
Of the many books de Paola has illustrated, several have been on Christmas themes.
For example, ``Tomie de Paola's Book of Christmas Carols'' is quintessential de Paola, and an excellent example of why his books are so popular.
``Christmas Carols'' embodies de Paola's stylistic trademarks - his individual use of color (luminescent reds, brilliant blues, and muted golds and browns); recurring folk motifs (hearts, white birds, dogs, cats, and stars); a strong sense of balance between art, text, and white space; and thoughtful attention to the order of the carols.
Many of the illustrations are reminiscent of stained-glass windows.
The three gatefold pages produce a triptych effect, similar to early altar pieces, with a central panel and two foldout panels.
As one of today's leading illustrators, de Paola has won many awards. They include the Caldecott Honor for ``Strega Nona,'' the Kerlan Award for ``singular attainment in children's literature,'' and the Regina medal for a ``distinguished contribution in children's literature.''
Anita Silvey, editor of the Horn Book magazine, attributes de Paola's phenomenal popularity to ``the wonderful sense of joy in his books and his ability to capture a sense of the playfulness within children.''
Ms. Silvey adds, however, that children are not the only ones who respond to the vitality and joy in his work.
Adults do, too.