When Tomie dePaola told me he receives 100,000 fan letters a year - many of them from second-graders - a funny scene from one of his popular children's books sprang to mind.
In one story, Big Anthony, a brawny creation of the wise witch Strega Nona, is chased up a hill by a crowd of swooning women. In Big Anthony's place, I imagined the portly Mr. dePaola fleeing up the hill with a pack of letter-waving grade-schoolers at his heels.
It's easy to see why dePaola (pronounced duh-POW-luh) has been called "the Pied Piper of children's books." Having illustrated 200 children's books, one-third of which he also wrote, the award-winning author and illustrator is well-loved by America's young readers. Five million copies of his books have been printed in 15 countries.
A fun-filled studio
With his silver hair, chubby cheeks, and jovial chuckle, dePaola seems like a favorite uncle who's always ready for a game.
"I love flowers!" he says, using one of his favorite phrases as he strolls through a garden to his 200-year-old barn studio during a videotaped tour of his New London, N.H., home. Wearing a red bandanna, jeans, and a work shirt, he opens the studio door and is pawed lovingly by his dog Bingley and four other Welsh terriers.
"Sit Bingley, sit Moffet, Madison, Markus, and Morgan.... Oh, what good dogs!" he says. In his studio, dePaola is surrounded by colorful folk art and carvings of animals. He also has homemade boxes of things he has found, such as dried peas and beans from his garden. Here, he translates a childlike enthusiasm for the world around him into seemingly spontaneous art. Colors such as his distinctive bluish green and rose pink come together in unexpected ways. Characters spring out of simple lines on a yellow doodling pad.
How Strega Nona began
Strega Nona, the magical, big-nosed Italian "Grandma Witch" who was to become dePaola's most popular creation, came to life in this carefree way. One day, he recalls, he was doodling during a faculty meeting at a school where he taught. One of his doodles was this little character, "and I knew her name was Strega Nona."
Like Strega Nona, many of dePaola's characters and stories have roots in his own childhood. Born in Connecticut to an Italian father and Irish mother, he grew up with an older brother and two younger sisters. As a four-year-old, he says, his "best friend" was his Irish great-grandmother, who became the central figure in the book "Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs."
The character Strega Nona, with her big pasta pot, was partly inspired by dePaola's Italian grandmother. "Her house was really strange," he says. "Cooking was a really huge part of her life, and so she had a stove right by the table." Most of all, dePaola recalls the "endless" servings of spaghetti she would force him to eat.
Recalling when he was a kid
He remembers the unpleasant shock of seeing her "turn up at the doorstep" to care for him and his siblings once when his mother was in the hospital with a new baby. (Today, though, dePaola loves to cook pasta and often bakes bread in his studio while he is working.)
Words and traditions from his family background also appear frequently in his books. "Days of the Blackbird," his latest book, takes place in a mountain village in northern Italy. The story is about a white dove who sings through the winter to keep up the spirits of an ailing duke. To stay warm on the coldest days, the bird takes refuge in a chimney. Its feathers turn black from the soot. From then on, the last three days of January are called the "days of the blackbird."
DePaola says his greatest hope is that his books will all send a message of joy. Taking a heart as his trademark, he says he wants to let his readers know that "life is worth living and is a wonderful thing to experience."
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Tomie's Tips on Writing Books
- First, you have to read, says writer and illustrator Tomie dePaola. 'If you read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything. Then you have the confidence you need to write.' Writing also takes practice, he says. He always has to write more than one draft of a story.
- 'Real artists don't copy,' he says about learning to draw. 'That is the best advice I ever got.' You must come up with your own creations and practice a lot. His first drawings were rounded figures of people, and his mother told him he always colored in the entire page. (He also doodled on his arithmetic.)
- Work hard. DePaola says he's been working hard ever since his first job, which was to dig a ditch. 'But I don't want to let the hard work show,' he adds. He quotes the French artist Henri Matisse. Matisse hoped people looking at his paintings would feel as though they were sitting in a comfortable armchair. What dePaola means is that although his art requires hard work, he wants it to appear easy. He wants his work to give people a happy, uplifted feeling.
Tomie dePaola has illustrated nearly 200 books. He wrote the stories for one-third of them. There are 5 million copies of his books in print in 15 countries! Here are some:
DAYS OF THE BLACKBIRD
STREGA NONA: HER STORY
THE BABY SISTER
the bubble factory
TOMIE DEPAOLA'S BOOK OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
KIT AND KAT
I LOVE YOU SUN, I LOVE YOU MOON
STREGA NONA MEETS HER MATCH
THE KNIGHT AND THE DRAGON
Putnam, 1980, 1993
JAMIE O'ROURKE AND THE BIG POTATO
BONJOUR, MR. SATIE
TOMIE DEPAOLA'S BOOK OF BIBLE STORIES
little grunt and the big egg: a prehistoric fairy tale
BABY'S FIRST CHRISTMAS
bill and pete go down the nile
TOMIE DEPAOLA'S MOTHER GOOSE
bill and pete