In 2015 Tomie dePaola will celebrate his 50th year in publishing and his 40th writing and illustrating his award-winning tales of Strega Nona. If that makes him sound old, he’s far from it, at least in spirit. “When I dream, I’m 34,” says the 79-year-old author/illustrator, who retains the twinkle of a much younger man. There’s a lightness to his step (despite a cane and a 3:30 a.m. rising time) and a curiosity about what makes people tick. As he speaks with PW on the stone steps of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, on a chilly autumn morning, he turns to watch a woman in a bridal gown pose for a series of photographs. DePaola’s assistant, Bob Hechtel, stays close by and laughs as PW tries, somewhat unsuccessfully, to steer the conversation from the past to dePaola’s newly released Strega Nona Does It Again (Penguin/Paulsen).
A Career Takes Root
It’s early, prior to dePaola’s keynote address for the Boston Book Festival. The previous month, at the Brooklyn Book Festival, he signed for four hours. DePaola begins by confirming many stories about how he became an artist. Yes, he really did tell his family at age four that he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: he wanted to draw and write stories. A few years later, he explained to his second grade teacher, Miss Gardner, why his assignments, which were done on unlined paper, were always covered with drawings. He wasn’t going to be an “arthmeticer,” he told her. He was going to be an artist.
But it wasn’t just knowing what he wanted to do early on that helped launch dePaola’s career. He also credits luck, the kind of luck the conductor James Levine talked about the night before in an interview on Charlie Rose. “[Levine] said something that rang true,” dePaola said. “He always was in the right place at the right time with the right teachers. He was very lucky, and why not take advantage of it?” It never dawned on me not to take advantage of everything that came down my path.” For dePaola, it was a given that he’d follow his twin cousins, fashion photographers Franny and Fuffy, to Pratt Institute if he got in. He did, with a scholarship from his hometown of Meriden, Conn.
DePaola was also open to learning. One summer he studied with artist Ben Shahn, who showed him that “you don’t need an expensive pen from Germany to draw.” Instead they collected sticks and used them with a pot of ink. He also taught dePaola about scale, that illustrations have to be created that work both large and small. “Anything you do has to be big enough to be on the side of a building, or on a postage stamp,” Shahn told him. Most important, dePaola says, he learned how to be an artist: “It’s more than what you do. It’s the way you live your life.”
After receiving his BFA from Pratt, dePaola earned a master’s degree from California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts): “So I could make more money teaching to support my illustration,” he explains. He didn’t publish a book until he was 30, which he attributes to the fact that he didn’t live in New York City when he was starting out. He doesn’t live there now, but being in New London, N.H., in his later years, doesn’t matter. He has written and illustrated more than 250 picture books—too many, he says, to count. He credits Bernice Kohn Hunt (aka Lisa Hunt), author of Sound (1965) – the first book he illustrated – with teaching him “the secret” of writing picture books. He turned to her when his first picture book, The Wonderful Dragon of Timlin, was growing to Gone with the Wind proportions. “I learned,” says dePaola, “that the words tell the story, but so do the pictures. She said, ‘In your case a picture is worth a thousand words.’ ” The book was published in 1966, and dePaola has been writing and illustrating picture books ever since.
When he was asked recently to explain what a picture book is, by someone putting together a project for Picture Book Month, dePaola recalls, “The first thing that came to me is what my editor told me 40 years ago. A picture book is a 32-page book with a picture on every page.” But the definition he’s developed over the past five decades creating them is: “A picture book is a small door to the enormous world of the visual arts, and they’re often the first art a young person sees.”
As to what inspired him to write books for kids originally, he jokes, “Grown-up books don’t have any pictures in them.” But his style, he says with great seriousness later during the keynote, comes from French artist Henri Matisse. “Matisse didn’t want people who looked at his paintings to wonder how he did it or to get upset, but to feels as comfortable as if they were sitting in an armchair,” says dePaola.
Happy Anniversary, Strega Nona
When he was starting out, dePaola would produce several books a year. Now he works on just one or two. Currently his projects include a Strega Nona treasury with some new material for the 40th anniversary of the series. So much for his original idea that Strega Nona, for which he won a Caldecott Honor in 1976, was a one-off title. As to where he gets his ideas for new Strega Nona adventures, he replies, “I tell the kids, she whispers in my ear.” Originally she came to him when he was doodling the Pulcinella character in Commedia dell’Arte, but with a kerchief. Strega Nona’s assistant, Big Anthony, who was going to be a female character, is modeled physically after dePaola’s cousin Frankie, but doesn’t act like him. “Big Anthony is like all of us,” says dePaola. “He isn’t dumb and he isn’t stupid. But he doesn’t pay attention.”
As for Strega Nona Does It Again, dePaola describes his new title as “almost a graphic novel,” because of the sequential pictures. But by then there’s no more time to discuss it, because our time is up. And the bride and groom are leaving the library as well; the photo session and the interview are over. For the next half hour dePaola answers questions from three child interviewers in lieu of a formal presentation and signs books for another three and a half hours. Fans have come from as far away as Guadalajara, Mexico, just to meet him. By the time he’s finished signing, people are drifting back to the outdoor book fair from lunch. He and Hechtel are ready for the two-hour bus trip home.