Drawing on his own life to create his children's books is hardly novel for Tomie dePaola, author and/or illustrator of over 200 books. He placed himself as the budding young artist at the heart of The Art Lesson. His maternal great-grandmother and grandmother were the stars of Nana Upstairs &Nana Downstairs. And his younger sibling, Maureen, was the new arrival in The Baby Sister.
What marks a new creative phase for this author is the fact that his latest autobiographical work, 26 Fairmount Avenue, is his first chapter book. Due from Putnam in April, this volume launches a series of the same title (named for the address of the house his parents built when dePaola was five years old), which will consist of a projected four to six books. Writing in the first person, dePaola here brings back a number of the beloved characters -- and expands on some of the episodes -- from his picture books. But he also introduces new faces and shares some memories of his early years in the late 1930s that he has never before put on paper.
Though the author had for some time thought about writing a book for children who were ready for longer stories, he credits two adults and countless kids for encouraging him to take the plunge. "For years, children have been sending me letters, asking me to do a chapter book," dePaola explained. "And for years, to the question of `Aren't you ever going to do it?' I would respond to myself, `No! I am never going to do it!' The truth of the matter is that I was afraid of trying a new genre, especially since I had made one earlier abortive attempt at this format. But some of the letters from these readers were quite persuasive, including one from a child who complained that she badly wanted to do a school book report on a book by me, but her fourth-grade teacher wouldn't let her do a report on a picture book."
Echoing these voices were those of dePaola's longtime assistant, Bob Hechtel, and the author's sister, Maureen. "Maureen and Bob open all my mail and they told me about all the requests from kids for a chapter book," dePaola said. "Bob came up with the idea of basing a series on my family stories that I'd been telling him for years. I sat down and immediately began writing in longhand, in a stream-of-consciousness style."
Using words rather than art to tell his story was a significant change for dePaola, who, as those familiar with The Art Lesson know, even at a very young age had the soul of an artist. "In picture books, the pictures move the story and the characters along," he reflected. "But with 26 Fairmount Avenue, I had to find all those adjectives I learned to leave out over the years. Where before I had to reduce, reduce, reduce, now with this series I have to add, add, add. It's a very interesting process for me."
Still, retrieving memories to shape his plot was not a problem for dePaola. "As I often tell young as well as old people, the more you remember, the more you remember." Since his father was a home-movie buff who faithfully chronicled family gatherings, outings and holidays with his camera, the author relied on his cache of these films to freshen his memory. Now transferred to video, these movies, in dePaola's words, "reinforce for me how very lucky I was to be born into my wacky, loving double family, with Irish grandparents on one side and Italian grandparents on the other. My childhood really was so full of fun."
Margaret Frith, dePaola's editor since 1964 and now editor-at-large for Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, remembered "reacting with a bit of a gulp" when she received news of the author's new venture. "When you work with someone for such a long time as a picture book person, it's hard to imagine him doing another kind of book," she explained. "I know that Tomie is a wonderful storyteller, and over the years I have heard many tales of his childhood, but telling stories out loud and writing them down are two different things."
Nonetheless, DePaola's stories, according to Frith, made an easy transition from spoken to written word. "I went up to his house in New Hampshire," she said, "and we looked at the manuscript together and gave it a structure so that it fell into chapters."
All that 26 Fairmount Avenue then lacked was art, which dePaola had initially not intended to provide. "In my naiveté, I assumed there would be no pictures in this book," noted dePaola. "I thought I was undertaking just one task! But Margaret, very gently, suggested that my audience might feel cheated if I didn't do pictures, too. I'd always known that writing and illustrating a book meant wearing two different hats, but since this kind of writing was a whole new experience for me, these hats were really different."
Enthusiasm from Booksellers
Retailers are already predicting success for the series. Susan Malk, owner of White Rabbit Children's Books in La Jolla, Calif., said that dePaola's fans "are going to love it, since so many of them grew up with his picture books and are now reading chapter books. This book will have no trouble finding an audience." At Children's Book World in Haverford, Pa., Hannah Schwartz expressed similar optimism, and has placed a sizable order. "We are going to really sell this book," she remarked. "The reason it works so well is, quite simply, because it is Tomie talking about Tomie."
The author will promote his chapter book with a national tour in April, which will kick off in his hometown of Meriden, Conn., where the house at 26 Fairmount Avenue still stands.
Meanwhile, dePaola continues to mine his childhood recollections as he completes the second 26 Fairmount Avenue title, which features, not surprisingly, "the relatives." Subsequent books will focus on holidays, school experiences and, finally, World War II, which ended when the author was 11. "It's kind of scary to think that I'll be 65 in September," he mused. "My childhood must seem as far away to contemporary children as the Middle Ages. But I'm hoping that there is a kind of universality and lasting quality in the stories I am telling in this series."