Dan Yaccarino has written and/or illustrated more than 30 children’s books, about everything from a quartet of lawn ornaments on the move to the life of explorer Jacques Cousteau. His new picture book, All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel, is perhaps his most personal: it traces his family’s history from Sorrento, Italy, to New York City, where his great-grandfather set down roots and subsequent generations established themselves and started families. Bookshelf spoke to Yaccarino—who still lives in New York City—about his research for the book and the things families pass down from one generation to the next—including his great-great-grandfather’s small, silver shovel, which is now in Yaccarino’s possession.
Every family has its own history and lore. When did you first think that there was something to your family’s story that might speak to a broader audience?
This story has been inside of my head for 20 years, before I started picture books. The shovel in the book is real. It was my father’s, it was my grandfather’s. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I remember putting it in a box to move. I have had it displayed, as it is in the book, in every apartment I had in New York City. It was a daunting book to do because it’s so completely personal. This is the story of my family. Their names are in the book.
The first couple of drafts that I showed my editor [Nancy Siscoe at Knopf] were me sort of holding back. Her effort was to get me to put more of myself in the book. I came up with the idea of how this story should be cyclical. The first spread reflects the last spread—I used the same sketch for both spreads. The image where my great-grandfather is being handed the shovel mirrors my father giving it to me on the streets of New York. That’s when the story was sewn up. It was probably the most emotional process I’ve ever been through with a book.
Did you have any anxiety about making your family history the centerpiece of the story?
Yes, but the funny thing is that the more I made it personal, the more it became universal. Once it was, ‘This is our story, this is where we came from.’ But I remember at one point I tried to sit back and read it objectively, and I thought, ‘This is really the story of every family that came from another country to the United States.’
How did your approach to this real-life story differ from, say, your approach to The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau?
I think I was able to be a bit more broad with the Cousteau book, balanced between his life and what he did, the things he accomplished. I was able to pull back a bit more and be slightly more objective in creating a book about his life. This book is very specific and has specific people and places. Probably in my mind, I felt I had to be more specific about the art and the details.
How much family research was involved?
A lot. I went through lots of photo albums, found ship manifests, though the book is not all that particular with that kind of stuff. I didn’t know when my great-grandfather came here, but I knew where he was. I went to the New York Public Library and found the ship manifest. And lots of talking: the best source of information was my grandmother. She passed away last summer, but she did see the dummy for the book, and the book was dedicated to her. She went beyond a birth certificate or ship manifest.
You note that parts of the story “have been condensed a bit.” What sorts of things didn’t make the cut? Why did you feel they wouldn’t work?
First of all, I really went through my paternal lineage. I’m reducing over 100 years into 40 pages. I had to skip the various restaurants my grandfather owned and ran, the various markets. It had to be pared down to the essential elements. All you need to know is that someone from [my great-grandfather’s] area in Italy got him a job. My grandfather’s family moved to Staten Island, which was considered the country back then in 1915. My uncle was ill and he needed fresh air. Stuff like that I left out, because I didn’t think it helped the story. When you’re writing a picture book, the real estate is precious.
The feel of the artwork in this book is in keeping with your other recent picture books, but given the subject matter, did you work from family photos for any of the scenes or portraits? From memory?
A little bit. In my family there’s not a whole lot of documentation. Small handfuls of photographs, copies of photographs. But I did a lot of digging around, and a lot of getting my grandmother to identify people in photographs.
I love the backyard barbecue scene, with the bocce game in progress—you really nailed the contemplative slouch of the player getting ready to toss the ball. I take it you’ve played a round or two?
A bit, though I don’t completely know all the rules. It’s a curiosity when you’re a little kid seeing it being played. I tried to make [the scene] a compressed, idealized image of all of those get-togethers we had. I have fond memories of all that.
Is your family’s New York City restaurant still open?
No, unfortunately. That was my grandfather’s thing—he was a great cook, and so was my grandmother. I’m not a very good cook.
So much of the book is about what one generation passes on to the next—values, names, food, and of course the shovel that gets passed down from son to son. What do you hope readers come away from the book understanding about family?
I want them to start thinking about their family histories, and if they haven’t started asking those questions, to ask their parents, grandparents, uncles, and cousins. America has its own culture, but it is comprised of other cultures, and we need to hang onto that. The values in the story are about working hard and valuing family. That’s the message I hope will come across, whatever culture someone is from. Every family has stories, and a lot of families’ stories start in another country.
Have your family members seen the book?
I have shown my Mom the proofs, but I only have one actual copy. But everyone’s going to get a copy once I get my author copies.
Not to start any fights at home, but you have two children: who’s going to get the shovel from you?
I don’t know—whoever wants it, I guess! Whoever could use it for something else in the future. Or I’ll have to get a second shovel.
All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel by Dan Yaccarino. Knopf, $16.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-375-86642-5