"I turned 81 this month, so I guess you could say I’m in the twilight of my career,” Tomie dePaola says, reflecting on his half-century of creating children’s books. Given this Newbery Honor– and Caldecott Honor–winning author’s robust roster of forthcoming new and reissued works, that twilight is a luminous—and decidedly productive—one. The 250-plus books by dePaola, recipient of the New Hampshire Governor’s Arts Award for Living Treasure, have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. And both his book count and sales numbers continue to grow.
Fifty years after earning his first children’s book credits—in 1965 he illustrated Sound and Wheels, both by Lisa Miller and published by Coward-McCann, and The Tiger, the Rabbit, and Other Tales, retold by Pura Belpré (Lippincott)—dePaola shows no sign of slackening his creative pace. This fall, he has books due out from three publishers: a new picture book from Holiday House, a Strega Nona anthology from Penguin’s Nancy Paulsen Books, and refreshed editions of two picture books from the 1970s from Simon & Schuster. And additional books are scheduled for release in 2016 and 2017.
At the end of a two-decade exclusive global contract with Putnam, dePaola returns to Holiday House, one of his first publishers, with the October release of Look and Be Grateful. The idea for Look and Be Grateful, a picture book that encourages readers to be thankful for life and the beauty that exists in each day, “just popped into my head while I was meditating one morning,” dePaola says. “I went immediately to my drawing table, and the story just flowed out. It was the first time in 50 years that had happened. Look and Be Grateful came out of a very deep place, and was almost a mystical experience. After so many years, it was kind of a culmination of everything for me.”
After finishing Look and Be Grateful in a week’s time, dePaola sent it to Mary Cash, Holiday House’s editor-in-chief, writing, “I’m not sure if this really is a book—or if you have any interest in publishing it.” Cash called him the same day she received “this surprise package” to let dePaola know that it was, indeed, a book—and one she would very much like to publish.
“I felt so very lucky that Tomie had sent this book to Holiday House,” Cash says. “It was one of the most spectacular moments of my children’s book career. I don’t think that anyone captures the essence of simplicity like Tomie. I have always loved his palette, and it is exquisite in this book.” Cash says dePaola’s renewed relationship with the house is “thrilling and meaningful—and kind of like a fantastic family reunion.”
A Birthday for Strega Nona
In addition to commemorating his 50th year in children’s publishing, dePaola has another milestone to celebrate. His iconic Italian grandmother character made her first appearance 40 years ago in Strega Nona, which won a Caldecott Honor in 1976. To mark the occasion, Nancy Paulsen Books is publishing The Magical World of Strega Nona: A Treasury, which compiles six stories: the original eponymous tale, Strega Nona Meets Her Match, Strega Nona: Her Story, Strega Nona Takes a Vacation, Strega Nona’s Harvest, and Strega Nona’s Gift.
The treasury also includes new material by dePaola, including an introduction to each story, recipes inspired by the books, a map of Strega Nona’s native Calabria, and an original lullaby, written with William Ögmundson. This pianist, composer, and lyricist also wrote the music for the song, which he sings (along with Chelsea Pettibone and Jessica Goodlin) on a CD included with the book. A separate track offers dePaola’s reading of Strega Nona: Her Story.
“I never knew when I had the original book on my drawing board that Strega Nona would have such a long life and so many stories,” dePaola says. “If I had known, I’d have been more careful and drawn the pictures more slowly! My initial plan was to do just one book—I jokingly said that I’d have to wait for Strega Nona to whisper in my ear, ‘Do I have a story for you.’ ”
DePaola’s tales “are full of the charm and magic of the old country,” says Paulsen, who became his editor about five years ago following the retirement of Margaret Frith, his longtime editor at Putnam. “Strega Nona is the wise, caring grandmother who has been steadily guiding her wayward, bumbling charges for generations, and whose punishments always humorously fit the crime.”
Paulsen adds that publishing The Magical World of Strega Nona involved working with Simon & Schuster, publisher of 1975’s Strega Nona, to ensure that the debut story was included in the treasury. “We all decided to make this beautiful volume happen, in celebration of Tomie,” she says. “Like Strega Nona, I think of him as a wise and beloved figure who is always there for everyone. Whenever I visit his studio, there are almost always young artists there. He is so very generous with his time, and is a beloved mentor to many.”
In with the Old, In with the New
The indefatigably energetic octogenarian also has numerous book projects underway with Simon & Schuster, some involving rejuvenated classic picture books, others introducing brand-new work. Next month, the publisher will re-release Andy, That’s My Name, originally issued in 1973, about a boy who uses a wagonful of letters that spell his name to win over the bigger kids; and Michael Bird-Boy, a 1975 title about a boy determined to solve a pollution problem to save his beloved birds. The reissues feature refreshed artwork rescanned from the original, new covers, and a slightly larger trim size.
“It’s exciting to see the care that Simon & Schuster has put into these editions, to give these stories new life,” dePaola says. “I think it’s very sweet to see these old projects come back.” And there are more to come: in 2017, S&S will issue refreshed editions of five picture books originally published in the late 1970s and early ’80s by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: Oliver Button Is a Sissy, Strega Nona’s Magic Lessons, Strega Nona’s Magic Ring (formerly Big Anthony and the Magic Ring), Merry Christmas, Strega Nona, and The Legend of Old Befana. And dePaola will open a new chapter of his publishing career in March 2016, when S&S launches Andy & Sandy, his first-ever early-reader picture book series, with two volumes; a third installment will follow in fall 2016, and a fourth is scheduled for summer 2017.
Written with Jim Lewis (a friend and former producer and writer for the Jim Henson Company with whom dePaola once worked on a TV project), and illustrated by dePaola, the Andy & Sandy books star two dissimilar best friends. “Andy and Sandy’s friendship reminds me of my own childhood,” dePaola says. “My best friend was quite different from me—for starters, he was a head-and-a-half taller than I was!”
At the editorial helm of the series is Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers senior editor Kristin Ostby. “With these books, Tomie is working in a completely new format and style for him,” she says. “He is such a versatile author and artist. Working with Tomie is pure joy, and I’m learning a lot from him, for which I am very grateful.”
DePaola says creating the Andy & Sandy series entails a collaborative model that is also novel to him. “The ideas come from Jim, who writes the first draft, and I respond to it and then begin the illustrations,” he says. “We’re sharing the credits, and it’s a real collaborative effort involving the three of us—Jim, Kristin, and me. I find it a nice new way of working with others. I like the collaborative part of children’s books—that way I don’t have to take all of the blame!”
More on the Horizon
There will be no shortage of dePaola titles on future S&S lists. He is illustrating Patricia MacLachlan’s The Moon’s Almost Here, a story in verse about animal mothers putting their offspring to bed. Due from Margaret K. McElderry Books next June, this is dePaola’s first collaboration since 1980’s Moon, Stars, Frogs, and Friends (Pantheon). And S&S will release a new, still untitled, picture book by dePaola in fall 2017.
Strega Nona returns in a new format in summer 2017, when Simon Spotlight releases the first two installments in a series of Strega Nona Ready-to-Reads. And, in honor of the character’s anniversary, S&S is rescanning the art for her original 1975 adventure, Strega Nona, as the book comes up for reprint, to replicate the original illustrations as closely as possible.
DePaola says he is delighted to have the opportunity to revisit his classic stories and well-loved characters and to break new creative ground under the aegis of several publishers. “Each house is distinct, and each editor brings out something different in me,” he says. “I love the relationships I have with my editors. There’s no set way we work together, but it’s like a duet.”
In the wake of Holiday House’s release of Look and Be Grateful, dePaola has applied the message of that story to his own life. “With this book, I want to show children what gratefulness is, because I’m concerned that it has become lost at the moment,” he says. “I’ve made so many great friendships and relationships along the way, and now, in my sage years, I am thankful every day for being where I am.”