Talking to the legendary Tomie dePaola about his new picture book, Quiet, is anything but that: the author laughs a lot—at the world and at himself—and brims with anecdotes in a way that’s difficult to contain in just four questions. Speaking by phone from his New Hampshire studio (“I’m talking to you on an old-fashioned phone that rings,” he noted with a laugh), DePaola discussed the need for attentiveness and quietude: in the book, a grandfather and two children sit “quiet and still” on a park bench and gain new clarity about their surroundings and their own thinking.
We hear a lot today about the importance of mindfulness, but it’s a complex topic for children to grasp. How did you work through this?
I was at the doctor’s office, there was a young mother with two young kids and she was on her phone. Her daughter was at the water cooler and drank three gallons, the boy was running around—these children were at loose ends. I thought, “Nobody in charge is paying attention to these young children.”
I suddenly thought back to my own childhood, to second grade. I was looking out the window, and my second-grade teacher who was my nemesis, Miss Esther Gardner, slapped the ruler on my desk and said, “Stop daydreaming.” I said, “I’m not daydreaming, Miss Gardner, I’m thinking.” I was very active, but I spent a lot of time just looking and thinking and sitting quietly. [My family] had this attic playroom and it had two windows on either side, and I would just sit there and look out over the landscape for hours, and my mother knew if she couldn’t find me, I was in the attic.
I had this wonderful Irish grandfather, who was my idol, my god, my everything. We would sit in the cellar, he would shake the coals in the furnace and smoke his pipe—the cellar was the only place he was allowed to smoke it—and we’d talk and just sit and look.
I see all these young children around me and they’ve got these huge backpacks on like little old workers—like worker ants—and they don’t have any time to sit and be quiet. This book came roaring down on me, and I thought if I had two younger children, we’d take a walk, look at everything in nature, and sit on the bench and be quiet. That was the basis of the book.
I was halfway through the book and called Emma [Ledbetter, his editor] and Laurent [Linn, his art director] and said, “It’s going to be a little late, I’m starting over. I’ve torn up half of it already.” [The illustrations] were too complicated. What I ended up with, from my point of view, is very Japanese, very haiku. I pared down the lines, I pared down the shapes and the compositions and it worked.
You’re known as ebullient and outgoing. Was it difficult to embrace mindfulness?
No, I was attracted to contemplative monastic life. When I was 20 years old, I tried to enter a Benedictine Monastery in Weston, Vermont. People said, “Tomie, they don’t sing and dance in the monastery.” [DePaola left after six months but continued to work with the monks on artistic projects.]
I still visit the Abbey of Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut. It’s quite a beautiful place. I listen to chants—that music quiets me down. And I remember as an art student I discovered the Cloisters [in New York City], and every Sunday I would go up to the gardens. I’m crazy, I love to party, but there’s a part of me that craves and loves silence and quiet. I’m yin and yang.
I mediate every morning. I just sit. Thích Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, has a beautiful way of explaining what meditation is. He doesn’t even call it meditation, he refers to it as sitting. When I read that three years ago, I thought that’s what I’m doing wrong. I’ve been trying to do “meditation” when I should just sit. [Quiet] is about that: just sit.
I think it’s wonderful there’s all this mindfulness going on. But at the same time, every time I pick up a paper and I see all the mindfulness workshops, I remember when it was all about going to macramé classes. Now it’s, “Excuse me, I can’t stop, I have to go to my mindfulness class.”
The grandpa in Quiet looks a lot like you. Is he based on you, and if so, what inspired you to put yourself in the book? Have you appeared as a character in previous books?
I’m an old person, so I drew an old person. He’s much thinner and more elegant looking. He has a much more aquiline nose. I do wear a scarf almost all the time as a signature. I do have a walking stick. I don’t have one of those hats, though—I really have to get one. I usually wear a cap. I want a nice handwoven Shaker straw hat to wear at book signings.
Years ago I did my Mother Goose book [Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose, 1984]. [Bookseller] Bob Hale reviewed it and said, “There is the author in costume on the jacket”—meaning it was me in drag as Mother Goose. I love that review. I’ve also drawn myself in my autobiographical books, like The Art Lesson—I had big ears and hair that went all over the place. Rembrandt said, “Of course I draw myself. Models are too expensive.”
Could you have written Quiet 10 years ago—
No. I couldn’t have. I needed [to be] this age.
—and what’s next for you?
I’m doing a presentation on Quiet at the Guggenheim later this month [the sold-out event takes place October 21, for the museum’s Children’s Book Illustrator Series. I found a nice counting meditation that’s easy for children.
I have a drawer full of projects and I look through it every once in a while. Most of the ideas suck, but there are ideas that were ahead of their time. And there are some that it’s too late to go back to. Which is fine.
I had a year of health problems when I didn’t do a lot of work, and I’ve got projects that I’m very anxious to start. This winter, I’m going to be illustrating In the Bleak Midwinter, a Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti that’s become a Christmas carol. My editor and art director were up here recently and we have four ideas in the hopper. I just take vitamins and keep going to the doctor. I’m 84, I’ve got some minor health problems. I say to my doctor, “Why is this happening?” and my doctor says, “You’re old.”
But we had this show at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester this summer [“Beyond Words: Book Illustrations by David M. Carroll, Tomie dePaola, and Beth Krommes”] and if I had ever thought I should retire... just having children run up to me and seeing them with wide eyes— “I love seeing your art work... I want to be an artist, too”—I don’t want to sound like Norman Vincent Peale, but this is a wonderful career to be in.
Quiet by Tomie dePaola. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-4814-7754-3