It drove him through the years of teaching, designing greeting cards and stage sets, and painting church murals until 1965, when he illustrated his first children’s book, Sound, by Lisa Miller for Coward-McCann. Eventually, freed of other obligations, he plunged full time into both writing and illustrating children’s books.
He names Fra Angelico and Giotto, Georges Rouault, and Ben Shahn as major influences on his work, but he soon found his own unique style. His particular way with color, line, detail, and design have earned him many of the most prestigious awards in his field, among them a Caldecott Honor Award for Strega Nona, the Smithsonian Medal from the Smithsonian Institution, the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota for his “singular attainment in children’s literature,” the Catholic Library Association’s Regina Medal for his “continued distinguished contribution,” and the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion. He was also the 1990 United States nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for illustration.
Tomie dePaola has published almost 200 children’s books in fifteen different countries. He remains one of the most popular creators of books for children, receiving more than 100,000 fan letters each year.
Tomie lives in an interesting house in New Hampshire with his four dogs. His studio is in a large renovated 200-year-old barn.
- He has been published for over 30 years.
– Over 5 million copies of his books have sold worldwide.
– His books have been published in over 15 different countries.
– He receives nearly 100,000 fan letters each year.
Tomie dePaola has received virtually every significant recognition forhis books in the children’s book world, including:
- Caldecott Honor Award from American Library Association
- Newbery Honor Award from American Library Association
- Smithson Medal from Smithsonian Institution
– USA nominee in illustration for Hans Christian Andersen Medal
– Regina Medal from Catholic Library Association
copyright © 2000 by Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.
Entering new creative territory can be daunting and challenging, even to someone as experienced as artist-author Tomie dePaola who has written and/or illustrated over 200 books for children.
“Write what you know about” turned out to be absolutely right for Tomie as he started writing about his childhood, and memories came spilling out of him. We asked him to tell us how the idea for a chapter book came about, and what it was like to venture into a completely new genre.
“From time to time I’d thought about doing a longer book, and I’d actually attempted a fictional chapter book some years ago. But I couldn’t get it to work, and I put the idea away in the part of my mind where ideas are born. Sometimes ideas need to germinate, and sometimes that germination can take time.
I think the reason I wrote 26 Fairmount Avenue now is that over the past three or four years I had been getting letters from children asking for a chapter book. While I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into that area, I don’t ignore what children say to me, and more and more the idea had appeal. But what to write about? I was still thinking about it when one day my assistant Bob said, “Why don’t you write about your own childhood?” Over the years he had heard me tell many family stories, and he knew that my autobiographical picture books were among my most popular books. Recently we had been looking at old home movies my father had taken of the family. “BOING!” The light bulb went off!
So I started to think about a chapter book. As one memory sparked another, I realized that I wanted to do more than one book because my early life seems to have fallen naturally into five or six parts. I would start with l938-1939 when our family built our house at 26 Fairmount Avenue and finish in 1945 when World War II ended. Why 1938? Well, several reasons. It was the Year of the Hurricane, which was not my fault! It was also the year Mr. Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and I could hardly wait to see it. (That’s a story in itself!) It was the year I started school and almost refused to go back after the first day.
I knew the next book would be about my relatives, both Irish and Italian. Children often write to me about my picture books with my Nanas and my grandfather Tom, my baby sister Maureen. (I may need about three hundred chapters for this book because if I leave out anybody, I’ll hear it about it!) I can’t wait to write about my “dance years”. And holidays. They were always big events in the dePaola house, and since Christmas is my absolutely favorite holiday, I have to do a book about holidays. And finally, the war years. I have found those years fascinating to children- all the stories about how we had rationing on food and gas, and saving all that silver paper from candy bars and rolling it into balls and giving it to the government.
So I knew all the things I wanted to write about, but then I had to write. Writing picture books and writing chapter books are very different experiences. When I write a picture book, I self-edit like crazy! But for a chapter book I had to find a different way of working, and while I was a little apprehensive, I thought that a tream-of-consciousness would work best for me. I was fearful that I would over-write, but my editor, Margaret Frith, said, “Don’t think about it. Just let it flow out of you and onto the paper. We’ll look at the structure together later.” So I just sat down and wrote one episode after another as I remembered them. One episode leading to another doesn’t necessarily make a good book, but Margaret’s ideas for breaking the stories into individual chapters, centered on a framework of the year we built our house, worked for me. And the editing process gave me focus for subsequent books.
I worried most about the “author’s voice.” In picture books the illustrations, the images, are my voice along with my words. But for a chapter book I knew I would be relying completely on words. Did I even have a “voice” without pictures? Was the Tomie dePaola voice of the picture books the same as the Tomie dePaola voice of the chapter book? I wanted to write as if I was telling the stories. (My other worry was that anyone who has ever head me tell a story knows I go off in ten different directions before coming to the conclusion.) Then I started to write and I found myself naturally telling the stores in the voice of me as a nine-year-old. That felt really comfortable so I kept going and didn’t stop until I had written the book all the way through. Then I sent it to Margaret and held my breath. I knew it was okay when she called right back and said “Tomie, you have a voice. And I love it!”
Were there areas that I remembered, but didn’t want to write about? No, not really. I mean, did I want to tell about my first day of school, which decidedly did not please me, so I walked out of the school and went home? Well yes, I did. But really, between the ages of four and five, I can’t recall any unhappy memories. I had a large and very supportive family. Certainly in future books there will be some unhappy events because that’s how life happens. I’m not going to write about my great-grandmother’s death because I’ve already written about that in Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs. But Nana is definitely there in the book about the relatives. I didn’t try to lighten or make the characters in my family funnier than they were, or worse than they were. I tried to make them as real as they were. The warts are the most attractive things about my family!
Memory is a funny thing though. One memory sort of starts a chain reaction ‘Oh yeah! That moment! I remember that so well!’ I was writing about my mother and her attempt to cut the brush in the yard at 26 Fairmount Avenue and then burn it. Well, she almost burned the new house down! I thought, ‘Wow! I haven’t thought of that in years!’ And suddenly I could see the big smile on my mother’s face as she spayed water from the hose on everyone who was trying to help. I also remembered New Year’s Eve when my parents went out with the neighbors to celebrate. They were dressed to the nines, and to me, a small boy, they looked so glamorous! Like movie stars!
One of the things that has helped my memory are home movies my parents took of us from the time I was one-and-a-half years old! My family certainly wasn’t rich — my dad was a barber. The story goes that he won the camera, the projector and the screen, probably in a raffle at Bingo. He was always being asked to go to weddings with it, and he used it all the time at our house. Before I began 26 Fairmount Avenue I had all of those movies put on videotape and the images on the television screen helped bring back the emotions!
I actually went back to 26 Fairmount last year when I was working on the book, trying to get an idea of what the house looked like. The people my parents had sold it to were still there. The house looked very much the same except it was much smaller than I remembered! I really wanted to go upstairs and look at my bedroom, which I thought was a palatial suite, although I’m sure it was a very tiny room. I couldn’t quite get up the courage to ask to see it, but it was fun to go back, and I bumped into some of the old neighbors and that was lovely.
When the manuscript was finished, I thought, ‘Well, that’s that.’ I hadn’t planned on doing any illustrations, but when I told Margaret her reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding! Of course we have to have illustrations!” It was very odd for me to go back and create black-and-white spot drawings, which I had not done for many, many years. And spot drawings are really th
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