At the age of four, Tomie de Paola announced, “I am going to be an artist when I grow up and I am going to write stories and draw pictures for books and sing and dance on stage.” After celebrating his 75th birthday, de Paola declares that not only has he achieved each of these goals, “I got paid for them, too!”
There was a time in de Paola’s life, however, when he was not so confident about his future. After graduating from Pratt Institute in 1956 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, he thought he wanted to become a Benedictine monk and joined a small monastery in Weston, Vermont. “It wasn’t meant to be,” dePaola says. Instead, he moved to New York City and commuted to a college teaching position in Boston. Although he liked teaching and his students liked him, he says, “I never saw teaching as a career. I thought of it as getting money for rent.” Creating art was his passion and he struggled to make the dream a reality.
Back in the early 1960s when children’s literature was 80 percent institutional, de Paola’s first break came after he found an agent who introduced him to an editor creating a set of picture science books. Today, de Paola’s achievements include more than 45 years in publishing and 200 books for children; the Newbery and Caldecott Honor awards; several honorary doctorates in fine arts, including the most recent from his alma mater, Pratt Institute; the Living Treasure New Hampshire Governor’s Arts Award; and the Tomie de Paola/Strega Nona Storytelling Room at the Richards Free Library in Newport, New Hampshire.
At Pratt Institute, he learned to draw and he learned about color, conceptual design, and the development of one artistic style from another, but one of the greatest challenges he faced was developing his own style. According to de Paola, “Genuine style comes from within, and you can’t force it; it just emerges. It’s the way you see things and they way you work. Everybody sees and works a different way. I’ve been true to myself in that respect.” Today, anyone who reads a Tomie de Paola book can immediately recognize his artistic style—colorful, detailed paintings featuring expressive and engaging characters such as Strega Nona, Jamie O’Rourke, the Barker twins and Fin M’Coul.
The original Strega Nona won the Caldecott Honor in 1976 and de Paola regularly revisits the characters and the village with follow-up stories. “The Strega Nona crowd is so much fun to draw and write about and think about,” de Paola says. “They are mythical so they are always true to their nature.” He knows the layout of their village, what they eat, what they wear, and the personalities of each character as if they were dear friends.
After completing his new pop-up book, Brava Strega Nona (engineered by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart), de Paola turned his attention to another project on his drawing table. “It wasn’t really working,” de Paola says of the new book. “I changed editors at that time and the whole team of editors and I weren’t used to working with each other yet and so I was trying to please them by grabbing all these ideas and shoving them into a book I didn’t want to do.” Each time he protested, they offered encouragement and flattery. “If they knew they scared me they’d be horrified!” de Paola quips. He says the process reminded him of Lucretia Hale’s The Peterkin Papers in which Mrs. Peterkin adds salt instead of sugar to her husband’s coffee. The Peterkins ask a number of people how to remove the salt from the coffee and each time Mrs. Peterkin follows their advice, the coffee tastes worse and worse, until finally, a wise lady from Philadelphia suggests throwing out the coffee and pouring a new cup. “So that’s what I suddenly decided to do,” de Paola says, in spite of a looming deadline. Desperate for an idea he found inspiration in an issue of Martha Stewart Living in an aerial view of her garden. “The thing was so anal and so perfect, it freaked me out,” de Paola says. “I got this flash of inspiration. Strega Nona is going to plant a garden and, of course her garden is going to be perfect.” Strega Nona’s garden was doubly appealing because de Paola could incorporate gardening folklore and old wives’ tales. The result, Strega Nona’s Harvest, is like a freshly poured cup of coffee.
Conversely, the characters in the 26 Fairmount Avenue series of middle grade books are real people in de Paola’s life. “I haven’t made up one single thing,” he says. He began the series because readers who grew up with his picture books asked him to write chapter books, but he was not sure where to start. “Then it hit me,” de Paola says. “When I was four years old my parents began building our new house and the address was 26 Fairmount Avenue.” He wanted to convey the excitement of moving from a two-family home where his family occupied one floor, to a home with a basement, two floors, and an attic for his family alone. The move to Fairmount Avenue occurred in 1938, the same year a major hurricane changed the New England coastline, and The Wizard of Oz and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves debuted—big milestones in a four-year-old’s life. de Paola does not rely on memory alone; he carefully researches historical details because he recalls frequent visits to the principal’s office when he was a student. “I used to look things up in encyclopedias,” he says, “and when a teacher’s information was out of date, I’d let them know!”
Many of de Paola’s stories mine his Irish and Italian roots, the events of his life and his love of folklore. “My books are really for younger children,” he says, “and their concerns are the same as mine [at that age].” Although carpal tunnel syndrome plagues de Paola, he has no plans to retire. He converted an old barn on his New Hampshire property to an art studio, and is accompanied by his Airedale dog, Brontë, and his assistant who he says “keeps my life going and my garden growing.” de Paola sums up his career with “I am lucky to be a writer and an illustrator because as images pop into my head, I can incorporate them.”