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Transcript from an interview with Tomie DePaola

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Tomie dePaola. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Tomie dePaola

Hi, I'm Tomie DePaola and I write and illustrate books for children and I've been doing this for a long, long time now, for about 45+ years. And I've done over 250 books and I hope you know some of them. My, probably most famous character that I've done, and I've done 8 books and she and all her friends and villagers, is Strega Nona and I always like to come up with a new Strega Nona story if I can. And I hope you look forward to the new book which is coming out soon. Thank you.

Family stories

I come from a family that's Irish and Italian. My mother's side was Irish, my father Italian. But my father's parents were immigrants. My Irish grandparents, their grandparents were immigrants. So they were here first. And my Irish family, my grandfather came from a large family. And he was an inveterate storyteller. In fact, I remember going into first grade, we were asked to find out something from one of our relatives, not our parents, but an aunt or uncle or a grandparent, and I came back to first grade and I had asked my grandfather over the weekend, and I was named after him, so we had a very close bond.

And I was the second child, the second son. And he told me a true story of something that had happened to him when he was a young man. And I proudly stood up in front of Miss Canary and my first grade class and announced the story, you know, told the story, and Miss Canary said I don't think that happened, Tomie. And I was studying to make my first Communion and the big thing was that the biggest thing a six year old was to tell a lie. And she intimated that my grandfather had lied to me and I didn't talk to her for a week.

And I can't even share with you what he told me because it was so politically incorrect. But it's a well known family story and I just ... but he was wonderful. And I got a lot from him. I got a lot of story telling abilities, a lot of lying going on. But I think because he was Irish it was called Blarney. It had a better ring to it, kiss the Blarney Stone, you know.

It must be in the genes. It must be in the genes. The Irish story telling must be, because frankly most of the Irish I know ... if they're put together well, you know what I mean because you know the Irish are a very interesting race of people because they can be terribly depressed and then they have terrible lives. The poverty in Ireland, that Potato Famine was just horrendous when you think of what they went through.

But it has to be in the genes. It has to come from the kind of living that they did and they would get together and there in the bars and they'd sing and they'd tell stories and they'd sing stories. And that still goes on in Ireland, you know, as far as I know.

Myths, folktales, and Disney

But my mother, she was an avid read. In fact, my earliest memories of my childhood are my older brother; he was four years older, he was off in school, I would be home, and my mother to calm me down, because I was a very active child, I didn't like children, I liked to be with grownups, and my mother took me to the movies at an early, early age, because she'd go in the afternoon when it was cheaper and I got in free, because I was under five.

And I remember and I even have home movies of me done — shot in 1937 and '38 — of me dancing on my sand box that I turned upside down. But every day my mother would read to me. And she wouldn't, we didn't have books like we have now. I didn't have the books like the books I make. And maybe that's why I love making the books I make is because I wish I had had them when I was a child. But we had lots of legends and folktales. And I especially loved the Greek myths. I loved all those, you know, people with wings on their feet and horses that flew.

So one of my favorite films besides Snow White, which I saw first run 1938, four years old, and I stood up in the theater and said "that's not the end," because I was waiting, waiting for the whole 90 minutes to see the evil queen dance to death in her red hot iron shoes, which is in the story, but certainly not in the Disney film.

But my other favorite Disney film was Fantasia, because it had that, it's really sappy, this whole, it's Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. But it's all these little flying horses and mermaids. But I just loved it. Books were a real important part. And stories were such an important part of my childhood.

Folklore was always much more interesting to me than the fairytales. And I think it's because folklore, first of all a lot of folklore is very humorous, and I really love a good laugh. But folklore is about the folk, about people, not about magic spells. I mean, there can be magic spells of course in folklore, but there's also the thing in folklore where it uses a story to try to explain something.

Born to be an artist

I was asked last night by an artist, children's book illustrator, was it at, in high school that you knew, and I said, "No, I was four years old when I chose my, my career." And that's the absolute truth, I'm not making that up. I knew that was going to be — not that I wanted to be — I was going to be an artist. And I'm one of those, people, my mother, my mother and father were very encouraging.

The moment, the moment in my life that probably was the, you know, the "ta da" moment, was I was 4-years-old and my older brother, we, we, we didn't sort of like each other, that's to put it mildly. But my older brother was the, you know, the first born, you know, the hope of the family and, you know, and all. He was asked, he was 8-years-old and I was 4. I remember the moment and where, in our, in our place where we lived in Columbus Avenue, we lived in a, like an apartment.

And my Italian relatives had come from the Bronx to visit and my Aunt Kate said to my brother, "Buddy, do you know what you want to be when you grow-up?" And my brother said, "Yes, I want to Dick Tracy, Joe Palooka and Buck Rogers." And I, I thought to myself, "Oh, great he wants to be a cartoon." Because those were all comic strips growing up. And I said, "Well, I know what I'm going to be." And it was like yes, yes, yes. And I said, "I'm going to be artist and I'm going to write stories and draw pictures for books and I'm going to sing and tap dance on the stage."

Now, people have asked me over the years, where did the come from? And I said it was very simple. My mother took me to the movies when I was like maybe 2-years-old. When I was 3 I turned over the sandbox my father had built for me so I'd have a stage and my idols in the movies were Shirley Temple and Mae West. I was 4, we have home movies of me doing a Mae West imitation on the beach with a candy cigarette.

And as someone said, "You didn't have a chance did you?"

On stage

You won't believe this, but my, the love of my life, Ms. Leah Grossman, who was my tap dancing teacher is still alive. She's in her 90's and she, she's in better shape than I am. And we've reconnected, it's been absolutely wonderful and, and I think that that was all part of it. I think that because I was doing something creative and unusual.

You know, when I was talking to her, she said, "Oh, you had something that nobody, none of the other kids had, I knew that I had to use the in the recitals. And always had a special number at the recitals. You know, the first year, I was the Farmer in the Dell with Joan Ciotti. We had a little special number. And the next year I was a Pirate.

And then the next year I was King Neptune. You know, besides doing my routines that I had learned with my dancing partners and I ended up dancing with one, one girl named Carol Morrissey and we were known as Tomie and Carol, the Mickey and Judy of Meriden and but all of the business and then, then I got to art school and of course I had always been acting on the stage when I could.

We had a, I was in one play from Meriden Community Theater. I played a young German Nazi, a very interesting play, called "Tomorrow the World". And so, when I got to Pratt, of course I was going to enter, you know, join the Play Shop, which was a theater, an extracurricular theater group and so the first illustration class I had my sophomore year, Richard Lindner, the instructor said to me, said to our class, "I want you all to join, Play Shop, because being an illustrator is closely connected to theater."

They're very, they're very connected. Because you start off with the play, or the story. Then you have to cast the play. So, you have to come up with all the characters in the story. You know, I, I know now the, my Strega Nona books have a little repertory company, so I know what Strega Nona looks like, I know what big Anthony looks like, I know what Bambolona looks like, the Mayor, his wife etc. Okay.

Then I have to put them costume. I have to design the costumes, whether it's contemporary or make believe Renaissance Italy, or whatever, I have to put them in costume. Then I have to design the scenery. The setting. And then often in many of my books I actually use a proscenium theater because I just, I've always wanted to, you know, I've always wanted to do one of those, they were very popular in the Victorian era.

Where they had little theaters, little cut out theaters and I've always wanted to do one. But you know, nobody will buy it! But I don't know, that may not be try, maybe I'll do that someday. But there a, I really see a very strong connection. And then of course film is the same way thing. It's, it's the literary and the visual arts all rolled up together.

High and low tech

Even technically, just the way books are printed, the way books were prepared to be printed. You know, you couldn't, typesetting was so expensive that there came a point, okay this is the last change you can make to your manuscript. Now, you can make a change, or I can make a change to a manuscript right up until that book goes to print. Because they do it all in-house now. And there is no such thing as type houses anymore. It's all done, that's done on the computer and that's incredible.

We had a breakfast this morning at the Washington Times building, you know, the artists, or the writers and artists that are coming to the Washington Book Festival. And in the lobby, because of get into the building there's an old linotype machine and you know, somebody said, "What's that?" and I said "It's a linotype machine, it the way newspapers used to be composited, they typed it out on this big machine and hot lead came down and formed, and you know, big, the size of the newspaper."

Technology has a very important place in publishing and in, but in creating the art, I think students should learn like techniques. I think that would be a wonderful thing to teach in high school. How to use, different, like egg tempera and encaustic, now encaustic is like — you probably did this when you were a child — did you have a radiator in your house, I did and so I'd melt the crayons on the radiator and then drawl with the melted crayons on paper and I didn't know I was making encaustic paintings. But Crayola crayons and a hot radiator boy what a combination that was. Am I dating myself? I hope!

Simplify

Getting to simple is very hard to achieve. But you know years ago I heard a quote of Matisse saying that he wanted people to feel like they were sitting, when they look at his pictures he wanted people to feel that they were sitting in a comfortable, familiar armchair. And yet you look at Matisse's work and it's not really comfortable. But it's accessible and he simplified and he simplified. And that takes great repeating and you know delving into.

Now, years ago a colleague of mine, we were on a panel together and a woman asked me you don't draw hands that look like real hands. And I said yeah, I don't put fingernails on, you know, and knuckles and fingerprints. And my colleague said but what you don't understand is that Tomie can draw photo realistic hands because he can draw, that's why he can simplify so brilliantly, because I have that basic foundation.

And that's unfortunate. They're not teaching enough figure drawing in illustration art school, courses in art school these days; everything is a little too geared to the computer. And I use my computer to send scanned sketches to New York, so they can look at them. I don't draw on the computer. And I don't draw on the computer because I find that pencil or the brush on the paper that I select to do my finished artwork on, I find that very sensual.

You know, water color paper comes in many surfaces and brushes, different brushes do different things, different paint does different things, and I find all of that very satisfying and very kind of sensual, meaning feeling. It's an excitement. So I show people my studio and I say, okay, and there's a big computer, a big Apple 95 inch screen or whatever and I say this is the 21st Century and then in the other — my studio is in a big old barn, a wonderful barn in New Hampshire — and I said and that's the 14th Century where I do my easel painting and then around the corner is my illustration studio, which has more paints and brushes. When children come in and see it they go [gasps].

Strega Nona

Now Strega Nona is one of my best loved series of books. And that came about because I was asked to retell a folktale, and the first folktale I thought of was The Porridge Pot. But I reread it and I thought oh, this was back in the 70s, you know, modern kids don't know what porridge is. People are eating more oatmeal now than they were then. So I did a lot of research on those kind of tales, and there's why the sea is salt, the rice bowl, the porridge pot. So to make it more accessible to me and modern children, I changed the porridge to pasta and created Big Anthony.

But that's what I love about rediscovering folktales and then retelling them to kind of either update them or make them funnier or put my own spin on it. And I remember when I first met Diane, I'm going to get her name wrong, I think it's Wolkstein. Anyway, she's a big important storyteller in New York City.

And she wasn't publishing any books because she never liked to tell a story the same way twice, whereas I think that once you get a good idea then you build on that. But these storytellers were the children's books, or the community storytellers, shamans of the community, you know, that's how information got passed down to the group. And that's I think what we do, we're just doing it with a modern twist when we publish books for children, because that's what story hour is in libraries, you know.

It starts with the idea

The thinking part is the most crucial part. That's the idea part. I don't even put a word to paper until I have kind of not a full blown idea because wonderful things can happen in the process, but I have to have what I consider a good idea. Now I'm working with a new editor now and we still haven't figured out our shorthand, you know, because I was with the same editor for almost 40 years. So it all starts, for me it starts with the idea.

And then I don't even allow myself to think about the artwork until I start working on the manuscript. And then I sit there and I just wait for that inspiration, you know the light bulb to go off, ah, this is how I'm going to do the artwork for this book. Now I said that's how I work, but sometimes there's little glitches there, because I also do paintings and I have a gallery that I show at regularly. And a couple of years ago I started doing these very delicate small paintings on little tiny four-by-four canvasses, thick canvasses of these birds, very simple elegant birds, almost Japanese like, you know, no wings, no feathers, little fine legs.

And I said to myself I've got to use these birds in a children's book. And that's what I'm working on right now, a book called The Birds of Bethlehem, which will be published in 2012. And it's a retelling of the Christmas story from the bird's eye point of view. So then I had to go back and come up with the idea. Now I'm in the process of painting the birds.

Interesting lies

Now I think that maybe sometimes teachers, one of the best things they can do is to let their students write stories.

I immediately thought of that thing what did you do on your summer vacation? Well, we did the same three things. We either went to Southington Recreation Pool or my mother would set up the house and the sprinkler in the backyard or we sat and looked at the rain. It was a very unexciting. But we had a rich girl in our class and so every fall we went to the Grand Canyon, we went to Hollywood, you know. So I decided, I decided I read all about New York City, so it was fourth grade and what did you do on your summer vacation?

I went to New York City and went to Radio City Music Hall and saw the Rockettes. Now the teacher was obviously very dumb because she didn't know, I didn't either, but the Rockettes took a summer vacation. But we had the Book of Knowledge Encyclopedias at home. I devoured everything about Radio City Music Hall, I described it. It's called plagiarism. I copied out of the encyclopedia. But I thought don't make them tell the truth.

Byrd Baylor, the wonderful author Byrd Baylor, we were at a conference together and the question was how did you get started wanting to be an author? And I think it was a question from a child and she said well, I grew up very poor, so I used to lie. And her third grade teacher took her aside and said you know if you write those lies down they're not lies anymore, they become stories.

Because there's nothing that says a story has to be true unless you're going to pass it off as the truth, you know you swear it's the true story, then you can get into trouble. But if you just say it's a story, change all the names, so fictitious names. That's what fiction is, it's lies, you know.

Tell lies. Be messy. But the secret is they have to be interesting lies. They have to be interesting lies that other people find interesting. And that makes a good story.

History lessons

But I found a list that I had made of all the professions, all the people that were absolute fixtures in my childhood. My Irish grandparents did not have a refrigerator until 1946, 47. They had an ice box. And they had, my grandmother had this little card and she'd put it in the window and whatever number was on the bottom of the card was how much ice, you know, five, ten, 15 pounds.

And the ice man would come. First I remember the horse and the wagon, but then he had a truck. And he had an ice house in Wallingford where they made ice and he'd come and he'd chisel off a chunk and carry it with pinchers up to the back porch and put the ice in the ice box. And then as the ice would melt they had a drip pan and if I was lucky to be there he'd chip off a chunk of ice and give it to me. And I'd be ... oh, better than a Popsicle, you know, just plain old ice.

Okay, so there was the iceman. We had a milk man. He came four times a week, yeah, four times a week. We had a baker, the bakery truck would come by and the guy would bring in like a big basket with donuts and different kinds of bread. We had a coalman. My grandmother and grandfather had a coal furnace. We had oil. But they had the coalman. The coal truck would come. And we'd watch the coal go down the chute into their basement.

I'm trying to think if there was... there's still a mailman I think. But all those kinds of professions that are gone now because we don't need those kind of... there was the vegetable truck that would come by, you know, fresh vegetables, and an old truck, usually an Italian you know driver with a scale on the back of it, you know, he'd weigh the tomatoes. And they were from like a little truck garden. That was where the word truck garden came from, you know the idea.

So it really is, I hate to see some of these parts of our history that people don't think they're important enough — to get lost. Because I don't know about modern children but one of my favorite books growing up when I was in about fourth, fifth grade was Hiddy, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field. And the reason I loved that book, it's about a doll, about a wooden doll that was hand carved in Maine and she was a pretty plain looking doll, compared the fancy French dolls that ... and it takes place in the 1800s.

But she goes to an event, she's carried to an event by a little girl who meets Abraham Lincoln, she hears Adelina Patti sing. So it's like a history lesson, like a time capsule. This doll writes her memoirs. She's sitting in the window of an antique shop and she decides to write her memoirs and she's 100 years old. So it's a wonderful way to experience history through the eyes of a doll who is owned by a child and a variety of children throughout the 100 years.

So that's in the back of my head. I don't know if that's... I have to talk to some children about that and see if they'd find that interesting.

Picture books versus chapter books

The process of writing a chapter book or a longer book and the process of writing a picture book are totally different. With a picture book I know that I have at least half of the storytelling is going to be done with the pictures, it's going to be visual. With the chapter book, this is a pretty good example. When I wrote the first text for my very first picture book, it was so long it wasn't funny. And I had a very dear editor friend of mine in New York said she'd help me out with it before I submitted it.

Well, I had submitted it and the editor that I had submitted it to said you know if it's going to fit in 32 pages and have pictures on every page you're going to have to tighten up the text a little bit, you know. How can I cut out some of my beautiful words? So Bernice Kohn Hunt was a friend of mine and she had edited, she had written the first book that I illustrated. It was a picture book, science book. And so we became very good friends.

And so she said I'll take a look at your manuscript for you. So I brought a copy of the manuscript. And she said well, number one, I'm going to take this blue pencil and I'm going to go through all the stuff you don't need, because you don't need to do a page of descriptions for this little man, this wizard that appears suddenly. You don't have to describe him. You can draw a picture.

And I used to joke about it. I still do. In my case one word was worth ... one picture was worth a thousand words. And with a chapter book I had to start remembering adjectives and adverbs again. And then from the chapter book that led me to do my sort of family memoir called Christmas Remembered. And I'm kind of moving in the direction of maybe trying to do some more older child, young adult, or adult writing, because you know I realize I've been doing this for 45 plus years and some of those fans are now getting close to 50. So maybe I should write something for my older fans.

But that's the main difference. I use adjectives and adverbs. And you have to paint the picture, because even though there are spot drawings in my chapter books, you know, those are little drawings that stand by themselves, they're black and white and they're really there just to decorate the page. They don't tell any story. They illustrate there was a long line of us going down into the auditorium and then you see the long line of children.

But if you don't know, if you don't have those words, you don't know what that little spot design means. Or as in a picture book you're really… I think the best picture books, and they're also the hardest to do are wordless books, because you have to have such a clear script in your head that you know where that story's going and you can't rely on.

I've done several wordless books and you suddenly realize then or later, these are suddenly important words, like Pancakes for Breakfast is a wordless picture book. And so you have to tell all those things with pictures.

What makes a good picture book?

I don't know if I have definite ideas about what makes a good picture book or not, but I know I have definite ideas about my own picture books. They have to, I have to be able to tell the story just from looking at the illustrations as I'm working on them. You know I've written the text, the text is all done but then, and when I do my illustrations the text is going to be put in to those illustrations by the designer, and so I'm looking at them just as pieces if you're going to tell a story, a sequence.

But I think the best, the best picture books are the ones where even if the child can't read a grown up can read the story to the child then they can pick up that book again and again and by looking at the pictures remember the story. If a book, like let me see, I want to give an example of one of my own books that I wouldn't call a picture book as much as I would call it an illustrated story book.

I'm having a hard time thinking of one, of my own. Jackie Woodson and Hudson Talbot's Show Way, which is a picture book about that wonderful episode in our notorious history where the underground railroad, African American families would hang quilts in their yards that would have a secret message that you know the runaway slaves knew, and that I would call a picture storybook. But a picture book is a book that relies really heavily on the pictures telling at least half of the story, if not more.

Reading the pictures

And so sometimes there's a prejudice against the picture book being too simple, not going to create a reader. And that's not necessarily... I don't think that's true. And I do think there are like board books. I think there are very simple picture books that give the love of books to very young children, you know, they learn the process of turning the page and being surprised. Eric Carle's books are perfect examples of that.

But I bet you learned how to read pictures before you got focused on words. But somewhere along the line someone told you focus on the words. If you think back you'll find that either a teacher or a family member... I'll give you very good example. This is a true story. I was visiting Jane Yolen at her home in Massachusetts and I was going there for a conference. And I had the first proof, or the FNGs, that's before the book is bound of a book I did called Helga's Dowry.

And it's about a troll, it's a troll story. But there's a mysterious character in this story. And Jane was reading the text and turning the page and her daughter Heidi who's now in her 30s, this little girl, and she was Mom, you're going too fast. She's such a slow reader. Well, that wasn't the case at all. And so Jane says Tomie, who's the editor? And I said oh, Barbara Lucas and she said, Jane is very professorial, and she said, she should have told you never introduce a character at the end, like suddenly at the end of a book.

And Heidi said he was way back there at the beginning. And Jane said, Heidi. She said no, he's hidden. He's peaking out from behind a rock, he's behind a tree. He's the troll king. And he's been observing Helga and then offers his hand in marriage at the end. And Jane had not read the pictures. She had read the text, and of course he wasn't mentioned in the text, because that was the joke. Heidi got it, you know, and I've never forgotten that. That, one for our team.

But I'm convinced that there's some ... there are some children who are very visual and they are the ones that kind of hang onto the picture book for a very long time and then they even sneak them off to college and keep them and show their favorite children's book to their prospective husbands, which has happened to me in my life.

Magical books

The curriculum for teachers is really horrendous these days. WIth the mandatory testing and everything, now they're having to teach to the test in kindergarten.

Because if they, you know, the 3rd grade, they take the test in 3rd grade, the second grade teacher has to prepare them for that 3rd grade test. Now the 1st grade teacher has to prepare them for the 2nd grade teacher and it's, it's just madness. And so, what gets lost, art, reading, you know, music, even sports, recess. And whatever happened, you know, Ms. Rose Mulligan my 5th grade teacher, I was in a double 5th and 6th grade.

Now get this, every Friday afternoon, school ended at 3:30, 3:00 we'd put our work away and she'd sit at her desk and every single day in the school year, she read out loud to us. And she read books, well she read Tom Sawyer, she read Little Women, she read The Birds' Christmas Carol. And everything was always, she had it down pat, you know. She had a, what did I say every Friday, no she did it every day, not just every Friday.

And she'd always have a cliff hanger on Friday, so we couldn't wait to get back to school, what happened, what's going to happen, you know. I've had teachers tell me there's no time for story time and t

"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase