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

Always an artist

I can't remember when I wasn't drawing. I loved to draw from as far back as I can remember, but I remember distinctly the day that I announced to the world "da-dah." I was only four years old. I had an older brother, and everyone asked him, "Oh, Buddy, what do you want to be when you grow up?" And he rattled off a bunch of cartoon characters, like Dick Tracy, Joe Palooka, Buck Rogers. And I thought, "Oh, he wants to be a cartoon."

And I said, "Oh, I know what I'm going to be when I grow up." And everyone said, "Oh, yeah, yeah. Sure." And I said, "Yes, I'm going to be an 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." And I've managed to do all those things and get paid for them!

So, really it began when I was four, before I went to kindergarten. And I never, ever thought of considering any other profession, and that was a long time ago.

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"Real artists don't copy"

So, the day the art lesson came, I stuck the crayons underneath my sweater and brought them back to school and waited for the opportune moment. But the first thing that the art teacher – whose name was Mrs. Bowers, and she became my hero for the rest of my grade-school years – the first thing she did is she started to draw on the big piece of paper that they put up in the front of the room, with her chalks. And she drew a pilgrim man, a pilgrim woman, and a turkey. And she said, "Now, class, copy them."

Now, I had these twin cousins who were professional artists, and they were in art school. They had told me several years before that, "Real artists don't copy, and you have to practice, practice, practice." So, I just put my arms like this and sat there. And down they came, and the second-grade teacher said, "What's the matter now?"

And I didn't even look at her. I looked right at Mrs. Bowers, produced my crayons, and said, "She won't let me use my 64 crayons, and my cousins said that real artists don't copy."

And Mrs. Bowers was wonderful. She said, "Oh, well, what are we going to do? I can't let you do something special. You have to do what the rest of the class does." And, of course, my immediate reaction was, "Why?" But I didn't say it. And Beulah Bowers said, "You know, I have an idea. If you do the assignment and there's any time left, I'll give you another piece of paper and you can draw anything you like."

So, I quickly dispatched the pilgrim lady and the pilgrim man and the turkey and then I drew a picture of her. And she wanted me to give it to her, and I told her – I didn't put this in the book – but I told her, "Oh, no, no. I have to keep it. I might be able to sell it someday." So, somewhere I got the idea that I could make a living at being an artist.

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How to help talented, young artists

I always tell parents when they ask me – and I do get a lot of parents at bookstores and when I'm out doing conferences – they'll come and say, "Listen, I have a very talented child in my classroom," or, "Our child is very talented. She or he is always drawing. What should we do?"

And I say, "Listen. Do just what my parents did." My parents always made sure I had plenty of materials – you know, lots of paper, lots of paints and crayons. And the older I got, the more sophisticated materials I received. In fact, one Christmas, all I got from everybody was art supplies. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was around ten or eleven.

But the other thing they did was we had an attic that was kind of our rainy day playroom in our house in Connecticut, and they actually gave me half of the attic for my "studio." So, they made sure I had a place to work, and there was this imaginary line on the carpet that you could not cross unless you were invited by me. And I remember going up there once, and my two younger sisters were standing, you know, on the carpet, sort of gazing off into the rest of the room. They didn't dare cross over. They didn't even know I was coming up the stairs, and so I invited them over to see my crayons and my paints and my pastels.

But that's what I always tell parents and even teachers. I guess you have to be good about having everybody in the class do the same thing, but sometimes there are children who are extra talented, or have an extra drive. And I don't see anything wrong with letting them have special privileges, because the other kids understand that. All my classmates knew that I was the best artist in the class. They would think it was very unfair if I didn't get two pieces of paper, or three or four. And I used to draw pictures for them, too, so I sort of spread my largesse around.

When I got to fourth and fifth grade, I was very popular with the young ladies, because I was very good at drawing paper dolls for them. And whoever was my favorite that week got a paper doll.

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Playing hooky in kindergarten

And I said, "When do we learn how to read?" And she said, "Oh, we don't learn how to read in kindergarten. We learn how to read next year, in first grade." I said, "Fine! I'll be back next year."

And I turned on my heels, and walked right out the door. I opened the big door, went down the stairs and walked all the way home. And when I got home, no one was there. My father, of course, was at work. He was a barber, so he was at the barbershop. My mother was free for the first time in eight years to go shopping by herself, so she was downtown, shopping.

The school called home. They couldn't find me. There was an uproar, of course. They called the barbershop. My father found my mother. They came racing home, and there I was sitting, holding one of my mother's books, looking at it. You know, "Okay. Maybe if I look at it long enough, it'll happen."

My mother was wonderful. My father said, "You deal with this one." And my mother said, "So, you don't want to go to school?" I said, "No, I don't. I'm not going to that kindergarten." I said, "I'm not going."

She said, "Well, you know, if you don't go, you won't pass. And if you don't pass, you have to do it again, and you won't get into first grade if you don't pass. And so it'll be a long time before you learn how to read."

So, I said, "Alright, alright." So, the next day I went back to kindergarten, but I never really liked kindergarten.

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All for the library card

Of course, I got to first grade, after the endless summer of waiting to get to first grade, and had the teacher I wanted. She was very pretty. And I walked into the classroom, and before I even opened my mouth, she said, "Yes, Tomie. We do learn how to read this year." And I said, "When?" And she said, "Friday."

And, of course, we had these awful Dick and Jane books. Ugh! They were so awful! And when I opened it up and saw the book, it was like, "This isn't what I had in mind."

And she had one of those pointers, and she pointed on the big book that was on the easel, just like our small books, you know. Those dreaded words: "See Dick run. Run, run, run. Run, Dick, run. See Dick run."

And I said to myself, "Nobody talks this way – not in my family, anyway." And I had more in mind, you know, "Deep in the woods, there was a little cottage that the cobbler lived in." You know, something interesting. So, I took the book home. I was always putting things under my sweater.

In our town you couldn't get your library card until your teacher had signed a little, blue card that said you could read. Then you could get a library card at the public library. So, I just felt that the world was against me. You know, there was some fate was happening here, and there was a plot to keep me from learning how to read.

And I asked my mother years later, "Why didn't you teach me at home?" She said, "We were brainwashed. We were afraid to teach you, because we were afraid we'd teach you the wrong way."

You know, of course there is no wrong way to learn how to read. So I walked in the door, and I had the book. And my mother said, "What are you doing with your schoolbook?" I said, "Miss Kiniry told me that-" And she said, "No, Miss Kiniry did not tell you you could take the book home." And she said, "You stole the book."

But I had the book all weekend, so I went around to my brother, my father, my grandfather, my beloved grandfather, my grandmother and even my mother, and I said, "What's this word?" "What's this word?" And they'd tell me the word, and I'd look at it, and I said, "Okay."

And by Sunday night, I had learned all the words in that first book. It's no great feat. There were only about 17 words.

Miss Kiniry was at the desk, and said, "Oh. Good morning, Tomie." And I said, "I stole my book." And she said, "Oh, yes. Oh. That was a very bad thing to do." I said, "But I've learned how to read." And she said, "You have?" I said, "Yes. Sit down."

And I read the entire book to her. And she was so great. She said, "You did! You learned how to read the whole book. Well, I'm going to sign your library card." And you know, it was like the Holy Grail.

I found out years later that my mother called her and said, "He stole the c…" She said, "I know. I saw him going out the room with the book under his sweater. But he wants to learn how to read so badly, I didn't have the heart to stop him."

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Preparing future readers

I think that what you have to do for young people to excite them about reading is, number one, you have to read to them. You have to read them books that are too hard for them to read by themselves. That's what my mother did. You know, at four years old, I couldn't read Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, but I'd have her read it over and over to me again. I didn't know what it was, but "open sesame" to open that cave and make the rock roll away… "Wow!" I was four, and I could say, "Open sesame!" I didn't know what it was, but it didn't matter.

And I think that quite often, when children are reluctant readers, it's because they haven't been introduced to stories early enough. Now it's scientific. Now we don't even have to say it's philosophical, because there is scientific evidence that the sooner children are read to, the neurons in the brain connect; and that reading aloud is probably the single, most important thing a parent can do – besides feeding their children – and for young children, very young children.

I come from the era, the old-fashioned days, when parents read nursery rhymes to their little babies. You know, "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake" or "This little piggy went to market." And I found out when I did a big version of the Mother Goose rhymes – I did research… and one of the things they said was the Mother Goose rhymes contain all of the sounds and combination of sounds that we use in English language. And, of course, the sooner children hear all those combinations and even try to say them themselves, that's how they learn. And if children can be excited about stories, they're going to learn how to read.

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Worthwhile aches and pains

You know, people think, "Oh, isn't it wonderful? You sit and you draw all day." Yeah, isn't it wonderful I sit and draw all day? I have aches and pains and pop Advil and Tylenol… I have chronic tendonitis, and I'm not the only one. You know, we illustrators, we get together. We commiserate on all our aches and pains and our glasses.

But I wouldn't do any other thing. I can't imagine earning my living doing anything else. I really can't. And then to have people – teachers and librarians and parents – and then to have kids come up to me and say, "I love your books!" It's just like, "Oh, thank you! Thank you!" It really is worthwhile – really worthwhile.

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Put the kid on your lap

You know, when parents read books to their children, I think the best interaction is to put the kid on your lap and have some physical contact. And it's easier to read that way. That's how Mom did it. I was in her lap and she had the book open. I could look at the pictures.

I love it when children say to their parents, "No, no. No, no. You're going too fast!" You know the poor parent has read the book for 400 times. "No, no. You left out two words. I want the whole book."

What I find really fascinating, because I've seen it over and over again in my experiences – especially in daycare or preschools – is that when the teacher reads the book to the little class, they have to go through it slower, because the children are devouring the pictures. And grownups tend to read only the words and then turn the page, where the children hear the words, but they want to see what's going on in all of those illustrations.

I think it's such a simple thing. Put a kid in your lap. I have wonderful home movies. I'm about three, maybe even two – a little, chubby kid. And there's my big grandfather, looking like a mountain. And I'm sitting on his knee, and he's got the funny papers in front. And I know exactly what he was reading. He was reading "The Katzenjammer Kids" to me, because that was my favorite. He used to do it with accents. So, I come by this, you know, through my genetic makeup.

But I look at that image, and I think, "Gee, you know, that is such a beautiful image" – of this little baby sitting on this big man's lap, looking at the paper with this little, goofy smile on his face. And the grandfather is with the glasses and I'm reading, and you can tell he's imitating.

So that's the interaction I would want to see. I don't think it works if a parent's going to read a story to a child, and you say, "Okay. You sit over there, and I'm going to sit here and read you the story." There has to be physical contact. There really does.

"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " — Mem Fox