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Five questions for Tomie dePaola

Photo: Julie Maris-Semel

Photo: Julie Maris/Semel

1. You’ve illustrated books intended for a range of ages. What, in your experience, makes a good picture book for the very young?

TD: Picture books for the young are the hardest, the most rewarding, and the most consequential task any illustrator/writer can tackle. The responsibility of introducing “The Book” to young children is awesome. Best not to think too hard about it because it can be paralyzing. Here is where ego has to take a back seat. I still always remind myself, when I’m starting a book, that the reason I’m jumping into this project is more about making something that can, and often does, influence a young person for years to come than about my becoming “famous” and feeding my ego.

The illustrator has the lion’s share of the work. Boring, confusing, too-clever pictures can muddy the comprehension of a concise text (which is the best kind of text for books for the very young).

So, the illustrations must add to the text, hold the attention of the youngster, entertain the eye, and only when “devoured” will the page be turned. It’s an awesome task that is also awesomely rewarding.

2. Does the idea that your audience is pre-readers influence what you decide to communicate through the visual narrative versus the text?

TD: Not really. Doing that, I think, is part of my DNA. Considering myself a visual artist first, I really respect and believe in the power of the image. When that power is coupled with a straightforward narrative, the combination is dynamic and, for me, what works. Needless to say, I love doing what I do, and I’m confident that that comes across.

March/APril 2015 Horn Book Magazine

March/April 2015 Horn Book Magazine cover by Tomie dePaola.

3. You’re known for tackling sensitive topics in your picture books — death, religion, gender identity, nonconformity. How do you do it — and so consistently! — in a way that’s so honest but also so accessible?

TD: I’ve learned over the years that honesty to myself and my vision is paramount to my being satisfied with the work I put out in front of the public. I learned to take the “risk” of being honest with two books that I did with my editor Barbara Lucas (first at G. P. Putnam’s Sons, and then, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). She not only encouraged me, but guided me through Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs and Oliver Button Is a Sissy. There was no way that I couldn’t continue with the inner mantra that honesty is always, eventually, accessible. I hope I can continue to do this. I try.

4. Over the course of your career, what, if anything, has changed in terms of what people (publishers, parents, the marketplace) think will appeal to very young children?

TD: I’ve noticed through the fifty years that I have been working in the publishing world that trends seem to come and go. Every so often, a new “expertise” surfaces and lots of people (publishers, parents, marketplace) jump on the new bandwagon. Then, the pendulum swings back a bit. The most prevalent change recently is the proliferation of blogs, tweets, all sorts of social media chatter. Some of the best of it will last, no doubt. Then the chatter will quiet and who knows? A new obsession will become the thing.

But, the two essentials that I always keep in front of me, and have for years, are: Is this work good enough for children? (an homage to Zoltán Kodály: “Only the best is good enough for a child.”); and read, read, read (and show all kinds of pictures) to your children!

My job is to be true to my expression, and not to jump on the latest trend.

depaola_look and be grateful5. Your newest book asks people to “Look and be grateful.” What are you grateful for?

TD: I am grateful that I have been fortunate enough to have spent my entire adult life (from age thirty to the present) in creating pictures and words for young people. For me there is no loftier profession. I said to myself many years ago, when I began to make books for children, that I hoped that one of my books would touch at least one child and would make someone smile — maybe even change his or her life for the better. I hope I have done this and hope that I will continue to do so.

The other thing I am grateful for is all the friendships I have made throughout this career of mine. That is a real gift.

From the December 2015 issue of What Makes a Good…?: “What Makes a Good Preschool Book?”

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Comments

  1. I saw Tomie dePaola speak at a local bookstore in the Boston area about 8 years ago. He was fantastic – engaged with the children and adults alike, and so very approachable. I know, having taught in the classroom for the last 10 years, that his books have touched the hearts of many of the students I have worked with. We could always have such rich discussions around his work, especially, at the primary level, Oliver Button is a Sissy and The Art Lesson. I hope he continues to do what he does best – make fabulous books for children of all ages.

  2. Sheila Welch says:

    Thank you for answering these questions, Tomie dePaola. I’ve been sharing your books with children for many years and plan to continue for many more. Your art and stories are appreciated by all ages.

  3. I appreciate all the vision and feelings you bring to your illustrations. They are so to the point. A hard thing to do. Also, it was wonderful meeting you many years ago at Wilcox School, Holt, with Agatha Myers, the then librarian that brought you there. I ran home to get ‘good’ art paper, after realizing she was having you draw on newsprint. 🙂 Thank you for all of your stories and art.

  4. I just read two Strega Nona books at two different preschools this morning, and can vouch that just today, just here, his work has touched at least 30 children and made them smile! Not to mention me!

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