"Sheep baa. Cows moo. Ducks quack.” These whimsical animal sounds have been with us as long as anyone can remember. And so have the toddlers who delight in cutting their linguistic teeth on them.
Children’s illustrator Tomie dePaola has just created a new read-aloud picture book to a poem by Arnold L. Shapiro in which the child gets to make lots of noises AND have the last word: “Cats purr. Lions roar. Owls hoot. Mice squeak… But I speak!” is the way this story goes.
“Mice Squeak, We Speak,” just out from Putnam’s, features a simple rhyming text and dePaola’s pictures bright with color and energy. Three children lead the book’s readers, lookers, and listeners through a menagerie of cheerful animals. Purring cats, snoring bears, mooing cows, and quacking ducks are part of the crowd. Caldecott Award-winning author and illustrator Tomie dePaola meets the public and signs “Mice Squeak, We Speak” at Borders Books in Nassau Park on Monday, September 29, at 7 p.m.
DePaola is known around the world for his output of almost 200 volumes, the result of 30 years of reaching out to very young audiences. Five million copies of his books are in print in more than 15 different countries. Most parents of today’s toddlers grew up with his books. And even his Putnam’s publicist, Jason Wells, remembers how “Strega Nona” was one of the very first books he was given as a gift in 1976 , the year he turned two years old.
In an interview from his home in New Hampshire, dePaola says that despite his wide success, he still travels each fall to meet youngsters and their parents, something he has done every year for about 15 years. “What I like about it is that it gives me a chance to meet the people who have been buying the book over the past year,” he explains energetically. “For me the real joy , beside writer’s cramp and sore elbows and a sore back from signing , is that it’s really wonderful meeting the people.”
DePaola describes his fan base as “a triple treat” , parents, teachers, and children all enjoy his work. “They bring me drawings or books they’ve made, crafts, and bread dolls. One small toddler took the gum out of her mouth last year and gave it to me,” he says. And are children or their parents more enthusiastic? “The children are enthusiastic, but when they get up to me they often clam up as if they were standing in front of Elvis!”
Reviving folktales and drawing and seeding bits of his own past into original stories has been a large measure of dePaola’s success. His friendly, pillow-shaped characters are recognized everywhere, often embellished in his signature colors of rose pink and pale green.Although dePaola is naturally identified with his Italian roots , his most famous character remains Strega Nona, the grandmotherly witch from Calabria , he grew up in Meriden, Connecticut, in the 1930s and early ’40s. It’s true that his father’s father came from the town of Paola in Calabria, which is where he got his name, but emotionally he was closer to his mother’s Irish family. His Irish grandparents lived close by, whereas his Italian grandmother lived more than three hours away in Massachusetts. “Strega Nona has qualities that my Italian grandmother had,” he explains, “although she didn’t look like her. She was more fierce, a real matriarch. I remember we’d drive for hours to visit and she cooked food I hated. I’d die for some of that food now, of course!”
Growing up with an older brother and two younger sisters, dePaola knew by the time he was five years old what his life’s work would be. By his ninth Christmas, all his relatives gave him art-making gifts. “I’ll never forget waking up to an artist’s easel,” he says.
Bullied at grammar school because he hated sports and took up tap dancing, dePaola say he found a way out of his misery through his art. “I used to look for the biggest bully in the class and offer to draw tattoos on his arm,” he explains. This brawny boy would then ensure that his minions treated this special tattoo artist with respect.
Staying true to his instincts, dePaola went on to earn his BFA at the Pratt Institute in New York City, and his MFA at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He began his career as an illustrator in 1965, and soon published his first solo work as both author and illustrator, “The Wonderful Dragon of Timlin.”It’s strange but true that the real-life author has grown to look remarkably like his trademark characters. “He’s kind of short, a little chubby, and his round face and twinkling eyes radiate warmth,” is the way one writer describes him. Did his characters always look like him, or did he perhaps grow to look like them? “Some of both,” dePaola laughs. “I am roly-poly and last year I was talking to a friend about how I needed to start doing something about this weight, and my friend said, `Just start drawing thin people.’ It’s sort of like the picture of Dorian Gray , but when my nose and chin start to grow and I look like Strega Nona, then I’ll start to worry!”
DePaola says all his books start with a story. He works in a large barn on his rural property that he has converted into a spectacular artist’s studio. He also paints and draws for adult audiences, and shows this work in a gallery in Wellsfleet, Massachusetts.He is currently working on his fall 1998 book, a story about Big Anthony, who appears as the helper in “Strega Nona.” The book is a history of where Big Anthony came from before he met up with the witch. “For this I’m moving from warm and pink to cooler blue and violet,” he says. “When I’m actually working on a book, when I’m painting pages, my art school training kicks in and I make professional choices.”
"I know from being told that I have a very distinctive palette. Just last week I was talking with my former painting teacher of 40 years ago, Roger Crossgrove of Pratt, who said, `But Tomie you always had a distinctive color palette, you always had a predilection for off-beat color combinations.’ So you’d have to say it’s both individual style and professional training.”
DePaola’s childhood years coincided with World War II, and hence with a nationwide paper shortage. “I don’t remember ever having a picture book in my hands,” he says. “The books we had were story collections, some with tipped-in illustrations.”
It was when dePaola was a student at Pratt that the picture book became a noticeable bookstore item. And he is one of six members of his Pratt class who became children’s book illustrators. These were also the years when dePaola became an avid picture book collector. He has given much of his collection to his local children’s library, where he also gives a story hour at least once a year. This annual event often draws an audience of 300.
“I had a lot of models,” he recalls, “but I especially liked Alice and Martin Provensen.” He still finds picture books of all kinds irresistible , which makes his bookstore appearances especially tempting. “I can’t resist buying big color art books of all types, from picture books to Renaissance art books.”
“My work is stylized,” he continues. “The forms are simple. There’s got to be enough interest in the picture to keep the reader busy, but not too busy. If it’s too full, the child can’t tell what’s going on. We’re supposed to be illuminating , even amplifying , the story.” One of his favorite author collaborators over the years has been Toni Johnston. “She leaves so much space for me. She doesn’t lock me in to a picture. That’s a good collaboration.”
DePaola uses three different kinds of acrylic paints for their transparency, and for opaque painting, he uses tempera. He works on handmade watercolor paper. “That’s the sensual, fun part, choosing the paper.
“White paper is very scary for me because it’s so beautiful. When I put the first mark on it, you think you’ve ruined it. and then I have to work hard to make the paper beautiful again.”
DePaola’s 200th book, due out in January, will be a 25th anniversary edition of “Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs,” a story based on the Irish grandmother and great-grandmother he cherished as a child. The idea for the project came from his editor, who wanted the classic republished in full color and in a large format comparable to his other autobiographical books. “My editor said it would be easy. It wasn’t easy. It was probably one of the most difficult projects
I’ve done. The book has been around so long, and loved by so many people , I didn’t want to do a Ted Turner `colorization’ number on it. So I had to start from scratch.” Each of the pictures has the same subject as the first edition, he says, “and I think these grandmothers will look more like their originals.”
Despite his prodigious output, ideas for new books still come to dePaola thick and fast. “I look for a good story that I’m just dying to tell. If anything, I have too many ideas.” With his September 15 birthday just days away, he is a bit preoccupied. Particularly since this birthday will be his 63rd. “If I live to be 104, I’ve only got 40 years left,” says dePaola, “but I still have at least 180 ideas.”
Tomie dePaola, Borders Books, Nassau Park, 609-514-0040. The children’s author signs copies of his latest book, “Mice Squeak, We Speak.” He will also sign one book from home per family. Free. Monday, September 29, 7 p.m.