[Editor's note: dePaola's visit to Malaprop's was cancelled due to health circumstances; Strega Nona's Harvest is still available. Alli Marshall interviewed dePaola before the visit was cancelled.]
Reviewing a children's book is an interesting proposition. There's not much narrative arc to discuss; little in the way of foreshadowing or dramatic climax. And yet many readers recall their first books and favorite childhood authors (Doctor Seuss, Shel Silverstein) with far greater enthusiasm than they have for anything in the literary canon.
Author and artist Tomie dePaola knows this. He's written and/or illustrated more than 200 works for children, among them some standouts like Oliver Button is a Sissy and the textless Pancakes for Breakfast. Perhaps surprisingly, dePaola doesn't have children of his own — his was not a career launched from the bedtime tales crafted for the ears of his offspring. Instead, "I was all set to be an artist in Kindergarten," dePaola tells Xpress. "I never changed my mind about what I wanted to be when I grew up. The writing surprised me a little bit, but I always knew I wanted to be an illustrator."
As an artist, dePaola's work dates back to 1965 with Sound and Wheels by author Lisa Miller. He illustrated educational books (The Cabinet of the President of the United States), how-to books (How to be a Puppeteer) and folklore (Monsters of the Middle Ages) before launching his own stories with the retelling of Aesop's fable The Wind and the Sun and original children's fiction Strega Nona, both in 1972.
Strega Nona not only saw the dawning of dePaola's youth fiction, but has also remained a presence throughout the author's four-decade career. DePaolo's most recent publication, Strega Nona's Harvest (G.P. Putnam, 2009), is a timely tale of sharing, hard times, magic and an Obama-like backyard garden.
Strega Nona (for those not familiar with the 10 books in which the benevolent, grandmotherly witch has appeared) is a fireplug of a matriarch who sports a kerchief and sensible shoes while doling out helpful axioms, rhyming incantations and Italian-language phrases.
"I was teaching at a college in the '70s," dePaola remembers. "We were forced to go to faculty meetings. I'd sit in the back row with a big legal pad and I'd doodle." Inspired by images of trolls and Punchinello, dePaola found himself sketching "this little old lady with a big nose. I said 'Oh, her name is Strega Nona,' just like that."
Strega Nona first appeared in a retelling of traditional porridge pot folk tale in which the out-moded oatmeal was replaced with a piping-hot crock of spaghetti. The crux of the story was that Strega Nona's helper, the lovable clutz Big Anthony, figured out how to start the magic-fueled pot, but couldn't make it stop. Hijinks (and lessons in generosity and minding one's business) ensue.
Harvest, 37 years later, follows a similar formula. Strega Nona plants a garden. Big Anthony wants a garden, too, but bungles the magic growing spell and winds up with produce out the wazoo. And it's a fitting theme for 2009, when eco- and budget-conscious Americans are tilling up backyards. But dePaola, though pleased with the fortuitous timing, wasn't thinking about stretching the grocery dollar when he crafted the book. "I got the idea looking at a photograph of Martha Stewart's new vegetable garden in Bedford, N.Y.," he admits. "Everything is perfect, not a thing out of place. I thought, 'Oh my lord.' Then I thought, 'Of course, Strega Nona's garden would look like that.'"
Perhaps it was dePaola's ability to, in vivid watercolor, both tell a lively tale and impart Strega Nona-like wisdom, that led to him being tapped for hit children's show Barney & Friends. "They came to me," the author says. "They were very clear that it was far a very young audience: a 5 year-old would find the show lame." But appearing as himself with the giant purple dinosaur was far from lame for dePaola.
"It was wonderful for my career," he confirms. "Seventeen million children watch that show daily."
While dePaola points out that he "doesn't bite the hand that feeds him," he is also clear that "I'm not going to sugar coat anything." Not afraid to address difficult subject matter, dePaola's catalog includes Now One Foot, Now the Other (about a boy who learns to walk from is grandfather and then, after his grandfather suffers a stroke, returns the favor) and Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs (about a boy whose 94 year-old great-grandmother is bedridden and eventually dies). Another book, Christmas Remembered, is marketed as an adult or family book because it autobiographically depicts dePaola's Irish-Italian holiday traditions, including liquid cheer. "I've been fortunate that if [pressure to downplay serious subject matter] starts to happen, I nip it in the bud," he says.
And that's probably why dePaola's career has been such a long one. That, and telling stories through words and images seems to be in his DNA. "My mother read aloud to me," he recalls. "I loved the Arabian Nights tales and anything that was complicated, but at the same time I loved Disney's Fantasia and Pinocchio." Even comic books were considered worthy reading material in the dePaola household. The author's favorite: Little Lulu.