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He simply knows his audience

Tomie dePaola writes (and writes and writes) for kids, not for acclaim

Email|Print| Text size + By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / December 10, 2007

NEW LONDON, N.H. - Though he is one of America's most prolific children's author/illustrators, outside that genre Tomie dePaola has flown under the radar of fame.

"His books are everywhere," said Roger Sutton, editor of the Horn Book, the Boston-based children's book review. "You couldn't find a library without a couple of books by him. But he has never gotten the attention he deserves."

Since the mid-1960s, dePaola has written or illustrated about 200 books. His best-known is probably "Strega Nona" (1975), about an affable magic healer in southern Italy. Notable others include his Mother Goose collection, a book of favorite poems, a seven-volume chapter-book series called "26 Fairmount Avenue" about his childhood during World War II, "Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs," about a small boy's discovery of death, religious books such as "Francis, the Poor Man of Assisi," and "The Clown of God," about a juggler performing before a statue of the Christ Child. His new book is "Front Porch Tales and Country Whoppers," written in Vermont dialect, with a glossary.

Though he has sold more than 6 million books worldwide, dePaola, 73, has never won the biggest children's book awards - the Randolph Caldecott Medal for illustration, the John Newbery Medal for writing ("Strega Nona" and "26 Fairmount Avenue" were Caldecott and Newbery "honor books," i.e. runners-up), or the National Book Award. He has not crossed over to television, unlike Marc Brown with "Arthur" or Norman Bridwell with "Clifford the Big Red Dog." There are no "Strega Nona" plush toys. The dePaola oeuvre is almost entirely art-filled storytelling in the quietest old-fashioned way, through a book in the lap.

Talking about his life and art in an interview in his barn-studio on a recent snowy morning, dePaola (his name is pronounced as if "Tommy dePowla") burst often into flights of raucous hilarity and appended a funny anecdote to almost every answer. With his Airedale, Bronte, occasionally woofing in the next room, he was enjoying himself. That seems to have been true of his entire career.

Studying the masters

He grew up in Meriden, Conn., with an Irish-American mother, Italian-American father, and many loving extended family members. Most of those vivid characters appear in his books. "I remember feeling guilty that I had a good childhood," he said. "I thought everybody who is famous has to have a desperate childhood and work his way out of it, but I had a great one."

After high school, he went to Pratt Institute of art in Brooklyn and decided early to specialize in illustration. "In my first week, one of my classmates invited me to an opening at MOMA, of [French painter] Georges Rouault," dePaola said, "and I was totally blown away. That same night, I saw my first Picasso and first Matisse." Rouault and Matisse became his heroes, along with medieval painters Giotto and Fra Angelico. He also studied with American social realist painter Ben Shahn.

"Matisse is my favorite," he said, "because he didn't want the viewer to see the hard work that went into his painting. He would start out with a rendering, then simplify and simplify. I try to be as clear and simple as I can be in my illustrations, so that the child can tell what is going on and what the emotions are." Some of his pictures have a two-dimensional, almost medieval quality. Emotion is expressed primarily with color, posture, or the position of hands or head.

After graduating from Pratt in 1956, he decided to become a Benedictine monk - the Benedictines are specialists in art and liturgy - and spent enough time (a few months) at Vermont's Weston Priory to know he was not monk material. Still, his religious sensibility is everywhere in his work, largely at the intersection of art, legend, and devotion. Besides his books, he has created liturgical art in churches, including several wall paintings at the Benedictine Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham. His house is filled with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which he collects along with other Spanish/Indian folk art. As he showed an interior room adorned like a small Mexican chapel, he mused, "I have kept the beautiful things from the Catholic Church."

He was married in 1959 and divorced in 1961. He earned a master's degree at the California College of the Arts, and lived and taught art in San Francisco and Boston (at Newton College of the Sacred Heart and Chamberlayne Junior College). He lived for a time in New York. In 1972, he moved to New Hampshire to teach at Colby-Sawyer College and made New London his permanent home. From that base, he tours and travels often, and his bookstore appearances draw crowds of kids and parents.

DePaola's books range from the madcap comedy of "Front Porch Tales" and "Strega Nona" to the solemnity of "The Legend of the Bluebonnet" and the deep sadness of "Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs." In that autobiographical book, the 4-year-old boy's beloved great-grandmother (Nana Upstairs) is cared for by her daughter, his grandmother (Nana Downstairs). Near the end, when his mother tells him that Nana Upstairs has died, he does not understand, and races to her room. The illustration shows the boy from behind, staring in stillness at the empty bed.

"I get chills - the hair is already standing up on the back of my neck - when I think of that drawing," he said. "I still remember that room. It was completely flooded with light, and I think it was as simple as that my grandmother had always kept the shades half pulled-down so that the room wouldn't be too bright for my great-grandmother. They had just taken her body away, and my grandmother hadn't remade the bed, but had taken the sheets off. Just this white space with white light. And then I knew she was gone."

Controversial matter

Not everybody admires dePaola's art unreservedly. "I think his work has so many comfortable, familiar elements in it that people connect with it very easily," said Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, a children's bookstore. "The other side is that it's not all that creative. He's not breaking any new ground."

On the other hand, said Gwen Holt, manager of Wenham's Banbury Cross Children's Bookshop and a dePaola admirer, "breaking new ground is not always a good thing. There's the issue of 'breaking ground for whom?' Some might look at his books and say 'been there, done that,' but a 4-year-old has not been there."

"There is a clarity to the way he draws characters that is very accessible, unlike some artists who call attention to their art," said Leonard Marcus, children's-book editor of Parenting magazine. "He pares it down to a level that communicates with children. That is probably one reason he has not won medals. People, including prize-committee members, don't always understand that simple is hard to achieve."

Not all of his work makes people comfortable. Many parents of small children would shy away from "Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs" for its frank treatment of death. His 2006 book, "Christmas Remembered," depicts adults imbibing Christmas cheer. "One of the sales reps said, 'We can't sell this book - it has drinking in it,' " dePaola said. He stood his ground but wrote a note on the copyright page telling adults they should feel free to skip the drinking parts, then added a verse from Hilaire Belloc: "Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine/ There's always laughter and good red wine/ At least I've always found it so/ Benedicamos Domino!"

DePaola seems far younger than 73, perhaps because of his jolliness and evident energy. He has several projects in the offing, and after more than 40 years he's changing to a new editor at Putnam. "I wanted someone younger," he said. "I have to move on. I don't want to be safe. I want to be dangerous."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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