Despite a career brimming with achievements, awards, and accolades, author and illustrator Tomie dePaola still recalls the New York Times’ assessment of the first book he ever illustrated, the nonfiction Sound (Coward-McMann, 1965) by Lisa Miller: “the illustrations for this book are far too imaginative for a science text.” Although dePaola went on to write and illustrate almost 200 books, that sense of exuberance and unrestrained creativity with which he approached his craft from the beginning has never waned. The artist was on hand this week at New York’s Pratt Institute to discuss his artistic process, his childhood, and his most notable works with moderator Pat Cummings, an illustrator and Pratt professor, in an interview format modeled after Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio.
DePaola reminisced fondly on his family and his childhood, themes that have been long evident throughout his work, such as his memoir, the Newbery Honoree 26 Fairmount Avenue (1999), Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs (1973), and The Baby Sister (1996) all Putnam. The artist also spoke of his picture book, Tom (Putnam, 1993), in which he immortalized his beloved maternal grandfather, an Irish butcher who told him stories and jokes, and even gave him a Listo grease pencil with which he made his first forays into drawing—on his bedsheets and under the wallpaper. Additionally, dePaola talked about the inspiration he drew from his twin cousins, Kathryn and Frances McLaughlin, who later became famous photographers and who encouraged his artistic pursuits.
It was dePaola’s cousins who motivated him to attend Pratt Institute, a stimulating experience he describes as life-changing. Though intensely rigorous—only half of the first year class was invited back for a second year—Pratt was where dePaola was artistically challenged for the first time. “It took my brain and scrambled it and made a beautiful soufflé,” he said of his undergraduate years. DePaola also underscored the importance of his relationships with classmates who would later become acclaimed illustrators in their own right, such as Arnold and Anita Lobel, Ted Lewin, and John Schoenherr.
DePaola described the excitement he felt at being a part of the nascent world of children’s literature. “[It] was suddenly a place where you could be really creative” at a time when talented and innovative artists such as Leo Lionni and Mary Blair were just beginning to emerge, he said. DePaola’s own art occasionally proved too ground-breaking for those with more conventional tastes; he stated that his first agent’s response upon looking over his portfolio was to question why there were so few images of children performing ordinary activities.
However, dePaola’s editors were quick to recognize that the illustrator had talent as a writer as well. Though he found the process of condensing and editing down his work challenging while writing his first book The Wonderful Dragon of Timlin, (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966) he was given the valuable advice by writer, editor, and close friend Bernice Hunt that his vivid illustrations could help cut down on the lengthy text. “In my case it was true,” said dePaola. “One image was worth a thousand words.”
DePaola also touched on Strega Nona (Prentice-Hall, 1975), the work for which he is most famous, which garnered him a Caldecott Honor, and resulted in several related books. “If I had known what was going to happen when I did that first Strega Nona book, I probably would have been paralyzed.” However, Strega Nona is still going strong; Cummings displayed images from Brava, Strega Nona! (Putnam, 2008), a pop-up book for which he collaborated with Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart. DePaola also briefly spoke of his upcoming title, Strega Nona Does It Again, in which he introduces a new character, the title character’s cousin’s daughter, Angelina.
Of his artistic methods, dePaola confessed that, although he “[does] everything [he] possibly can to avoid sitting down” to work, once he begins, he easily finds himself immersed in his craft. Unlike many artists, dePaola doesn’t rely on preliminary thumbnail sketches but generally goes straight to finishes.
DePaola also acknowledged the difficulties inherent in creating visual art, but encouraged aspiring artists to rise to the challenge. “The scariest thing for an artist is the blank sheet of paper because a blank sheet of paper is perfect,” he said. “The minute you put one mark on it, you ruin it, so then you’ve got to make it better, and that’s a real challenge.”