The Storyteller's Art

It's not always a positive attribute to say someone's persona fills a room, because it often means an ego problem. With Tomie dePaola, however, his seemingly genuine joy for life simply enlightens all around him. He radiates the same feelings engendered by his books.

A resident of New Hampshire, dePaola is perhaps the most recognizable children's book artist and writer in the United States today. He has received many awards for children's literature, including more than 20 from children themselves. A master at bringing folk traditions to life for young people, dePaola ventures into topics obscure and mundane, always with an interest and zest that carries over to the reader.

This popularity and this joy makes him a popular speaker with child educators. On the occasion of a speech to such a group in Washington, D.C., three current and former Sojourners staff people - Ed Spivey Jr., Linda DeGraf, and Bob Hulteen - went to his hotel to talk with this noted illustrator and author.

Sojourners does not normally send three interviewers, but as parents, we were all quite excited to meet this man. He did not disappoint. Whether discussing children's spirituality, biblical stories and gender issues, or tap dancing, dePaola entertains, encourages, and enlightens. Even in printed form, his presence just may fill the room for you, too.

- The Editors

Sojourners: How did you become a children's book illustrator?

Tomie dePaola: I thought you had to make your life career choice before they'd let you into kindergarten. Books were a very important part of my childhood, so it was quite natural for me. I was 4 years old and said, "When I grow up I'm going to be an artist. I want to draw pictures and write stories for books, and sing and tap dance on the stage."

I was a very determined child, so my parents went along with it, because I guess they figured if they hadn't they'd be in deep trouble. I studied book illustration specifically in art school, although the publishing world was not waiting for me with baited breath like I thought they would be after I graduated.

Sojourners: You did eventually break into publishing. Did you ever get to sing and tap dance, too?

dePaola: The summer I was doing the dummy [the sketches] of the very first book that I did, I was performing in a nightclub in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in a review. During the day I was drawing and at night I was singing and dancing on the stage, and it was like, whoa, be careful of what you wish for.

Sojourners: Does your own childhood have an impact on your illustrations for children?

dePaola: I was born in 1934. My parents were, if I look at it now, pretty non-traditional. The first argument I ever remember them having was over who was going to use which saucepan, because my father used to cook. I didn't know that men didn't cook.

I remember doing a book early on where I had the father out in the garden planting flowers, and the mother was moving the garbage cans. Someone said, "Wasn't that astute of you, using those images when the women's movement was just starting." No, I said, I can't take any credit for it, my mother moved the garbage cans and my father liked flowers.

My illustrations were multiracial before it was a thing that you did consciously. I just did it because I was brought up that way. I grew up in public schools in Merigen, Connecticut, a city of maybe 50,000; I had black friends, I had Asian friends, Polish friends, Irish friends, Protestant friends, Jewish friends. I grew up in a very diverse culture.

Sojourners: So you don't plan "messages" in your work?

dePaola: I never start out with an idea of moralizing when I do a book. It's always, "I've got an idea for a story, is it a good story or isn't it a good story?" If there's a moral message it's from the person reading it, not from me putting it in.

A couple of years ago there was a whole group of books that were called value books. They were like propaganda. I can just see a child being read one of these books, thinking, "Uh-uh, this is adult propaganda....I'm getting it again from the adults."

Look at those people who are the most successful with children - they don't mock children, they talk right directly to them. I'm convinced children know it when grown-ups talk down to them or attempt to give them propaganda.

Sometimes I speak to groups of teachers. I'll tell stories about them like a stand-up comic, and they're rolling in the aisles. Then I'll stop and say, "You'd better be careful how you act in the classroom, because 40 years from now someone else will be talking about you."

If we were really honest with ourselves, and think back to when we were children, we'd find that we knew more than some of the adults in our lives. All that wonderful knowledge gets suppressed and driven out of us.

Sojourners: You obviously respect the creativity and openness of children. Are they your primary motivation?

dePaola: I know that children like my stories, but I also get to do my art. Many of my colleagues say, "Oh no, I don't ever think of childhood, I'm doing this for myself." For me, Gertrude Stein said it very well. Someone asked her, "Who do you write for?" and she said, "I write for myself and others." That says it all.

The fact that children are comfortable with my art is very important to me. If that wasn't important to me, I could just make my art some other way, like I did before I started making books.

I've always liked reading about the artists in the Renaissance who traveled around painting churches. Their work was considered an essential. They were like plumbers and electricians, they weren't put up on a pedestal. They were artisans, not artists. I'm convinced that we put artists up on pedestals because then we don't have to deal with them.

One thing that I love is that children don't put me up on a pedestal. The only time children are shy with me is when they're with their parents and the parents say, "Here's the man who made all those pictures. Do you want to ask him a question?" And the kid says "No." But when I go to schools, hey, I'm one of the gang. I wear my high-tops.

Sojourners: What do children ask you, when given the chance?

dePaola: The question I get asked the most is, "Where do you get your ideas?" This is a mystery to them. I tell them that I get my ideas from everywhere.

I had to learn how to use all my ideas. Children have ideas, great ideas, but they're always being told, "That's not a good idea," instead of, "That's an interesting idea. Maybe we can't do that; why don't we see why."

Sojourners: You've illustrated several books with spiritual themes, including a book of Bible stories. How do you relate this to your own spirituality? Didn't you pursue a formal religious vocation at one point?

dePaola: I tried my vocation in a Benedictine monastery three different times in my life. People make too much of that, especially when a book like the Bible stories comes out, or the one on miracles and parables. They say, "Oh, he's an ex-monk."

Looking back on those experiences in the monastery, it seemed perfectly logical. I was a very, very spiritual child. Very mystical. When I was 8 or 9 years old, on Good Friday - now remember I was a little kid, so it was with my parents' permission, of course - I went and sat in church for three hours, from noon to 3 p.m. Most children can't sit there for two minutes.

Catholicism was a very mystical kind of religion when I was growing up. There were votive lights, the statues with glass eyes, and the stained-glass windows; there was a smell in the old churches, of incense and beeswax. I think a lot of the mysticism and mystery have been removed.

dePaola: Is that good or bad?

dePaola: I'm not sure it's so great. I've been working on three books; one on St. Patrick, one on St. Christopher, and the other on Mary, the mother of Jesus. I'm not doing them because I want to do religious subjects. I'm doing them because myth and legend aren't necessarily even in the lives of children being brought up in a religious structure.

I don't know how old I was when St. Christopher was thrown out of the calendar of saints. The legend of St. Christopher is a very beautiful story. There are whole generations of young children growing up not hearing that story, because St. Christopher didn't exist. Well, so what? Neither did Red Riding Hood. But the story is wonderful.

It is an incredible story of a giant who carries a little child across the river and almost dies. When he gets him to the other side the child says, "You carried the weight of the entire world on your shoulders. I am Christ."

Sojourners: Why is this mythic quality important to you?

dePaola: Mystical or spiritual people know that there's something other than this table right here. There's something more. However it manifests itself in your life is terrific. What happens with religion is it tries to make it like this [knocks table]. It tries to make it so concrete that it misses the legend and the mythology of it all.

Joseph Campbell spoke of how one of the current problems of the Christian churches is making everything too concrete, and historicizing everything. The insistence that it had to have happened this way; even among the different Christian sects no one's in agreement.

For me the mythology is so important that I'm passing that on. For a good artist or a good writer, their best work comes out of themselves. I would never draw something that I wasn't interested in because you'd be able to tell.

Sojourners: What was it like for you to bring your interests and values to a book of Bible stories?

dePaola: The stories in the Bible are great stories. They're full of all the stuff we like. They're full of action, and they've got very well-defined characters. Look at David and Goliath - a little kid that kills this giant with a stone, with a sling shot. I used to practice when I was a kid - with my brother.

One of the things that bothered me with the Bible stories was that the first go-around, I said to the editors, "Have you noticed that there are no stories about women in here? There's Esther, Ruth, Naomi, etc. in the Bible." I insisted on the inclusion of stories with women. I only got two.

I really wanted to do Judith - I thought she would be great. They didn't think children could handle Judith cutting off Holofernes' head. Isn't that amazing? I said, "You can handle little David killing Goliath; it's there in the text that David took his sword and cut off Goliath's head."

When I was young, we had an old Bible - one of those big things with a metal clasp - which was upstairs. One of the things I loved was that it had all these awful illustrations. One of my favorites was Judith standing there like Perseus cutting off the Gorgon's head, the bloody sword in her hand, her bare breast showing. I'm sorry they didn't let me do Judith, because I think Judith is a good role model for young women.

I was able to get some ethnic and inter-racial mix in. I did try to get some different skin colors in the illustrations. But it's hard - the way Christ is depicted as blue-eyed blond. We all know that Mary had blond hair. Ha!

Sojourners: What do you think about the state of children's publishing overall?

dePaola: There's a lot of people doing children's books who haven't thought much about it. They just have ideas like "children like bright colors." There's also a bandwagon of bad realism - people who are doing realistic illustrations but can't draw. If you really look at this stuff it's not good. But everyone is enamored of it because it's real - "Oh, I can recognize that, it's a camera."

I happen to think it looks like old Boy's Life illustrations. When I was in art school that was a kind of category you put things in. There was a time in the '50s when magazines were filled with illustrations, not photographs. There was a place for that kind of illustration, in a way; it was very commercial. And books are becoming commercial.

I do think it will all sift down. The healthiest part of publishing right now is in the children's book arena. It looks as if it's going to stay that way for a couple of more years, which is great for me. I'm considered one of the old-timers now, which is scary. I'm always shocked when I look into the mirror, because I don't feel that I should have grey hair, and I do.

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