Tomie dePaola Interview: The 75-year-old author on his new Strega Nona story.'s Five Minute Time Out.

The 75-year-old author on his new Strega Nona story.

by Jeanne Sager

September 25, 2009


For forty years, Tomie dePaola has been writing and illustrating – providing generations of children with more than 250 classics, among them Newberry Honor and Caldecott winners. But it’s his wise Italian grandmother with a penchant for pasta who has bewitched books off the shelves. With a new story, Strega Nona’s Harvest, simmering in the pot and hitting shelves this September, dePaola sat down with Babble. The author cast a spell on us with his stories of being banned from learning Italian as a boy, his early years as an illustrator and the real origin of Strega Nona – all interspersed with plenty of laughter. – Jeanne Sager

How does it feel knowing that Strega Nona is being read by kids of people who read it as kids?

That’s a little scary. (Laughs/) It’s when the grandkids of kids who read it are reading it that I’ll know I’ve been around too long!

But Strega Nona’s coming back?

Yes, she made her appearance last fall in an incredibly beautiful pop-up book that I did last year with Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, and she’ll be back this fall with a new book, Strega Nona’s Harvest.

I read it and I loved that the pasta pot appeared in this book as well.

It has to appear everywhere!

I’ve always liked seeing that you try to incorporate the Italian in there too; what prompted that?

I’ve done that with all the Strega Nona books to try to teach a few little words of Italian. When I was growing up, my father didn’t want us to learn Italian because we were Americans. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that he was born in 1907 – there was quite a lot of prejudice against immigrants in the early 1900s, and it was very important that we didn’t learn Italian. Of course, the older I got, the more angry I got! I could have been bilingual.

StregaHarvest.jpgYou’ve written more than 250 books by now, with other characters. How does it feel that when people hear Tomie dePaola, they think Strega Nona?

That’s fine! I tell young people that she built my swimming pool for me, with the royalties. I had no idea when I created the first book that she’d be so successful and she’d capture everyone’s imagination. She’s everybody’s beloved grandmother. Big Anthony is everybody!

Everybody’s dopey uncle?

Or ourselves. (Laughs.)

Actually, my daughter’s favorite is the one about Little Grunt and Big Egg. What are some of your favorites that you’ve done other than Strega?

Well, I have a very close place in my heart for the autobiographical fiction books, books like Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs; The Art Lesson, which is a true story, Stagestruck; Tom, the story about my grandfather; The Baby Sister. In recent years I’ve been doing chapter books, and they’ve been all autobiographical. Those I’ve found really wonderful to work on. It’s really unleashing my memories and the feelings I had when I was younger. It’s great to revisit those places and feelings.

Mind revisiting how you got into writing?

I got into writing through illustrating. I wanted to be an artist, and I went to art school, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I took book illustration and decided I wanted to go into children’s book illustration because the ’50s was a golden age of children’s book illustration. Maurice Sendak had just started out. Arnold Lobel had just begun to work; Leo Lionni, Eric Carle. It was a very exciting field and very imaginative and design-directed. It took awhile, and I had illustrated maybe about four books when an editor said, “Have you ever considered doing any writing?” Of course, I had, but secretly was afraid of the whole writing end of it. I knew I could draw, but I didn’t know I could put together a book, although I was a good writer, because I was a good reader in grammar school. I always tell people if they’re not a good reader, they won’t be a good writer. I got handheld by an editor who really brought me along with my first couple of books. Then I did Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs and that really started the whole thing. Within a year, I had all kinds of books on all kinds of lists.

The 75-year-old author on his new Strega Nona story.

by Jeanne Sager

September 25, 2009


Do you find the children’s books have captured you because you can do the illustrations with them?

I often get asked, if I had to give up one, which one would I give up?, and I’d give up the writing because I consider myself an artist first. But I hope I don’t ever have to give up the writing as well! I’m actually branching out and working on some longer books. I also do paintings and drawings, not only children’s book illustrations.

Where did Strega Nona’s story come from? I’ve always read on the book cover something about an old fairy tale as told by Tomie dePaola.

Actually, when the very first Strega Nona was published, the publisher said we’ll call it an old tale. But Strega Nona is an original character. I kind of invented her; I thought her up. It started with a doodle. My editor at the time wanted me to illustrate a folk tale, and asked me what my favorite folk tale was when I was a kid. I answered right off the top of my head, the porridge pot story, which is like the sorcerer’s apprentice – the servant gets the magic going and can’t stop. But I thought, you know, kids don’t eat porridge in this country anymore – it’s Froot Loops and all of that stuff – but I liked the double P sound, so I thought I’d change porridge pot to pasta pot and use my little character Strega Nona, and the rest is history!

I like that story even better than the old fairy tale.

I like to tell people that I don’t really write the Strega Nona stories – I channel them.

The witch talks through you?

Yes, she comes and says, “Listen, I’ve got another one for you.” (Laughs).

So you are Big Anthony?

I’ve been known to be!

“Everyone loves a grandma!”When you go around do people have a particular book that they come up and talk to you about?

Oh yeah – and with everyone it’s different. Of course, as everyone loves Strega Nona. Everyone loves a grandma! But it is true that different things touch different people at different times of their lives. I did a family book several years ago called Christmas Remembered, and I got wonderful letters from people and wonderful stories from people who did just what I asked them to do – when they’re sitting around the Christmas table, start reminiscing and telling the younger kids what happened when they were younger. We all have stories to tell. Now there’s that whole thing done by the Smithsonian – I don’t know if they got the idea from me or not – called Story Corps?

Yes, I’ve heard it – I think they sometimes play the clips on NPR.

Yes! You go and record something with a member of your family, which I think is a great idea.

It’s really interesting to hear the different generations interact. I think that’s what I enjoy most about your books, that I enjoyed them when I was a little kid (obviously you’ve continued writing since, so some I didn’t read as a child) and now I’m reading them to my daughter. And now I hear you have a big birthday coming up?

Yes – in September, seventy-five in September.

And you’re celebrating with another Strega book?

Yes. It just happened. I look back and say – ooh, that was a good idea. How better can I celebrate, right?

How do you feel being seventy-five and still getting to have fun at work?

(Laughs). You know, I’ll tell you there are days that it’s a little tough to be getting close to seventy-five with aches and pains, but I have a nice group of doctors who are keeping me going!

And Strega pays their bills too?

Yes, she does! She’s a very good witch.

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The 75-year-old author on his new Strega Nona story.

by Jeanne Sager

September 25, 2009


So bottom line: What can children’s minds tell us about love, truth and the meaning of life?

Looking at babies and young children makes us realize how deep the possibilities of being human are. So often when people talk about evolutionary psychology, they talk about all the ways that people are limited, that having brains that were shaped in the Pleistocene as hunter-gatherers makes us do all sorts of stupid things. When we look at children, we realize that we also have incredible capacities for imagination and possibility and change, even as adults. We get ourselves into these ruts of acting and planning, but part of what makes us human is that we’re not stuck doing the things that we always did.

What can parents, in particular, take away from all this?

Pull Quote TKParents, especially middle-class North American parents, get so caught up in this “What should I do now to make my baby better? What books should I read?” mentality that they forget that part of being a parent or caregiver is that you get to witness literally the greatest thing that human beings ever do. This process of learning and imagining that we see in childhood, it’s the most distinctively human thing. We humans have a much longer childhood than anyone else, and a lot of the things that make us most basically human, our capacities to love, our capacities to empathize with other people, our capacities to imagine other ways the world could be, our capacity to learn, those are things that we’re seeing in their fullest form in babies and young children. So instead of being involved in caregiving and all you can think is “OK, what can I do to make my baby smarter?” remember that babies are already as smart as they can possibly be, and you get a chance, through the act of caregiving, to further the deepest parts of human nature. And as much as it’s exhausting and stressful and all the rest of it, parents might take some time to get out of the “Oh my god, what should I do next?” mode and just pay attention and appreciate the fact that this fantastic thing is happening. That’s the moral of the science.

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