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.
You’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.