When illustrator and author Tomie dePaola came to the Cheshire Cat Book Shop in November for a book-signing party for his new "Mother Goose," the store was jammed with children and parents thankful for the grace and wonder of his works. In fact, quite a few of dePaola's other 120 books, including the 40 he's also written the stories for, found their way under his pen. Most were worn and tattered from heavy use.
Reaction in the other 34 cities on the tour was remarkably similar. The bubbling, cheery-faced dePaola, 51, thrived on the encounters. It's not hard to see why he gets 10,000 letters a year, mostly from young children, or to believe that he tries to answer them all.
Or to understand why, in 20 years, he has sold a remarkable 2 million copies of books like "The Clown of God," "Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs," "Now One Foot, Now the Other" and "Strega Nona," the 1976 Caldecott Honor Book.
Today, dePaola will be at the Kennedy Center as Children's Radio Theatre presents his two new radio plays, "The Cat on the Dovrefell" and "Lucita's Gift." DePaola has been on CRT's board of directors for the last five years, and CRT has adapted a number of his works.
"It's my first work for radio," he says cheerfully, "though I used to have a program in high school, 'The WMMW Music Workshop.' I was one of the guest hosts, and got to sing every Saturday."
DePaola won't be singing on his radio plays, which will be taped before a live audience and carried over National Public Radio during Christmas Week. (Children's Radio Theatre can be heard on WPFW at 8 a.m. Saturdays.)
His work has a warmth and openness that is reinforced by dePaola's infectious personality, as if the art informs the life. Or vice versa. Starting out as a much-in-demand illustrator, he has become a powerful writer as well, a true storyteller who has created a striking harmony of word and picture. His books, mixing humor, pathos and information, are geared to preschoolers and children in the early primary grades.
DePaola revitalizes and recasts classic folk and fairy tales; illuminates spiritual tales and values (reflecting his devout Catholicism); explores emotional autobiography and cultural identity (he's from an Irish-Italian family); and creates informational books on popcorn, quicksand and clouds.
"These are all facets of my own personality," he explains. "I feel I'm a rounded person, I'm interested in so many things."
Growing up in Meriden, Conn., he read " 'Classic Comics,' 'Fairy Tales on Parade,' 'Little Lulu' -- those are my three favorite comic books. And novels -- we didn't have picture books in the '40s like now. I loved the movies and I'd read encyclopedias. All those facets of the child that I was, and probably still am, are finding a wonderful expression."
In the early '60s, trying to establish himself as an illustrator while living in San Francisco, dePaola enrolled in a program of art therapy. "It really got me back in touch with the child that I had succeeded in locking up in a closet," he explains. "You're told to grow up, to stop acting like a child. But in a field like mine, if I don't have direct access to that child, I don't have access to what I really need.
"The therapist had me pay her with drawings rather than with money, a drawing every week. After six months she put all the drawings out on the floor, and there it was. What was going on inside me unconsciously was right out there on the floor. I didn't realize that I was already expressing what was inside through my pictures. I started to pay attention to that." Over the next few years, his career took off.
Moving back to New England to be closer to New York's publishing center (he now lives and works out of a 150-year-old farmhouse in New Hampshire), dePaola found his work changed, charged. He points to three books that allowed him, after almost a decade in the field, to become "an overnight discovery." They were "Charlie Needs a Cloak," "Andy, That's My Name" and "Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs," the last a poignant story inspired by the death of dePaola's grandmother when he was only 4 years old.
"Nana" was "the real risk book," he says, "because it was totally autobiographical and that's scary. And themes like that weren't really being published at the time." In fact, the editor who first encouraged dePaola to write "Nana" wouldn't publish it -- "it frightened her too much."
But another editor, touched by the story's familiar, familial details, embraced it, and dePaola has gone on to write a number of books inspired by his childhood memories and experiences.
The stories are wonderful, simple and honest, but it is dePaola's luminous, highly stylized art that makes his work so special, and so instantly recognizable. Although there is great variety, much of it touches upon the decorative, illustrative traditions of medieval stained-glass windows, Romanesque manuscript illumination and frescos, painters like Fra Angelico and Giotto or the French expressionist, Georges Rouault, whose religious and mythological canvases are a clear inspiration.
Ironically, dePaola says, "the stained glass and the statues in the church where I was brought up were really awful. Not even medium-high art, but real schlock. My church was covered with stencils and in every space possible there was a round picture of a saint. And the stained-glass windows reflected a real 19th-century sentimentality, what undereducated immigrants worked hard to buy to remind them of the big cathedrals. Chartres it wasn't."
But, he adds, "Going into church, sitting in that space and being surrounded with color probably did affect me a lot more than I'll ever know."
In fact, at three different times in his life, dePaola has opted for the monastic life of the Benedictines. The first stay was for six months, the second for six weeks, the last for six weekends. "When the message is there it doesn't always hit me right off," he says brightly. "At least it was always at the same monastery. After the third time, a friend suggested, 'Why don't you just phone it in next time.' "
He was married briefly, but feels that if he had remained married and had children, he probably wouldn't be where he is today.
"I was really able to be very selfish about my career. And I was one of those children who knew what they wanted to be when they're very, very young. It never entered my mind to be anything else but an artist." His mother used to post his grandfather's butcher paper on the wall when he was five.
Growing up, his first art hero was Grant Wood, and "I really wanted to be another Norman Rockwell or Al Parker. After three months at the Pratt Institute I wanted to be another Rouault or Picasso." He points in particular to Rouault, whose desentimentalization of religious art would be a great influence.
Today, dePaola is concerned about the lack of what he calls "visual literacy," particularly the loss of interest in looking at illustrations that seems to arrive with the third grade.
"Around then, children become too self-conscious about the written word. There's so much emphasis being put on it. You get lots of teachers who are trained in teaching reading systems, but it's trickier teaching young people how to look. The very young do look, they spent a lot of time with illustrations , they are absorbed by it."
To help sustain the visual spirit, dePaola has even written a number of wordless books -- which, he says, are harder to write than any other kind. "The temptation is to do a portfolio of lovely drawings. Adults would probably love that, and they'd be as popular as zilch with young children. But it's terrific because the children get out of the pictures what they want to, and not necessarily what I put into them. It's wild what they come up with, it's like Rorschach tests. I love doing them."
This is dePaola's 20th anniversary in publishing, and "Mother Goose" was his only fall book, a fact that satisfied only one of his three publishers. This is also the first year in some time that he hasn't published a Christmas story.
"I've cut way back," he admits. "I used to do 10 books a year when I was illustrating other people's material as well as my own. Now I do about six books a year, and they're my own projects."
Still, his publishing schedule must be sketched out three years in advance. Currently on the board: three volumes on the life of Jesus Christ and an illustrated edition of Italo Calvino's "Folk Tales."
"I'm not sure it's going to be for children," dePaola says, "because they're a little earthy. Children would love them, but whether parents would buy them . . . we'll see."
There'll be a spring show of his nonbook paintings, and dePaola is close to signing a licensing deal. And he recently released a line of Christmas and seasonal greeting cards. "I did cards a long time ago, in fact that's how I made my living before I was doing books. I used to be able to whip them off, but this was difficult. I've lost an innocence or something."
He's a popular speaker and storyteller, and has been known to reduce an audience to tears with "The Clown of God" or "Nana." There are promotional tours of Australia and Japan looming in the new year. Several of his stories continue to tour in theatrical versions.
A short film version of "Now One Foot, Now the Other" recently opened in Los Angeles. There have been previous animated adaptions, but this is the first live action version of a dePaola story. The prospect was scary, the author admits, but "it's beautifully done, very sensitive."
Which is pretty much what people have been saying about Tomie dePaola's work for some time now.