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The Delight and Sadness of Tomie dePaola


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The Delight and Sadness of Tomie dePaola


There are books that you read and love as a child that, when you pick them up years later, seem suddenly like near-strangers. For reasons of age or taste, what was once adored no longer resonates. Then, there are Tomie dePaola’s books. DePaola, the prolific, celebrated writer and illustrator—who died, last Monday, at age eighty-five, due to complications from surgery after a head injury caused by a fall—created more than two hundred and seventy works for children. The books have an unusual emotional and artistic power, which I immediately sensed when I read them as a girl. Even under the best of circumstances, navigating one’s way through childhood can be brutal, like clearing a path in a jungle’s thicket. Though I surely wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time, to encounter, as a child, dePaola’s visual and writerly voice—clear-eyed, sympathetic, gently sly—felt like coming across an ally with whom to brave that jungle.

The universe of dePaola’s books is moral but not moralistic. There is disarray in it, and people are imperfect and can make mistakes, but there is goodness, too, and a larger sense that, since an omniscient narrator is often able to shepherd the books’ protagonists to safety, the same might perhaps prove true, by extension, for the lives of these books’ readers. As the years went on, I discovered that this hope kept animating my reading of dePaola. Adulthood, after all, is a jungle, too. I could say that I rediscovered these books when I had my own daughter and began reading them to her a few years ago, but that wouldn’t be exactly true. Though there was a distinct pleasure in introducing my child to my own special favorites, I had, in fact, never really stopped reading dePaola’s works. When I moved to the U.S. in my early twenties from my native Israel, nearly two decades ago, a few well-loved dePaolas made the journey with me, like talismans.

DePaola was born in 1934, in Meriden, Connecticut, to a barber father and a homemaker mother. His family was close-knit, and his paternal grandparents hailed from the region of Italy where he set his best-known series of picture books. “In a town in Calabria, a long time ago, there lived an old lady everyone called Strega Nona, which meant ‘Grandma Witch’ ”—so begins the first of the dozen or so books in the Strega Nona series, which all feature a kindly and knowing old woman, faithfully serving her townspeople as half medicine woman, half sorceress. If the books have the air of folk tales that take place in an unspecified, vaguely Renaissance-ish historical era, where people dance the tarantella in the town square, milk their goats, and wear britches and tunics, Tudor caps and cloaks, the emotional landscape that dePaola depicted is nevertheless keenly identifiable to contemporary readers. At the start of the first, and most famous, of the books, published in 1975, Strega Nona, whose skills include healing warts, concocting effective love potions, and curing headaches “with oil and water and a hairpin,” finds that, since she is getting older, she needs someone “to help her keep her little house and garden.” She posts a sign in the town square, and the plot’s catalyzing figure enters the picture: “And Big Anthony, who didn’t pay attention, went to see her.”

What a spare but perfect description is given in that seemingly offhand clause! Anthony isn’t evil, but his mind wanders. He is crafty, but because he has an inability to think things through, his craftiness fails to hit its mark. Strega Nona has a magic pasta pot, and Anthony overhears the spell she chants to set it aburble with noodles. Unfortunately, he misses the three kisses she blows to the pot to halt the pasta’s production. When Strega Nona goes away to visit her friend Strega Amelia, over the mountain, Anthony sees his chance to prove the pot’s powers to the jeering townspeople who have long doubted what they saw as his tall tales. This attempt, of course, inevitably leads to disaster, as the pasta overflows, filling Strega Nona’s home to its rafters, and rushing down the town’s streets and into its square in a glorious avalanche. (“ ‘We are lost,’ said the people. And the priest and the sisters of the convent began praying.”)

This would make for a stressful read if it weren’t for dePaola’s gentle humor, and his gorgeous watercolor illustrations, whose muted hues and pleasingly neat outlines seem to reflect his sympathy toward the book’s characters. Anthony, bony and wild-haired and awkward in too-large shoes and a pumpkin-colored tunic, might be no match for the pasta’s milky, overwhelming undulations. (When I was a child, the book always aroused my hunger, as, I’d like to contend, all the best books do.) The thickset, clever Strega Nona, however, arriving back home from her sojourn just in time, not only stops the noodles from destroying the town but also gives Anthony the punishment he deserves. “ ‘I want to sleep in my little bed tonight,” she says, handing him a fork, and commanding him to “start eating!” (“And he did—poor big Anthony.”)

Poor Big Anthony, indeed! He might be a fool, but dePaola made you feel for him. In what is perhaps my favorite Strega Nona book, “Big Anthony and the Magic Ring,” from 1979, the lovable dolt once again attempts to snatch some of his employer’s magical powers for himself, slipping on a golden ring that turns him into a thick-maned, cleft-chinned hunk whom all the women at the village dance want to couple with. When these ladies threaten to overwhelm him, however (“ ‘Help! Save me! Help!’ he cried”), Anthony realizes that it is, perhaps, better to remain humble-looking and untrammelled. But is it? The final page of the book shows him being pursued by Bambolona, the baker’s friendly but plain-faced daughter, who hands him a tatty bunch of flowers. For better or worse, the dream is over—but that, after all, is life.

The Strega Nona series features a kindly and knowing old woman, faithfully serving her townspeople as half medicine woman, half sorceress.Photograph by Jim Cole / AP

DePaola was highly attuned to such ambivalence, and to characters who experience everyday existence as a thing made of small flares of delight and longer stretches of disappointment and sadness. Though he was married briefly to a woman in the nineteen-sixties, dePaola was gay, and a special sensitivity to the plight of the socially marginalized undergirds his work. In the autobiographical “Oliver Button Is a Sissy,” also from 1979, he tells the story of a boy who “didn’t like to do things that boys are supposed to do,” and instead “liked to read books and draw pictures” and “sing and dance and make believe he was a movie star.” (With his dark, shaggy hair and sweet smile, Oliver is a stand-in for the young dePaola, and a double for other avatars of the author, in books such as “The Art Lesson,” or the “26 Fairmount Avenue” chapter-book series.) His parents agree to send him to tap-dancing class (“ ‘Especially for the exercise,’ Papa said”). Though some of the girls protect him, the other boys tease him, and someone graffitis the words “Oliver Button Is a Sissy” on the schoolyard wall. The adjoining illustration, which depicts Oliver standing mutely, with his hand covering his mouth, and is rendered, like the rest of the book, in a beautifully melancholic palette of light blue, brown, and white, is a real heartbreaker.

But Oliver doesn’t give up, and prepares a routine for the talent show, which he ends up losing. (“ ‘Never mind,’ said Papa, ‘we are taking our great dancer out for a great pizza. I’m so proud of you.’ ”) On Monday morning he trudges listlessly to school, where he is shocked to see that the word “Sissy” was crossed out and the word “Star” written in its place. This is a quintessential dePaola ending. The good hasn’t come to completely replace the bad—the word “Sissy” is still visible—but it has come to reside next to it. The warmth of family and friends, or even of strangers, and the pleasurable reprieve that art provides, is occasionally enough to carry us through.



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