Yes! It’s Possible for Picture Book Authors to Show the Secular, the Sacred and the Saintly in Life. Tomie dePaola Showed Us How.
I have made it my personal mission to tout Tomie dePaola and his picture books.
Not that he needs my touting by any means.
But when he passed on March 30, 2020, I made it my business to start looking at his entire body of work.
Now, let me be honest, I have not read all of the close to 300 books that he either illustrated, wrote or did both.
But I am making an effort to do just that.
Through his Irish and Italian ancestry, he brought to young readers tales of both in many of his picture books.
Strega Nona was probably the most well-known of his creations of Italian lineage for which he won a Caldecott Honor Award. She was a witch, BUT she was also akin to everyone’s grandmother, dispensing bits of healing advice with her magic, that had love at its heart.
And that pasta pot of hers could both feed a village or even bury it, and almost did, thanks to her tall, lanky and bumbling assistant, Big Anthony, who never paid attention.
“The Legend of Old Befana” was another of my favorites.
Yes, she was a tad OCD with the constant cleaning and sweeping. So consumed is she with her chores that, as the Three Wise Men pass by her home with a jingling of camel reins looking for the Christ Child, she continues with her tasks, even though she is invited to tag along.
But once begun is half done to Befana. So continue she does with the cleaning and baking. How can she go empty handed to the new born?
Following along, she is, alas, late to the game and never quite catches up, though a miracle allows her to run faster still and even FLY through the dark night in her quest.
Tomie’s legend tells that even to this day, she is seeking the Christ Child and leaves gifts at the foot of each child in Italy’s bed; for she never knows which child may be the new born King.
When Saint Christopher was ousted from the Catholic canon of saints; that did not deter Tomie from writing a beautiful book of the legend that he grew up with. It was published in 1996 and called “St. Christopher: The Holy Giant.” I had no idea that Christopher was originally called Reprobus.
Following a call of the heart to seek Christ, and some false starts, he is tasked with carrying people across a river near the hut where he lives. And on a dark and stormy night, a small child asks to cross. No need to ask who that might be. But, the answer as to why this child becomes almost unbearably heavy to carry with each successive step across the river is beautifully told.
Perhaps “The Clown of God” is my favorite of all the Tomie tales; and, for me, the most tender.
It is a story of poverty, the rise to fame and the slow descent back to poverty, of the juggler, Giovanni from Sorrento, who is courted by kings and queens at his height of popularity when “the Sun in the Heavens,” the juggler’s famous golden flashing ball, rises higher and higher at his act’s finale.
Time passes and old and alone, he can no longer perform as he did and is ridiculed and degraded by once applauding crowds.
He returns to Sorrento on Christmas Eve. The cathedral is lit and the glittering procession of gifts by the rich and famous to the statue of Christ in the arms of Mary, occurs.
What can he give as the church empties, and he is alone?
He gives a miracle born of selflessness and love.
My youngest daughter cried at this part in the book, and I once revealed this to Tomie, and he was alarmed that one of his books would make a child weep.
But it was a recognition of the humanity of art and narrative that Tomie poured from his heart into those that read his books. He did not avoid the the sacred in his “The Miracles of Jesus” or in “The Parables of Jesus.”
For some, Jesus is a historical figure, for others he was divine, but the stories of Christ’s miracles and parables were life lessons on how he healed the broken and the parables referenced situations from the everyday that children could glean some life lessons on how to navigate the journey well.
Tomie knew the territory of a child’s heart and he wrote for it and to it.Whether it was a collection of Mother Goose stories, the explanation of why clouds look as they do, grandmothers who live upstairs or downstairs, the story of a sissy, an Irish giant named Fin M’Coul, a prince of the Dolomites, a version of “Miracle on 34th Street” by Valentine Davies and illustrated with both brio and sensitivity by Tomie, or any number of others of the hundred of tales and stories he brought to young readers, Tomie will be remembered and cherished because he valued children and what they needed to learn and grow.
One of his last books called “Quiet,” and a New York Times Best Seller, was an example of how Tomie naturally and effortlessly keyed into the current culture and what young readers need.
Children are at a park with their grandfather. Everything is motion, movement and energy expended by children, their dog and everything around them.
With a gentle suggestion, the grandfather motions them over to a park bench to sit…in silence.
And the pace slows. The children, the dog, and the surroundings are still.
And the girl, makes this observation: “I can think when it’s quiet.”
Wow! it’s a moment to ponder and realize the time of reflection for children of all they take in and have to process in information and scheduling, is ever smaller in today’s culture.
Tomie knew that in a profound way and his entire body of work reached children where they were…or what they needed to discover for themselves.
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