Art Works Blog

Five Questions with Children's Book Author and Illustrator Tomie dePaola

Born in Meriden, Connecticut, in 1934, Tomie dePaola is best known for his children’s books.

He received his BFA from Pratt Insitute in New York, and his MFA from the California College of Arts in Oakland, California. DePaola has received many awards, including the Smithson Medal from the Smithsonian Institution, and the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota. He was the 2011 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award recipient for "substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children." He received the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and he has also been given honorary doctoral degrees from The University of Connecticut, Georgetown University, and Pratt Institute.

At 84 years young, he has written and/or illustrated more than 260 books, including Strega Nona, Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose, Oliver Button Is a Sissy, and 26 Fairmount Avenue. His latest book, Quiet will be published in October.

We recently sat down with DePaola in his New Hampshire home, and discussed everything from his creative process to what gives him hope. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

NEA: If you had to write a job description for what you do, what would you say?

TOMIE DEPAOLA: Well, there would be two descriptions because being a writer is different from being an illustrator. The first thing for both of them would be, “Can you put your ego aside when you’re creating for young people and think of them rather than yourself?” “Can you be honest and tell me a real story with real emotions and real feelings that’s not driven by what the market is buying?” With regards to illustration, I would first and foremost ask if the person can draw! A lot of illustration today is done by computer programs. The harm in that is young people start to see these books that all look alike. Nothing makes then unique. So the core description for both writing and illustration would have to focus on creation for young audiences with an emphasis on uniqueness, honesty, and emotion.

NEA: What is your favorite children’s book?

DEPAOLA: My favorite children’s story is Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor's New Clothes. I love it because, in the end, it’s a child that reveals the truth by stating "But he isn't wearing anything at all!" This is who I’m most concerned about when I’m writing my book—the youth. I can pull one over on an adult, but I can’t pull one over on a child.

NEA: How do you define success?

DEPAOLA: Children knowing who I am. A second grader telling me that her class loves my books. That, to me, is success. I haven’t made in my career what a movie star makes in one movie, but that’s nobody’s fault. I’ve done very well and my life is beautiful.

NEA: What genre do you feel Is missing from your work?

DEPAOLA: That’s tough for me. I’m not so sure anything is missing. I’ve done informational books about real stuff. Illustrated and written The Popcorn Book and The Quicksand Book. I’ve done folktale and retold legend. I’ve done autobiographies. I’ve done original made up stories. I haven’t done biography, but I’m not really interested in doing photographic portrayals of people. I haven’t done any science fiction but that doesn’t interest me either and it’s being covered by the young people! I have to say that in 55 years of my profession, I feel like I’ve covered a lot of ground, but I never say never.

NEA: What give you hope for the future?

DEPAOLA: I’m a positive person and my audience is primarily very young children. I have so much hope for the future. We live in a pendulum that swings back and forth. Despite all this stuff that’s going on, there’s a huge rise in meditation and thoughtfulness and mindfulness. I just finished a book that’s coming out in the fall, called Quiet and that’s exactly what it is—a quiet, quiet book. Kids need to feel more focused and less stressed. I have faith in these little kids. I really do. And I’ve said this for years but I think the people that should be making the most money in this country are the elementary school teachers who have the responsibility of teaching the younger generation. I truly think books are on the rise again and a lot of that is due to the wonderful work our school teachers are doing.

For more from authors who write for children, check out our interviews with Erin Entrada Kelly and Kate DiCamillo.



Submitted by carolann lally (not verified) on

i am an Art teacher as well as a mother. I really enjoy Tomi diPaola's books, especially his Strega Nona character. When I read about his comments regarding HOPE, I just cried. He is so intouch with children and what they need right now. I can't wait to read "Quiet." I am so honored and thankful that he validated the responsibility and work that schoolteachers do.

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