Tomie de Paola, Children’s Book Illustrator and Writer (1934-2020)

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When I was an Early Childhood teacher, I produced my own lesson plans. I wrote most aspects of the daily/weekly curriculum within a philosophical framework. Different schools had different core objectives, but one thing every school I taught for had in common was literature. Books fit into every aspect of every other subject. The play area was filled with role playing items and dress-up clothes that related to a book we were reading. Blocks, Lego, and building supplies re-enacted scenes from the stories we read all week. Exercise and walks outdoors were times to talk about the children and their families and again, relate their lived experiences to what they had seen and heard their favorite characters do.

Early childhood settings often, more often than not have a period that we call circle time. The kids and their teacher sit in a circle on the floor and begin their day with language. Talking, singing, reading. Repetition is one of the major factors in the early childhood curriculum. Many of the books I chose could be read and enjoyed simply by listening, but others lent themselves easily to child participation.

Each morning, the first book I read was Here are My Hands by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambeault. It was beautifully illustrated, but simply written, and easy to follow. Rhyming, watercolor illustrations, parts of the body. Everything you could want in a circle time book.

Here are my hands for catching and throwing,

Here are my feet for running and growing.

Easy to remember, too.

I’d read and when I read a body part, the children would lift it up and name it in unison. Many of the books read that way.

One of my favorites at the time (and still is) was Charlie Needs a New Cloak by Tomie de Paola. There was just something about its simplicity, how it showed the process of making cloth, from sheep shearing to sewing. As each part was told, the last line was, Charlie needs a new cloak. The kids listened intently, and each time it came up they all chorused, “Charlie needs a new cloak.” Each successive time getting louder and louder. (We disturbed other groups, but we were learning and laughing.) I can still hear their voices rising, their bodies moving in anticipation of their favorite line.

As a teacher I collected many books. Many of them were written and illustrated by Tomie de Paola. Most people are familiar with Strega Nona who was a witch who had a magic pasta pot. She always had enough, and always had enough to share with her helper, Big Anthony who once made the pot overflow. This was a favorite of the kids. It had everything: magic, friendship, good deeds, respect, and of course, spaghetti. The book was set in Calabria, which is where Tomie’s Italian grandparents were from.

When I began to go on retreats a few years ago, I sat quietly in the retreat house chapel, staring at the enchanting mural at the back, on the wall behind the altar, behind the plants, behind the tabernacle. Seven women, saints, and the Blessed Mother. There was something about them. They were captivating, and they seemed alive. I have a friend who says that she can see Mary move when she’s watching her. It’s a wonderful mural, bright colors with their names labeled under their feet. I take a new photo of it nearly every time I visit. It is such a peaceful place for meditation and contemplation. The mural is just one of the many reasons why. I don’t know when I noticed a newspaper article in the retreat house that mentions the artist, Tomie de Paola. I had no idea, although once I saw his name, the images clicked with his art that I was already familiar with. He painted the mural in 1958. It still looks like it did when he first did it; like he painted it last week.

I was so sad to hear that he had died just a few weeks ago, in March. He was eighty-five, and died from complications from surgery after a fall in his barn studio, He lived in New Hampshire, and being so close by I had always thought I might meet him. I don’t know why I thought this, and I am heartbroken to see him go. His books, and his art will live on through eternity.

Mural at the Dominican Retreat Conference Center in Niskayuna, NY (by Tomie de Paola, 1958). Cover of Charlie Needs a Cloak by Tomie de Paola. (c)2020

Photo of some of my Tomie de Paola Collection of children’s literature. (c)2020

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