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

Back to School Time

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​Another back to school season. I’ve been going or participating in back to school since before i was five years old. I did my time in preschool/nursery school, kindergarten, grades one through twelve, four years of undergraduate, two plus years of post graduate, and so far eighteen years of sending my kids back to school.

This year felt different. I’m not sure why. My two younger children are still in public school. My daughter is in her last year of middle school. My son is in his second year of high school. We saw them off on their buses yesterday. Maybe it’s that we’re barely home from vacation. All the laundry’s not quite finished. The sink is full of dishes, and we’re actually using paper plates this week!

I have my writing supplies. I’m mostly happy with my writing supplies, although that won’t keep me looking at new ones in the clearance aisles of Target and Staples.

Part of my back to school ritual is bringing change to my website. While I am an essayist, I don’t feel as though I keep a blog per se. I write articles. I follow themes. I offer something.

However, I’ve hit the block asking what is it that I actually offer? What more can I give? What can I do differently? And how can I incorporate my writing life into my children’s back to school life? Sometimes it flows, and other times, it really doesn’t. Today is one of those days. I’m going into the capital to see Dan Rather speak, and my daughter has a football game she’d like to go to, but doesn’t have a ride. This is one of the times where I give myself precedence. Normally, I’d acquiesce and change my plans. This can’t be one of those times.

Back to School is also about priorities. Choices. As a Mom, I feel as though I give up so much. Most of it isn’t anything earth-shattering or heartbreaking. As a Mom, I choose my kids first even if as teenagers they’re hardwired to put themselves first as well.

Overall, this week has been positive.

And that’s great because next week is the first full week of school, the first full week back from vacation, the first full week of Suicide Prevention Awareness month – a serious subject to tackle, but also one that needs tackling, more and more often. Awareness is Prevention, and I’ll need all my energy to plan out useful posts and resources.

I’ve been walking paths recently. All kinds of paths and roads and journeys. My six week memoir workshop is focused on paths this semester, but paths are always within my sight. We are all walking a path, sometimes like a tabletop game board. We’ve passed GO, we’ve collected something, probably not quite two hundred dollars, and we are on the square that says Back to School.

Roll the dice, and see how far we go!

Gun Violence Awareness

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Last weekend were Wear Orange events across the country bringing attention to gun violence in this country. While I was thinking about our gun problem in this country I wasn’t able to post the resources I’ve collected until today.

Some regulation on the 2nd Amendment is consistent with the regulation on every other amendment, including the original Bill of Rights. I don’t understand the controversy.

Organizations and Twitters to Check Out:

Moms Demand Action
Change the Ref
Everytown
Wear Orange
A March for Our Lives
David Hogg 
Emma Gonzalez 
Eric Swalwell (Presidential candidate running on a gun control platform and California Congressman)

Fred Guttenberg
Gabby Giffords (former Congresswoman from Arizona)
Manuel Oliver
Mark Kelly (husband of Gabby Giffords and candidate for Senate from Arizona)

Shannon Watts (who has a new book out, Fight Like a Mother)

September – Back to School – Recipe

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Lunch Box Snacks

It’s hard to believe that packing a lunch is the easy part. A leftover to microwave. A sandwich to cut – rectangles or triangles? Peanut butter or turkey? Jam or cheese?

Snacks.

Many schools have rules on snacks. Some depend on allergies if the snack will be eaten in the lunchroom or the classroom. Some list “healthy snacks”, which I always find something on the list or prohibited from the the list that I object to. One example is they’ll include raisins, but exclude pretzels. Not sure the reasoning behind that. Raisins are great, and healthy, but not good for your teeth if you don’t have the opporutnity to brush them.

Here is my top ten list (not in preference orderr) for lunch box snacks!

1. Raisins or Craisins

2. Pretzels (my favorite)

3. Baby carrots or carrot sticks. Celery. Broccoli. With or without dip.

4. Granola bars (read the packaging for allergies, though. Same with pretzels. You’d be amazed how many pretzels are made on machines that also manufacture peanut snacks.)

5. Baggie of cereal. Cheerios, Kix, Lucky Charms, whatever your favorite is really.

6. String Cheese

7. Crackers and cheese or peanut butter.

8. Graham crackers with cream cheese

9. Applesauce. (This also goes well with graham crackers.)

10. Apples, oranges, bananas. Fresh fruit is always a good option.

June: School’s Out

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School’s Out. Art by kbwriting. (c)2018

I think the picture sums up June neatly. As a family, we’re getting ready for the release of the kids for the summer, planning, praying, cajoling for kids to get along, not be bored, read, be creative, active, and so many other things not thought of yet.

June is here, and summer is coming.

Are you ready?

50-32 – Happy Halloween

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Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I tried so hard to find a picure of when I was a kid in the plastic Princess costume – it may have been Sleeping Beauty – but I could not find it. It’ll probably turn up around Christmas.

That is the first costume that I remember wearing as a kid. I have no real memories of other costumes until high school when I went as Oscar Madison one year and wore my Dad’s Army uniform another. Someone shaving creamed my back while I was wearing that and I was so pissed off because I wasn’t supposed to get it dirty.

Over the years, I’ve gone to several Halloween parties, some with themes like science-fiction [I was a Bajoran civilian from DS9] or superheroes and villains [as Poison Ivy].

For a decade I was in a medieval re-enactment group so every weekend was Halloween, only historically accurate.

I remember going through the drive-through at Burger King or Dunkin’ Donuts in full medieval regalia where I would get some odd looks. I went into a 7-11 once to buy soda.

Our friends have a summer family reunion that is a costumed event. Last year, we were pirates and cowboys the year before.

Gishwhes has also afforded me opportunities to dress up, most memorably as Batgirl, an homage to Yvonne Craig who had recently died.

Any excuse to dress up and have fun.

This year’s costume, as journalist/press person, is my first, perrhaps only politically charged costume.

This year, my middle son is a pink dinosaur person with a spear, and he is the happiest little kid in the world. He can’t wait until after Halloween because the pink dinosaur costume is also pajamas, and he will probably wear them every night this winter.

My daughter is Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad, and she is using all of her own clothes. Resourceful, and…a little scary. She decorated an old wiffle-ball bat and I put the makeup on her, and it is perfect.

This is what Halloween is. Kids and fun and candy, of course. This year, we’re also giving out toys and Halloween pencils that we had around the house, leftovers from a school party or McDonald’s happy meal. We did this last year, and the kids were so thrilled to get something like that.

The school parade is in an hour – my daughter’s last one in elementary school; then no more school Halloween parties. It is the end of an era.