Lee: You've done a number of stories based on your own life, from the 26 Fairmont Avenue chapter book series to picture books like "The Baby Sister" and "The Art Lesson." Are you proof of write what you know?
Tomie: Yeah. That's kind of a recurring theme in literature over the years, isn't it? I remember two examples really well from literature, one was Little Women, where Jo wrote this grandiose, romantic story and the Professor, who she eventually marries, says to her, 'yes, you're a good writer, but you've written a story about something that really doesn't exist, only in your head, and you should write what you know' and she wrote My Beth.
And the same in Mama's bank Account, or, I Remember Mama, the character of Mama takes Kathryn's manuscript to a writer, a lady writer, and asks her to read it, and the lady writer says the same thing that she's not writing about what she knows, she's writing about something that she's in love with or romanticizing about. So Kathryn sits down and writes I Remember Mama, and it becomes a huge success.
And I think that's something that young writers have to learn, and they don't often learn it until they have some dismal failures. That's what school's for, I think, to have dismal failures, one after the other, and then Eureka, you've found it, and usually it's right there at home.
That theme of looking where you live, or looking inside yourself, is recurrent all through the history of literature and art. When I got brave enough to write - the picture books were easy. In fact, in the first picture books, I felt I could take a little bit of license, I could leave stuff out. I could not get adamant about no, no, that happened in second grade, not in first grade, etc... I even spelled my name differently, I spelled it T-O-M-M-Y.
Lee: I noticed that. Yeah, in "The Art Lesson."
Tomie: Yeah, and in some of the other autobiographical picture books, but in the 26 Fairmount Avenue books, I was adamant about making those books as honest and as truthful as I could remember. The poor editors that worked with me on those - I'd say, 'No, I'm not going to over-dramatize that because that's not the way it happened.' (Laughs) It was a bore for an editor.
If someone had told me thirty, forty years ago. I started out... almost fifty years ago. My first illustrations were published in 1964. If someone had told me that I would be writing the story of my own life, I would have told them they were out of their minds. Because none of us think our lives are interesting enough. But it was the children who said, 'we want to hear more about your life.' I've got one more in me - one more 26 Fairmount Avenue book in me. I'm just trying to find the time and the health to do it.
Lee: But, then again, you were never chased out of your house by an overflowing pot of pasta [like in "Strega Nona"] were you?
Tomie: No... but I had to face a Mount Vesuvius of pasta by my Italian grandmother when I was only five and I wasn't allowed to leave the table until I finished it.
Lee: Ah, so maybe it's 'Write the emotional truth you know?'
Tomie: (Laughs) Exactly! But I got even, you know what I did? I finished the pasta. I think it took hours. My older brother, he was like a vacuum cleaner. Anything you put in front of him, it was gone in two seconds. I was a very picky eater with certain things, and one of the things I didn't like was this pasta, with... well of course, Italian Americans call it 'gravy,' you know, tomato sauce on it. And because a child, with my Italian grandmother, you didn't get any meat or vegetables until you got a job. All you got was the pasta. And my mother couldn't say, 'no, he's eaten enough.' My Italian grandmother, besides saying 'hello' she said 'mangia' - eat.
And so, what I did, and I tried to put it in the book, and the editor at the time was too timid to let me do it. I wanted to call it 'The pisgetti book.' Because of course no child can pronounce spaghetti until they're in high school. Every child I know says 'pisgetti.' I ate the big dish of spaghetti and then I promptly threw it up. (Laughs) And my grandmother never made me eat a big plate of it again!
Lee: (Laughs) Oh man, I want the re-issued version of that! You have to go back to that one - that's awesome. That's so much more honest, right?
Two of my favorite books of yours have really strong messages about social issues. One is "Oliver Button is a Sissy."
Tomie: Oh, thank you.
Lee: And I'll let you know that the final page turn has me fighting back tears every time I read it.
Tomie: You know, that's based on something that actually happened to me.
Lee: Wow. I didn't know that.
Tomie: Yeah, I wasn't brave enough to sort of say it, back when that book... that book was way ahead of it's time, and Barbara Lucas, my editor, was very very brave to let me use the word "Sissy" in the title. And it's amazing - as far as I know, that book was never banned from a library. For whatever reason. This is Banned Books week, and there have been all these articles about "Heather Has Two Mommies" and "My Daddy's Roommate" and "My Uncle's Wedding" - there's a whole list of them online about which books have been banned and how many times over the years people have asked for them to be taken out of libraries.
I've had books of mine that they've asked to take out of the libraries, but not anything because of being a sissy, I had the Chicken - I can't remember the exact name of it - but it was like the 'Poultry Benevolent Society' on my back for two or three years because of my book "Tom," about my grandfather.
Because in that book, my grandfather actually gave me, every week, he was a butcher, he gave me chicken feet to take home. And I would take the nails, and I learned how to move them by moving the tendons. And they thought that was... First of all, it was terrible that someone actually cut the chicken feet off the dead chickens... this is the way some people think, you know?
But Oliver Button, thank you. And what was the other one?
Lee: "The Knight and The Dragon"
Tomie: Oh, really? Oh, that's interesting.
Lee: It also has a twist at the end in a way that gets me so strongly. I was wondering, do you see a responsibility for illustrators and authors to tackle social issues like bullying and war?
Tomie: Only if it comes from a real personal experience. I think that there are a bunch of children's book writers out there, and some of them very successful, and they look in the newspaper to see what the recent social issue is and they write about stuff without having any personal knowledge. "Oliver Button is a Sissy" actually happened to me. I think in the second or third 26 Fairmount Avenue book I address it as my brother standing on the side watching the older boys play tag with my tap shoes in the school yard. For some reason, I got this connection with this name, Oliver Button. This is way before Benjamin Button, by the way. I just liked the sound of it. I wanted to tell the story of name calling and bullying because it had happened to me. And I was rescued by some of the girls in the school, and I was rescued by somebody who I still don't know, who crossed that word "sissy" off the school building wall in chalk, and wrote "star" above it.
Lee: I love how that really happened.
Tomie: Yeah, it really happened. I'm glad, you know, that book was done a long time ago and it's still having impact, which is great.
Lee: So is making sure what you're writing is coming from a personal experience - not necessarily it is the personal experience - but at least the truth of your own personal experience coming through, is that how an author or illustrator can wade into those dangerous waters without getting too preachy?
Tomie: I'm going to be perfectly honest here. I don't think that a straight person could write about a homosexual experience, because they're writing about it from outside the window looking in. Now, you can be a straight person and write about what happened with a friend of yours, but how can you... that's fabricated emotion, isn't it?
Lee: I wonder. I mean if, authors write females characters if you're male, or there are white authors who write characters of color. You have to get the details right, but I wonder if it's about getting the emotional truth of it, like, feeling excluded?
Tomie: Do you know Jackie Woodson's books?
Tomie: I love Jackie, and I marvel at her books. Talk about... She's experienced every feeling that's been in those books... You're on to something here. Sure, you can write about... Well, we have to become our characters, but then there's that line. And if you step over the line... I could relate to Cinderella, frankly, growing up. Because I had an older brother. I was the little girl sitting by the fire, never going to the ball. I could relate to Dorothy. I wanted to be Shirley Temple and Judy Garland, I didn't want to be Buck Rogers or Dick Tracy or Joe Palooka, those were images my brother had as a child.
I think that somewhere there has to be an emotional connect to the experiences of the characters that we write. And there are several ways to get that. One way is personal experience, and then conjuring up those feelings of what it was like. Not necessarily the historical event, but the feeling that was inside. If you've never been bullied, then you don't know what it feels like to be bullied. You can write it as a clinician, as a clinical psychologist - this is what happens when a child is bullied - but only if you have been bullied can you feel it in your gut and then you can put that onto the page. At least that's how I feel about it.
Lee: Yeah. So your Story “Settin” in your folk-tale compilation “Front Porch Tales and North Country Whoppers” has two really unexpected elements – one was that fish-out-of-water experience of the couple of non-New-Hampshire natives experiencing an authentic “Settin," which totally cracked me up.
Tomie: That's a true story!
Lee: And then that the couple are “two young fellas livin’ in an old fahmhouse out theyah on the Greendale Road.”
Tomie: That's right. I could show you the farmhouse tomorrow if you come up. (Laughs)
Lee: Is that a gay couple? Or did you intend to leave it up to the reader to decide who they are to each other?
Tomie: Actually, we didn't know we were gay at the time. We were both, we were living in this farmhouse because we had a spiritual ideal, we were going to become - this was a very popular thing in the far-out Catholic Church in the 50's - it was called a Lay Institute, I think. We met in a monastery, and we wanted to have kind of like a little, simple monastery. And we had no idea that we were... I mean, I knew I was gay, but Jack, he was older than I was and he didn't know he was gay. And we didn't live a gay life, we lived a life of two friends. And that actually happened, that whole thing of sitting there with no one saying a word! (Laughs.)
Lee: That hysterical. For me, as a reader looking at it, I got really excited. I was like, 'wow, it's a gay couple in this great story, and it's not really about their being gay, it's just this hysterical story.'
Tomie: That's actually what it is, yeah. And it was very interesting, because it wasn't that long after that we both realized that oh, wait a minute. This is more than a religious experience here, our living together. But talk about being accepted... Jack and I were terribly accepted in this little village in Western Vermont. People loved us. They called us 'the two fellas,' you know? So I guess, if you don't walk down the street in a dress, you're all right.
Lee: We'll get the world to where people can walk down the street wearing whatever they want.
Tomie: Yeah. That's right. Exactly. You can in Vermont now. Vermont was one of the first New England states to legalize Gay Marriage, you know?
Lee: Yeah, that's terrific.
Come back on Tuesday October 23, 2012 for the third and final installment of my interview with Tomie dePaola, where we talk about Tomie's books with religious themes, get his best advice for other children's books illustrators and writers, and find out what winning the Society of Illustrators' Lifetime Achievement Award means to him!
You can read part one of our interview here.
Illustrate and Write On,