Tomie dePaola talks to another master illustrator, Will Hillenbrand, about the imperative of the picture book: being faithful to the heart—and to the delightful responsibility to enthrall and entertain.
Among Tomie dePaola’s many awards are the Smithson Medal from the Smithsonian Institution, the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota, and the Regina Medal from the Catholic Library Association. The American Library Association has honored him with a Caldecott Honor Book, a Newbery Honor Book, and the 2011 Laura Ingalls Wilder award for “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.”
An old friend of Tomie’s, Will Hillenbrand, the author and illustrator of award-winning books like What a Treasure!, Traveling to Tondo, Spring Is Here, and Louie!, first met Tomie 27 years ago when Will and his wife, Jane, attended the opening reception for a show of dePaola’s work in Nashua, New Hampshire. The next day they took dePaola’s workshop, “So You Want To Write a Children’s Book.” In November 2012, Will and Tomie chatted in dePaola’s 200-year-old barn studio in New Hampshire.
Will Hillenbrand: What is particularly strong in your work is the way it communicates with children. I have a photograph that Jane took of two of her kindergarten students who are looking at one of your books—they’re engaged; they’re laughing; their response is just instinctive.
Tomie dePaola: So it wasn’t posed!
It’s just as spontaneous as it can be. When an artist shows in a gallery, he can see how long people stand in front of a work. For a children’s book illustrator, this is the equivalent: seeing children react to your book. So my first question: How did you get your content and your art to that point of communication that’s just organic?
If I knew that, I’d be a billionaire! I don’t want to be a smartass, but I think it’s come to me over time. If I look at my early things, it’s not there yet. I’m too full of myself, too full of showing off, showing how well I could crosshatch, for instance.
I think that’s the progression of a young artist. You show off and then you—or I—suddenly find the heart of the work. I suddenly began to be faithful to the heart: the humor, the pathos, whatever is there.
I had to learn how to draw, of course; I had to learn how to compose. I was born with an A on my forehead, but when I got to Pratt Institute in the fall of 1952, of course everybody there had an A stamped on his forehead, too. Those A’s started to fade after the first few weeks, turning into C’s and B-minuses. So it was at Pratt that I learned, and I mean learned. I remember one of the kids asked the instructor, “When are we going to do something real? When are we going to stop doing these projects, these assignments; when are we going to make something?” And the instructor said, “When you’re mature enough to make something, you’ll make something real; all you make is crap right now.”
One day—and it really happened this way—I woke up and I was able to take everything that I was interested in and had worked on—I was able to take line, color, my ability to manipulate the line and my ability to draw—and pair that with things I’d learned in theatre. Theatre was my second vocation. I’d studied theatre and dance, as well as set design and costume design, not as formally as I did illustration at Pratt, but everything came together. I recognized it on the page. At that point I had something to refine and build on.
You discovered your talent at a young age, but then you rediscovered it through having had different kinds of experiences.
I knew at 4 years old I was going to be an artist; and Trina Schart Hyman, my good friend who is no longer with us, she knew at 41/2; Georgia O’Keeffe knew at 10 that she was going to be a painter; Meryl Streep knew at 11 that she was going to be an actress; José Limón knew at 6 he was going to be a dancer. Being an artist is not like being a doctor; it’s not like being a teacher; it’s making something up out of nothing. It looks like that from the outside, but what it really is is blood, sweat and tears. It’s a mystery to people who don’t do it and sometimes a mystery to those of us who do do it.
So you start out with a talent. I look at that portrait Picasso did when he was 11 years old, and of course he was going to be famous. It wasn’t an academic drawing of a face; it was something more than that. I think that various artists peak at different times. I worked very hard at Pratt. One of my good friends, Roger Crossgrove, my painting instructor, showed me his old grade book. I had a C-minus, but by the end of the year I had an A-plus. So somewhere in the course of that year, I learned how to paint. When I say “learned how to paint,” I mean I learned how to manipulate paint so it became second nature.
Tell me a little more about Pratt.
We were very lucky because many of our instructors were refugees, wonderful modern artists like Richard Lindner. Of course the Nazis wanted to get rid of all modern art, as any Fascist regime does, so the artists fled to the United States. Pratt, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Cooper Union had this curriculum: if you were studying one of the four disciplines—illustration, advertising design, industrial design, or fabric design—you took the same freshman course; it was called the foundation year, based on the foundation year of the Bauhaus in the 1930s. I recently sat down again and read that treatise of the Bauhaus; it still has validity, not as an end in itself, but as a method of training. It’s still one of the best, all based on design, two- and three-dimensional design and drawing.
The first course in illustration was called Creative Expression. So Lindner would give us a problem, he would give us a subject matter, and then we would have to go and research it. Let’s say he gave us Greenwich Village. We’d go to the Village on our own and then we’d have to write a little paragraph about our impressions. The following week, we had to illustrate that paragraph. Meanwhile every night—we had those big pads and a No. 4 or 5, a very hard pencil that architects use—we had to do what he called “observation drawings” because he said the most important thing for an illustrator was to observe. He was going to train us to observe—just the way someone learns scales on a piano. We would take small things like the stem of a watch, where it winds, and we’d spend 15 minutes drawing in line only, no shading. The first week, we were all, “Fifteen minutes—you’re out of your mind!” By the end of the year, we wouldn’t even finish those little drawings in 15 minutes because we’d become so observant. That trains your eye. It teaches your eye to look. The eye is a muscle.
It’s the same with Josef Albers’s theory of color. You look at color; you look at what color does with color in your exercises with color, and you strengthen the color cones in your eyes, so suddenly you’re seeing more color. Those are the things artists have to be trained in.
One of the aspects of your work that I love is your use of shape—how you use a rectangular page to bring us in, to invite our eye in—to penetrate readable space so that we see the shapes that make a landscape.
It all starts with shape. Again that’s where the Bauhaus training came in, because we started out in two-dimensional design, rectilinear shapes with a right angle and a corner. Then we got into using organic shapes; then we would cut paper and then those shapes would become something. We would have to force the shapes into becoming something. Sometimes we were successful, sometimes not. But then you start to realize, OK, maybe that group of houses over there isn’t just individual little rectangles; maybe they make a non-rectilinear shape the way they’re put together. And you suddenly become aware that it’s the same way with figures, the same way with animals.
They were teaching us to see the shape first, then the individual form. Or what that shape could become. The shape wasn’t the end of the process; the shape was the beginning of the process. What it was called at Pratt—I haven’t thought of this in such a long time—was “the abstract equivalent of a picture.” And I still do it. I always see the page, start off the page, by fiddling with some shapes. It has to start with that foundation.
I was at an opening of yours at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, and one young person asked you, “What is the one thing that would help me become a picture book artist?”
What’s the answer? I don’t have an answer!
You answered, “Take theatre.”
Oh, yes, I do believe that. What you have to understand is that a picture book is a time/space continuum. You start with the title page and then you turn, and if you watch children look at picture books, not even reading the words of the picture book, but just looking at the pictures, they will—I’ve watched this myself—they will view a picture book at the same “pace” that I did when I created it. They speed up on the pages meant to be speeded up on; then they get to a big page and they stop.
That’s why Richard Lindner told us we all had to join the theatre. That was fine: I was already in theatre. Lindner said, “Making a book is making a play. Making a book is making a series of pictures and in making that series of pictures, you’re making an emotional ride which is time/space. You don’t just look at a picture book and it’s over. You have to turn the page; you have to invest in it.”
When I did a full version of “Old Mother Hubbard” (The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog), which has many stanzas, I did it as a theatre production with a theatre set with boxes, with the Mother Goose characters sitting in the boxes. I knew how I wanted Mother Hubbard to dress. I took an idea from an old drawing, a print I’d seen, of some ridiculous costume that was just perfect, and then the question was what kind of a dog she was going to have. “Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to fetch her poor dog a bone, but when she got there, the cupboard was bare and so the poor dog had none.” At first, it seems she’s poor, but no, if you read further, she gets this dog all dressed up; she buys him a wig. She’s rich! I knew a rich lady who lived down in Wilmot Flat, where I lived in New Hampshire; she was a charming, charming lady, and she had an apricot poodle, so Mother Hubbard ended up with an apricot poodle because rich ladies have apricot poodles, not some mangy old hound.
You’ve described something that I don’t want to pass over: you’ve looked more deeply into the text.
Yeah, yeah, you have to.
You’re finding the clues … and you’re asking, What does this mean? When you’re creating original characters Big Anthony, Strega Nona, or the Mary who had a little lamb, you’re not using photo references. Mary is Mary, she’s not generic. How do you cast your characters?
I literally have a casting call. Something else I learned in those wonderful years at Pratt and in Brooklyn. We all had those black, 8×11 bound sketchbooks, and we all got on the subway, and we drew and drew and drew people and faces. The French new wave of cinema was upon us; Ingmar Bergman was upon us. Lindner encouraged us to go see film and watch the actresses. It’s no mistake that the Museum of Modern Art has a whole film collection, and I used to go every Saturday and watch the silent films because I had a membership and it was free. I learned to watch people’s expressions.
When I start a character, sometimes I imagine if I were a Hollywood producer, I’d be sitting there, Oh, I’ve got to cast Mary for “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—and I’d see 300 little girls and there would be something wrong with all of them. And then I’d be waiting for my limo to pick me up … and suddenly there’s a little girl across the street with her dog—and she’s perfect. “Hey, kid, wanna be in the movies?” That’s the way it happens for me. Because I’ve spent so much time observing and I still do observe faces, and I do a lot of doodling.
When I did Mary Had a Little Lamb, I was living here in New Hampshire, and Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote that nursery rhyme, had lived not 20 miles away. I was very good friends with the librarian—this was back in the 1970s—and I wanted to do a beautiful edition of Mary Had a Little Lamb with all the verses in it. And because it had happened here, in the neighborhood where I live, I actually did research and did sketches of actual places. Over in Newport I put this little girl in the actual settings. I stylized them of course to look like Early American paintings because that’s when it was set and I love Early American painting anyway, and I wanted to have that feeling to the book. I wanted it to be funny for children. I thought, even as a kid, wouldn’t it be fun to have a lamb running around the classroom—because that’s what happens in the poem. So all these various things come into casting.
I’m going to take a slight character shift and go from people to animals. Children relate automatically to your animal characters; is that a different talent or the same talent?
I learned from Uncle Walt! I certainly learned it from Disney in a sense. In elementary school, there were always kids who would copy Walt Disney characters and, of course, I never did because my artist cousins told me not to copy. I’d make up my own animal characters. Animal characters are very important; younger children may relate to animals more so than to each other; it may be true that they transfer emotions onto the animals, but I’ve had animals and I know that animals have personalities.
I remember I was probably three or four years old and my mother took me to see Walt Disney’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf on a double bill with The Three Little Pigs, who were in their little outfits. The good little pig who builds his house out of brick was in overalls, and the other two were in little sailor hats, so I always loved that. I’m just continuing that.
I would like you to talk about the remarkable qualities of color in your work.
When I was young and would get sets of 60 pencil crayons or the wonderful 68 Crayola crayons—now it’s 395 Crayola crayons!—and I think it was probably because I was pretentious, but I’d always find myself drawn to “turquoise” or “coral,” instead of “blue” and “red.” Those names fascinated me, and I loved those mixtures. That kind of went into my psyche, and what also happened was the advent of VHS and then, of course, DVD. My mother took me to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the following year Pinocchio, Walt Disney’s two features, when I was 4 and 5. Somewhere in my head as a little boy, I remembered the colors, and I remembered them as being different from the colors that were around my real life.
Later, and I was certainly out of Pratt by this time, I got very interested in color theory, and I was able to take a short course with Josef Albers at Yale. Albers’s course was called “The Interaction of Color.” I also knew, from going to museums and looking, how color had emotion within it, how color could manipulate your emotions.
I learned at Pratt, when we had to mix color, that the worst thing you could do was use a color right out of the tube. We had exercises where we would get two tubes of paint, plus a tube of black and a tube of white, and we had to make many different little color swatches. It was fascinating and it was beautiful.
Then, of course, as an illustrator, I have to worry about the printing. If I hang up a beautifully-printed piece of mine next to the original, there’s no comparison. Only one person sees the original—me or the person who buys it—but 100,000 people see the book. So I know that color is going to get lost in reproduction.
We’re not printing pigment. We’re printing four colors.
Right. Ink on paper. People ask me, “What’s your favorite color?” and I say white, because every color looks good against white. I also found out through Josef Albers, when he invited a small class to his studio in New Haven, that he had all these old dentists’ cabinets with little shallow drawers, and I remember distinctly he had a drawer marked “alizarin crimson.” He was very neat, very German. His wife, Annie Albers, used to say, “Josef paints (with a palette knife) in a jacket and tie.” In his Homage to the Square, he manipulated the color in such a way, the first time I saw a show, it was like walking into a cathedral; it was a spiritual experience because he allowed the color to be emotional. Anyway, he had, within this entire drawer, every brand of alizarin crimson ever manufactured. He showed us as students that if you go to the art store and say you want alizarin crimson, what are you saying? Here’s a German alizarin crimson; here’s a Grumbacher alizarin crimson.
If you look at the paints that I use, Golden acrylics and Liquitex acrylics, they may be marked the same, “cadmium red light,” but they’re different. I love manipulating that. I love what happens, I love the way the colors sing. And color is very personal to me, very emotional.
I want to talk about the joy that’s in your work. We shouldn’t forget the pleasure in books.
This goes back to my own childhood. There were two things I loved to do when I was a little boy. One was to laugh and the other was to cry. When something was sad, I was allowed to cry. My Irish grandfather taught me how to cry. Not cry because I hurt my knee. When something was sad, he’d say to me, “You have to let that out.” Laughter was always present to the point where my Irish grandmother would say, “You children are just as bad as your grandfather because you’re always laughing.”
I also remember how I wanted to learn how to read so badly because I didn’t want to be at the mercy of my mother’s schedule. Why she never tried to teach me to read—I asked her once and she said she was told that she’d do it wrong; that was the teacher’s job. (Don’t you dare teach your children; you’ll do it all wrong and then they won’t pass the test. Of course! Nothing’s new!) When I got to kindergarten, I asked, “When are we going to learn how to read?” And the teacher said, “You’ll learn how to read next year,” and I said, “Fine, I’ll be back next year.” And—this is the honest to God’s truth—I walked out of school and walked all the way home.
In first grade, the day of getting our reading books arrived. School started on Wednesday; it was Thursday afternoon, I sat there and my name began with a D, so I was up front, and Miss Mildred Kiniry was young and had curls and she was pretty and she had three piles of books on the table. This was when the schoolrooms were perfect, all the furniture came from Smith System, so every classroom had a teacher’s desk and a table, an activity table is what it was called. And on the activity table were three piles of books. A pile of red ones, a pile of yellow ones, and a pile of blue ones. The blue ones were shining, as if they had light inside them; the red ones were kind of shiny; and the yellow ones looked a little dull. And you know, we weren’t supposed to talk about it, but we kind of instinctively knew that there were going to be three reading groups. We had heard that from the playground. The best readers, the average readers, and the poor readers. And of course the way the school budgets were, they didn’t buy 30 textbooks every year, they bought 10 and they used them for three years; they preserved them by shellacking the cover. On the first day of school, you walked in and all you could smell was shellacking and floor polish and the varnish on the desks. It was the smell of a new school.
So we were called and I had waited a whole year because I had walked out of kindergarten; a year is a long time for a five-year old. We’re going to learn how to read today; this is the day! Mildred Kiniry called my name and she handed me a blue book; it was brand new; it smelled wonderful.
I was in the good reading group! They didn’t test us! How did she know? I felt sorry for Bobby who was in the yellow reading group. “So now children, don’t open the book,” Miss Kiniry said. Of course, I flipped open the book at once, and I thought, What the hell is this? It was awful art! All kind of orangey and blue because it wasn’t really full color in those early books, and then the teacher had this big easel with cloth over it, and she ripped the cloth off of it and there was a big book like our little books. And she opened the big book with her pointer that had a little pink tip on the end of it. Why we remember these details—but it had a metal ring on one end and a pink tip on the other end. And she said, “Now read along with me, children. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run. Run, run, run. See Dick run.”
And I said to myself, This is not reading. When my mother reads to me, it’s “In the dark forest there was a little house,” and I thought, I’m in trouble. I’ve waited a year. Then I looked five pages further and it was “See Spot run.” But you couldn’t get your library card to get a book out of the public library until the teacher signed this little paper that said you could read. (God forbid a child who couldn’t read took out a library book. He might ruin it; he might read it.) So I did the unforgiveable. I stuck the book up underneath my sweater and I took it home.
And my mother said, “Where did you get your reading book?” I said, “Miss Kiniry told me I could take it home,” and my mother said, “No, she didn’t tell you you could take it home. You stole the book.” And I said, “All right, I stole the book; that means I’m going to hell,” but I hadn’t made my first communion or had my first confession, so I had all my bases covered. I had the book for the weekend, and I asked my grandfather, “What does this word mean, what does that word mean?” And he told me, and I had a good memory: there were only 19 different words in that book.
Fortunately, Miss Kiniry was a pretty smart lady and when I went to school early on Monday (my mother had called naturally), I did my Shirley Temple tears, and I said, “I stole the book,” and she said, “I know you want to learn how to read so badly.” “ Well,” I said, “I’ve learned to read the book.” “You have!” she said. “Yes,” I said. “Sit down.” And I read her the book. And she signed my library card right away.
You remember this, Tomie, because this experience goes deep in you.
Very deep! I think what got me started on this tack was that when I opened up that reader, there was none of the joy that was in the books that my mother had read to me at home—neither in the words nor in the pictures. And I recognized that. My mother was an avid reader. A book salesman would knock on the door (knocking sound) and she’d buy the books. She believed in reading aloud. Somehow I was there at the right moment, and I still am an avid reader. Someone told me—it was probably a school librarian—that if you learn how to read, you can find out anything about everything and everything about anything. That gives you a hell of a lot of power.
As a child you remembered something in rich detail because it was important, but you knew.You knew what you were looking at, what you were reading, where you wanted to go. Nothing had to be dumbed down for you.
That’s because I’d been exposed to other things before. I feel sorry for those kids for whom that reader was the first book they’d ever seen. It’s a tragedy. I was very involved with RIF (Reading Is Fundamental), a federal organization that gives books to children. I was in Washington for one of the meetings when I saw this room full of children come in and there were books on the tables, and I remember a little boy saying to his mother, “When do I have to bring this book back?” and the RIF person saying, “No, no, that’s your book. You don’t have to bring it back,” and the boy turned to his mother and said, “I love this library!” And now, of course, no one seems to know—publishers don’t even know—what’s going to happen to the book?
Books have an intimacy. What we remember about our early experience of reading is the context. When I read a book I love, the narrator becomes my father’s voice; he passed away about 20 years ago, but he’s back with me in an instant. The child is sitting in the father’s or grandmother’s lap. When the child goes into Mr. McGregor’s garden, it’s a dangerous place, but she goes with a guide who is sensitive to her squirms, so the one reading the book can say, “We can come back to this later.”
Can you imagine a child given the book itself and shoved into Mr. McGregor’s garden all by himself; he’d be scared shitless.
But for the illustrator, the book, first of all, is a job. A publisher has an investment. The publisher has given it to me to do because she thought it was my story rather than another person’s story, so immediately money is tied up. And this is another thing young people have to learn. I have a responsibility when I’m doing a picture book. I just can’t say, “The words say the little girl has pink socks, but I don’t like pink so I’m going to make them green.” Whereas if I’m making a painting of a bowl of fruit, it’s oranges and halfway through I say, “I’m so tired of oranges, I’m going to turn them into pears.” I can do that and absorb the consequences. So my own painting is a kind of vacation, in a sense. It’s never really a vacation, but a vacation from “work,” even though it’s hard work, painting, but I don’t have to worry about subject matter or pleasing anybody because if no one wants to buy the painting, fine. I’ll put it against the wall. Or I’ll put it on the wall. But if I spend all that time doing a book, I’m doing it for the book to be purchased, I’m doing it to maybe get awards, I’m doing it to make a living.
Maybe some of the artists who will read this have or know children who show interest in art. What kinds of things would you suggest?
Give them a corner of the room; do what my parents did. They gave me a little table off in the corner and I had a cigar box with my crayons. My grandfather gave me butcher paper because he was a butcher. I had crayons and I drew. And that space was sacrosanct. As I got older, we had a finished-off attic in our house, and when I got all my art supplies for Christmas, which was after the war, I was maybe 11, I got an easel, and they also gave me half of the attic. I remember coming back from school and going up to my “studio” at the top of the house and there were my two younger sisters. There were two big rugs; one covered one half and one covered the other half. And my sisters were standing with their toes on “my” rug, not daring to cross the threshold. And Maureen was saying to Judie, “I think that’s where he keeps his watercolors; I think that’s where his paper is.” The older sister was giving the younger sister the tour of the famous garrett studio of the brother.
That singled me out; it made me special; it made me feel that what I was doing was important. I wasn’t forced or even encouraged to enter contests. What my parents did was encourage my passion. When I was watching Joseph Campbell’s series in which he tells you to “follow your bliss,” I heard myself saying, “I always have.”
And when you’re on the bliss path, where are you? You’re where you make the connections; you meet the people, and you find happiness.
You find pain; you find happiness; you find growth. You find life. You don’t find existence; you find life.
On Teaching Children About Color
by Tomie dePaola
When I used to do work with children, I’d have the teachers give every student a box of 20 crayons, and I’d say, “I want everyone to take her favorite color out of the box,” and they’d all take their favorite colors out of the box, and then I’d say, “I want you to put those colors away.” (You’re not going to be allowed to use your favorite color— I wouldn’t tell them that yet!) I’d say, “Take out the color you really hate,” and then I’d have them draw with that color. By the end of the little session they had fallen in love with the color they hated because they had got to know the color they hated and realized they didn’t hate that color anymore. And maybe that color that was their favorite didn’t have all the answers either.
On Subtle Color and Brilliant Forebears
by Tomie dePaola
It’s not a shame that Alice and Martin Provensen’s books (The Year at Maple Hill Farm, The Color Kittens, The Fireside Cook Book, etc.) have been reprinted, but they’ve been reprinted with boosted-up colors—the same thing Disney did when it reissued classic movies. The original Pinocchio was so subtle and so sweet, and now it’s all garish. Whoever these people are who say, “O modern children need that (more overt, more conspicuous color).” It’s an excuse and it’s a stupid excuse. Modern children don’t need that.
About the Provensens: as art students we could never figure out who did what. When I finally met them along the way, I found out who did what, but Martin said to me, “And don’t tell.” So I said, “I won’t.” But their sense of color and design was so strong and at Pratt, if you said that you wanted to do children’s books, the instructors would hold up the Provensens and Leo Lionni (not Jessie Willcox Smith or some of the more sentimental illustrators).
Disney hired a lot of very good artists, not just to do Mickey Mouse but to do those fabulous backgrounds for those films. One of the most beautiful animated films the Disney corporation ever produced, besides Fantasia, some of whose parts are really unbelievable, is Bambi. There’s a scene in Bambi where the deer are fleeing from the forest fire that is such pure design; it’s none of that cutesy Thumper or the little bluebirds; it’s really an incredible design.
Will Hillenbrand is a celebrated author and illustrator whose published works include more than 50 books for young readers. In addition to his own self-illustrated titles, he has illustrated the works of writers and retellers including Verna Aardema, Eric A. Kimmel, Judy Sierra, Margery Cuyler, Judith St. George, Daniel Pinkwater, Phyllis Root, Jane Yolen, Karma Wilson, Maureen Wright, and Jane Hillenbrand. Learn more at www.willhillenbrand.com.