I don’t mean to write about books all the time (but I’m a writer, so I guess this counts as an occupational hazard). Here’s the thing: one of my favorite writers and illustrators is coming the Eric Carle Museum this weekend, on the occasion of his show there (which runs until November 1), Drawings from the Heart: Tomie dePaola Turns 75. And I’m totally excited to shake his hand (because I’ve decided that when you have the opportunity to meet someone you admire, you should do so).
Perhaps most famously Tomie dePaola wrote Strega Nona, a wonderful and magical book that falls in the category of many people’s must-share, a necessary item for adding to baby welcome gift lists. He also wrote one of my family’s favorites, the humorous picture story, Pancakes for Breakfast. And he wrote Oliver Button is a Sissy, a fantastic, very satisfying must-have for fans of the Free to Be You and Me generation. dePaola also illustrated a very silly, amusing tale (that holds up for many, many readings; we have it as a board book), Cookie's Week, written by CIndy Ward. With rounded and wide faces (think, Nick Parks’ lovable and quizzical Wallace), his illustrations are simple, appealing, and wholly approachable. Charming really is an apt word for many of dePaola’s most beloved stories. At the museum–or through the museum's online store–you can purchase guest curator Barbara Elleman's insightful catalogue of the show, Drawings from the Heart: Tomie dePaola Turns 75.
The reason I want to shake dePaola’s hand, though, is because I am a huge (and clearly unabashed) fan of his autobiographical series—the 26 Fairmont Avenue books—for elementary school readers. These simple tales, complete with extended family, tell of houses and holidays, school and sickness, new siblings and the onset of war. The first of the series begins in the year 1938-39. What I love about the stories is how straightforward they are, and how honest. The reader likes young Tomie, and relates to so many things about him: his reactions to his grandmothers, his love for art and dance, his response to a baby sister, or moving house. The reader also gets swept up in the details—so many of them different yet relatable—in such a way that although the stories are quotidian, there’s a sense of time travel that makes the stories anything but mundane or wholly familiar. Finding the intrigue in something real—other people’s lives, a time different from the present—these are the kinds of curiosities that lead to a love of history, a love of biography, and a passion for understanding other people (seeds of compassion when you think of it).
My introduction to the books was to read them aloud to my second child, Lucien, now eleven, starting when he was about five or six (at the recommendation, of Elizabeth Bluemle and Josie Leavitt at the Flying Pig Bookstore; those who have read other of my pieces here will not be surprised to discover). From the get-go, Lucien of the deep voice and big laugh and warm hands, displayed interest in other people and this has very naturally led to a hunger for biographies. He just likes people. And he likes imagining other times. Very often, you’ll hear a sentence from Lucien that begins, “Did you know…” Lucien does like fiction, and sometimes enjoys science fiction or fantasy (his big brother’s favorite genre), and he loves cookbooks. Biography, though, has really served as his mainstay over these elementary school reading years.
Fair warning: the series—moving into wartime—becomes harder, as the terrain of fear and death and the inexplicable sadness and the deep well of a child’s fear become topical for dePaola the child and dePaola the author. For us, having started the series young, by the time the war-themed books began to be published, Lucien was old enough to be deeply moved (and scared/upset) by them. I think he'll be more than ready, at eleven, having read Anne Frank's, The Diary of a Young Girl, this past year, to take on the latest in the series, to be released at the end of July, For the Duration: The War Years.
One of the reasons it’s interesting to be raising so many children—four, go ahead, count ‘em or roll your eyes—is to see how they interact with something like books. The eldest has loved books from forever and doesn’t so much eat them for breakfast as inhales them like air, they are that necessary for his happiness and wellbeing. In fact, a panicky breathlessness occurs involuntarily when I remember one of my worst nightmares, in which Ezekiel was arrested; in the dream I feared for his survival without books, stacks and stacks of them. He truly is that dependent upon them. Lucien likes to read, and when he’s into a book that he loves, it’s nearly impossible to wrest it from his hands. This morning, before his afternoon of tennis camp, he spent hours reading Julie Powell’s memoir, Julie and Julia (in keen anticipation of the movie’s release next month) and as soon as he returned from his tennis playing, he dove right back into the book. You do have to get the right book into his hands, though, for this to occur. Remy is six, and on the cusp of exiting the very early reader stage. He will tell you, if you ask, that he “doesn’t like books.” This isn’t true. However, he tends to choose games—from kickball to Skip Bo—over reading, and he certainly would opt for a movie over a book, if both were offered. He would often rather draw or play with toys over reading or being read to. Meantime, Saskia, at seventeen months adores her “gooks.” She will bring one to you and kind of shove it into your hands, sidling up on the couch and waiting for you to read or she’ll pull every board book off the low shelf in the dining room and peruse the pages on her own. She already has clear favorites and she can recite some of her favorite pages of Margaret Miller’s Happy Days (which is one of Miller's umpteen board books with many photographs of toddlers, this particular one out of print, we've had it so long–nearly 14 years), like, “Bubble day,” or “Choo-choo day.”
Given that it’s a household with mother/writer and father/antiquarian bookseller, you might think we spend time worrying over the declared non-book lover, Remy, but the truth of the matter is I don’t know that we’ve ever really even discussed his professed disinterest. For my part, I’ve enjoyed many, many picture books with him and some (few) chapter books, but there are four kids and some nights, he and I spend time playing Uno before and many more nights, I’m simply cajoling him toward teeth and bed after he’s been busy doing his thing after supper. Our real nightly ritual involves my telling him a funny story (usually about Saskia, or sometimes from the small inventory of funny stories about his aunts when they were small) and offering three good thoughts. By the time we finally lie down the bed he shares with his brother, Lucien, he tends to be so tired (because it takes so long to get him ready to lie down) that he’s asleep moments after the final good thought. There are—really and truly, nearly every single night—four kids to get toward bed, and Remy’s story time is a definite casualty of his baby sister’s arrival and his next-oldest brother’s homework tribulations. Since Saskia’s arrival, his dad has prevailed in reading some chapter books to him. Some I’ve started with him, ones I was sure he’d like, he’s rejected almost out of hand (Stuart Little? That was devastating). Up until now, although he says he wants “adventure books,” the ones we’ve enjoyed most together are ones with a great sense of humor. And these days, I’ve been urging Remy to read to me before bed, because I see how close he is to breaking through to possibly wanting to read independently. I’ve had two first graders thus far, so I know that wanting is a good mindset for starting first grade. Although we haven’t had a focused parental conversation on the subject, I assume Hosea and I are on the same page (couldn’t resist): we trust Remy’s intellect and his learning abilities and imagine that his interest in reading will kick in one of these days, almost inevitably. He’s curious enough that eventually books will grab him.
I’m hoping that 26 Fairmont Avenue will be a book that captures Remy’s imagination so that I can read the whole series to him. Much like Sydney Taylor's, All of a Kind Family series of stories about a Jewish family in the early 20th century on the Lower East Side of New York (which I read to both Ezekiel and Lucien), the chance for time travel, the preoccupations about money and war, well, those are absorbing for a young imagination, far from the jagged truth of those things (even if now, we’re experiencing an economic downturn and war). I was definitely a kid who pretty much lived in the worlds of books set in other times: biographies, from Helen Keller to George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman, the All of a Kind Family books, the Little House books, The Secret Garden, and later, Little Women, so I believe those chances to find oneself in other people’s lives and worlds is alluring.
Meantime, I’m looking forward to shaking dePaola’s hand and hearing his voice, so it resonates in my mind next time I read one of his books aloud.