Children’s author dePaola to give Kidnote keynote

Creator of Strega Nona tells how not to get on her bad side

If you’re of a certain age, when you look at a really big plate of spaghetti, you might be reminded of Strega Nona.

She was the wonderful, crafty, old grandmother created by beloved children’s author Tomie dePaola in 1975, something of a good witch who had rules for a reason. And one big rule breaker in particular had to eat a whole town’s worth of pasta as punishment.

That simple story, rooted in part in dePaola’s Italian-Irish heritage, received a Caldecott honor in 1976 for creating a distinguished American picture book for children. And it won him legions of fans who’ve grown up on Strega Nona’s exploits. DePaola, who also received a Newbery honor in 2000, will be The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Decatur Book Festival Kidnote keynote speaker on Friday.

DePaola is celebrating his 50th year writing children’s books and has now illustrated more than 250 0f them and written half of those. This September, the 12th book in the Strega Nona series will be released. Here dePaola talks about his own storytelling legacy, artistic inspiration and why that little old Italian grandmother will always be by his side.

Q: This year, the book festival is trying something a little different, and instead of the keynote author giving an address, the author will be participating in a Q&A presentation led by children. So are you up for being grilled by 7-, 8- and 10-year-olds?

A: I’m never afraid of them, but maybe I should be. I’ll just channel back to when I was that age. According to my family, I was pretty much of a smart aleck. But I love answering kids’ questions because they usually ask really good questions.

Q: Where does your storytelling gene come from?

A: My Irish grandfather. He used to tell me these wonderful stories, and I found out years later that they were all lies! But an Irishman knows how to tell a story.

Q: Do you remember any of those stories?

A: You mean that I can tell, that’s politically correct?

Q: OK, well maybe not. So when you begin a book, does the narrative come first or the art?

A: In doing a book, it’s so important that the story is a good story and has all the elements of a good story: beginning, middle, end, great characters. My feeling is that if I started out doing all the illustrations, what I’d end up with would be a portfolio of images. The text is the real foundation and linchpin for the pictures. I love it when a child will say to a grown-up, “Don’t turn the page yet, I haven’t finished looking.” The picture book is the beginning of all learning.

Q: You’ve written now more than 250 books. So how do you keep coming up with ideas that will engage children but not bore you as an artist and writer?

A: A good story is a good story. The thing is, you write what you know; you write within your heart and you write what interests and thrills you. I had a wonderful childhood and I remember how important books were for me, and when I’m writing, I have that 8-year-old me that stands next to me and says, “No, no. That’s not interesting to me.” That’s the harder part of the literature job. You can’t put anything over on children. Children aren’t going to read your book because you’re “famous.” If they read your book and they don’t like it, they’ll tell you. They don’t care.

Q: You seem to have a healthy respect for children.

A: I do. But where I seem to lose them is in the teenage years. Maybe it’s because I’m almost 80.

Q: Do you write “Strega Nona” now because you have more to say about her or do you write “Strega Nona” because people who grew up reading the original are having their own children now and there’s a demand for more tales?

A: It’s not a question of keeping up with the new readership. It’s that I don’t really write the books, I channel them. I never do a Strega Nona book to order. I have to wait until she tells me it’s time. It comes from my heart because she is such a heartfelt character. She has a life of her own now. And I don’t want to be on her bad side.

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