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Real artists don’t copy.” Tomie dePaola, the children’s author and illustrator who died last week at age eighty-five, once recalled this counsel given him as a child of four or five. “I had these twin cousins who . . . were in art school. They had told me . . . ‘Real artists don’t copy.’” When dePaola began school, his cousins’ advice sparked a small rebellion. In the first art class of the year, the children were directed to draw Pilgrim figures—man, woman, turkey—which the teacher had done in chalks for them to imitate. DePaola refused.

At first glance, such an anecdote might read as a self-flattering retread of the myth of artistic originality: the little prodigy too talented to learn from a teacher. But dePaola’s recollection points to something more subtly true of the relationship between the “individual talent,” to borrow T. S. Eliot’s phrase, and tradition—that past and present reality that exists outside the self, and into which the “real artist” learns to enter on whatever terms are his. In the end dePaola’s art teacher, the real heroine of the story, made a deal with the resistant child: If he drew what everyone else was drawing, he could draw whatever he liked when he finished. He chose to draw the teacher herself. She, a particular living person with a face and a name—Mrs. Bowers—interests his eye and imagination in a way the static, nameless Pilgrim figures could not. The child’s early instinct, then, was not simply to not copy, but to copy something real, to translate life into drawing. 

This anecdote provides an illuminating backdrop to what would become dePaola’s life’s work. It illustrates, of course, the imaginative time-travel that is the province of all good writers for children. To write well for children requires an intimate and ongoing acquaintance with one’s own childhood, and a measure of respect for one’s own personhood as a child. To write well for children, one must acknowledge that a child’s experiences are real experiences. Furthermore, in this early story is the seed of another hallmark of dePaola’s writing and visual art for children: sympathy not only for the child, but for the childlike adult, whose eyes are open to surprise and miracle. Finally, there is the epiphany that while the “real artist” perhaps does not copy, he is always in conversation with things outside himself. His transformative work is to translate real subjects into something wholly new and wholly his. 

Certainly Tomie dePaola’s visual art is distinctively his own. Scan the displays in the children’s section of a bookstore: Even if his name were omitted, the covers of his books would announce him. His stylized human figures, with their almond eyes and austere, often inscrutable faces, recall iconography—if icons were friendlier and more like folk art. His Saint Francis resembles Saint Christopher; Saint Patrick might just as easily be Saint Juan Diego. His children, like Tommy of Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, though they wear shorts and sneakers and striped shirts, look as though they might grow up to be Saint Francis or Saint Juan Diego. His grandmother figures—Nana Downstairs, or the magical Strega Nona with her pasta pot—stand up stiffly like icon figures. The effect is paradoxical. The hand which has drawn them could be no one else’s, and the characters are strikingly themselves. At the same time, however, there is something self-effacing in dePaola’s illustrations—as if, like an icon, they were meant to be looked both at and through, to the reality of the story they tell. In dePaola’s beautiful The Clown of God, a retelling of a French legend, the ardent, loving soul of the juggler Giovanni is suggested in restrained line drawings and pale watercolor washes; it is this visual reticence that lends the story, as dePaola narrates it, its emotional impact. What the “real artist” understands here is that children do not, any more than anyone else, need to be manipulated into appropriate responses. The dignity and restraint of dePaola’s illustrations comes from his deep sympathy for children's capacity to feel, apprehend, reflect upon, and understand a story’s meaning. 

To my mind, dePaola’s most shining gift is as an interpreter of legend and folk tale, biblical narrative and saint’s life. While his original stories—often based on his own childhood experiences—are charming, it is his engagement with and renewal of stories springing from religious and cultural tradition that make his visual art into something more than mere illustration. In his retellings—The Lady of Guadalupe, Francis, The Poor Man of Assisi, Christopher, The Holy Giant, The Legend of the Poinsettiathe icon-like quality of his drawing serves the story as a kind of visual translation, animating the familiar narrative without drowning it in the artist’s own personality. 

My own favorite, I think, is The Night of Las Posadas. In this book, dePaola manages to elevate a contemporary story of a New Mexican community attempting to observe the tradition of Las Posadas—in which Mary and Joseph travel about the town knocking at doors to seek refuge—to the level of a miracle tale. When the young couple who are to play Mary and Joseph are waylaid by a snowstorm, an unknown man and woman appear out of nowhere to take their places in the town’s pageant. At the end, they vanish before anyone can thank them. When, later, the elderly Sister Angie goes to the church to pray, she discovers wet footprints leading to the statue of Mary and Joseph. The graven faces look, at least to the reader, strangely familiar. This story, with its animating atmosphere of holy mystery, is of a piece with dePaola’s illustrations—simple, personal, and intimate, but hinting at realities beyond themselves. It is this quality, I think, which marks dePaola’s “individual talent” as that of the “real artist,” who does not copy, but transfigures. 

Sally Thomas is the author of a poetry collection, Brief Light. Her poems and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, and other periodicals.

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