Tomie dePaola: The Delightful Responsibility to Enthrall & Entertain by Will Hillenbrand

Artist Interview with Tomie dePaola

Tomie dePaola

Photo by Ian Hillenbrand

Do you dream of becoming a children’s book illustrator? Get inside advice from Caldecott Honor Book and Newbery Honor Book winner Tomie dePaola, the author-illustrator of What a Treasure!, Traveling to Tondo and Louie!. Illustrator Will Hillenbrand caught up with dePaola to find out how he got his start in illustration, how he communicates through his illustrations and his recommendations for how to become an illustrator. Read an excerpt from the interview with Tomie dePaola below, or read the complete artist interview in the 2015 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market or on And don’t forget to check out our book publisher listings to find editors and art directors who want to buy your illustrations!

Keep reading and good luck!


Tomie dePaola The Delightful Responsibility to Enthrall & Entertain by Will Hillenbrand


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 twenty-seven 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 two-hundred-year-old barn studio in New Hampshire.

The Birds of Bethlehem by Tomie dePaola

The Birds of Bethlehem (New York: Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012) by Tomie dePaola

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 smart-ass, 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 four 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 four and a half; Georgia O’Keeffe knew at ten that she was going to be a painter; Meryl Streep knew at eleven that she was going to be an actress; José Limón knew at six 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 eleven 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.

Tomie dePaola illustration

A spread from “Hey Diddle Diddle & Other Mother Goose Rhymes” (New York: PaperStar published by The Putnam & Grosset Group, 1985) illustrated by Tomie dePaola.

. . . .

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 nonrectilinear 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.

. . . .

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 eleven, 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 garret 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.

Will Hillenbrand is a celebrated author and illustrator whose published works include more than fifty 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 Cuyier, Judith St. George, Daniel Pinkwater, Phyllis Root, Jane Yolen, Karma Wilson, Maureen Wright, and Jane Hillenbrand. Learn more at

Excerpted from the August 2013 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Used with the kind permission of The Artist’s Magazine, an imprint of F+W, a Content + eCommerce Company.



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