Fueling the Creative Flame

Tomie dePaola

The award-winning illustrator and author has published more than 200 children's books, including Strega Nona, 26 Fairmount Avenue, and his latest, Why? The War Years.

What did your parents do to encourage creativity?

I was encouraged right along, but the real turning point came one Christmas-I was either 9 or 10-when all I got were art supplies. There was an easel, watercolor sets, an oil painting set, pastels, and pads of this wonderful paper that I had never seen before. Also stacks and stacks of how-to books: How to Draw Animals, How to Draw Trees. You name it, I got it. On top of that, they gave me a charge account at Lamphier's paint store, which had an art supply section in the back and Mrs. Lamphier would help me pick things out. That really made me feel like my parents listened to me. They took me at my word that when I grew up I was going to be an artist. I've never forgotten that-ever.

What inspired you most as a child?

Books, of course-my mother was an avid reader. I got my library card when I was in first grade. I learned how to read fast so I could get my library card. And movies inspired me a lot. Believe it or not, Walt Disney's early movies: Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, you know the really good ones. They were so beautifully done. I remember going to see Fantasia and that introduced me to classical music as well as more abstract art. Also, growing up at the time of the MGM Technicolor musicals-you know, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly-all that singing, dancing, costume design, and set design influenced me subconsciously, if not consciously. So when I went off to art school, I discovered Matisse and Picasso, and I was ready for them.

If you could share one piece of advice with a child about being creative, what would that be?

I'd tell kids to look out the window and daydream and doodle. I would also encourage parents to make sure their kids have lots of paper. These days, well even in my day, you don't get enough supplies in school. My parents gave me half of the attic for my studio. No one could go in there. I had a chalk line drawn on an old rug, and I remember my sister standing with her toes right to the chalk line gazing over into my studio. I had a puppet theater and all these art supplies, books, and paints. I also think practice is important. Doodling is a wonderful way to practice art. When you say, "I'm just doodling," you're not saying, "I'm going to paint the Mona Lisa." It's just practicing.

What do you see as your most creative accomplishment?

When I get letters from children and colleagues that just touch me so deeply, I realize that I've done this work and it's touching someone else. That's the reward-someone else appreciating what I've done. Of course, I'm very lucky to be in the book business because I get lots of letters from kids and teachers.

Why do you think encouraging creativity is important, and how has it helped you in your life and career?

It enables the child, who eventually becomes a grown-up, to solve problems in a much more creative way. I also think being creative gives older kids the tools to see the world in a unique way-their own way, and not just the party line. When your creativity is encouraged as a child you become a creative adult. It gives you more options to solve life's problems.

As far as my career is concerned, well, here I am living in a wonderful house in New Hampshire. I'm 72 years old. I've got a wonderful dog. I've got a great assistant. I get over 100,000 fan letters a year from people telling me how wonderful I am, and it's all because I sit down at a drawing table and draw pictures. I can't imagine my life any other way. I'm truly happy with what my life has brought me.

How do you keep yourself creative?

I look at things, listen to things, and try to stay open. I daydream and doodle.

What do you think are the ideal toys, games, books, activities, and art supplies for promoting creativity?

Buy cheap paper. Go to a computer store and buy cheap printer paper. You don't have to buy $100 watercolor paper for a young kid. Just make sure they have a lot of paper and art supplies. I would encourage parents to go to a real art store because the choices are even greater. And if parents are really brave, they could give their kid a charge account at an art supply store.

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