If you're in this business with me, struggling to find the winning formula for your next Children's Picture Book, then I'm sure you've heard of Tomie dePaola. The truth is, if you are an SCBWI member and you don't know him, then you haven't done your homework! Tomie has his own seat on the Board of Advisors.
In my humble opinion, his Caldecott winner, "Strega Nona" is a road map for us all. In case you didn't know, it also received an ALA Notable Children's Book award, along with Kirkus Choice, The Horn Book Honor List, The Nakamori Prize and the Brooklyn Museum & Public Library Arts Books for Children Citation (N.Y.).
I was still in high school when it reached publication. I was an illustrator then too. I just didn't know it yet.
As an illustrator, I have been known to spend forever trying to get great detail into my work. It's like, no matter how much I do, it's never enough. I don't know why. Then I look at Tomie's work, and marvel at it's simplicity in comparison. I beat myself up, thinking, Why? Why can't I do that? Lighten up and just draw! Was Tomie ever this conflicted? Somehow I doubt it.
As a writer, I often wonder if he had a clue that "Strega Nona" would be the one to change everything for him. I'm curious as to how many times it got the boot before Simon & Schuster decided to give it a go. Was his studio wallpapered with rejection letters too? Did each "I'm sorry but..." make him more determined to keep throwing himself in front of the bus until it finally came to a stop?
If you break down the manuscript, you immediately understand why it works. Tomie is a master at setting the stage for conflict. He does everything right, from introducing Strega Nona in the first paragraph, (along with the quaint little town of Calabria)to throwing in a bit of Italian for flavor. The scenes are clear and the repetition is flawlessly executed. In the climax, the word "pasta" is used eight times, as it seems to take on a life of its own!
The only thing that sticks out(to me)that would keep it from being published today is the "relatability factor". You know what I mean. Editors today keep telling us that our main character must be one that the reader can personally identify with. I don't think today's five year old can relate to a little old Italian grandma witch, yet "Strega Nona" continues to be a favorite among five year olds. Hummmm....I wonder what Tomie thinks about that? If he were submitting the manuscript today, might it be titled, "Big Anthony"? Somehow that just isn't the same.