Tomie DePaola: A Legacy in Narrative Craft

This is my copy of Strega Nona.

IMG_2546As you can see it has been well loved.

As I’m sure most of you know yesterday saw the passing of the artist and author Tomie DePaola. The tragedy is not that he passed. As the Stoics remind us, we are all mortal and our end must come. No, for DePaola much of the loss is in the timing. With the modern equivalent of the Black Death running rampant anyone who simply passes on of natural causes, regardless of their impact go mostly unremarked upon and are quickly brushed aside in favor of blame-laying, fear-porn headlines and the growing lists of those taken by the CoVid Reaper.

Tomie DePaola would have been mourned with vigil and sincere outpouring of emotion. Curated galleries of his prints would have appeared in museums, and may still yet. He defined what it meant to craft a narrative in picture and word, and sometimes without word. There might have been a parade, and certainly a retelling of how he told his elementary teacher that he didn’t need math because he was going to write and illustrate books when he grew up.

If you are looking for a list of his books or vignettes about his life or his art, Google is your friend. There are those that did not let his passing go unmarked, but ever since I learned of it, I cannot stop thinking about what his work has meant to me and what he left behind.

So right now, I just want to talk about mortality.

There are two legacies we can leave in our wake: 1. The relational, who we were to other people and who they were to us, how we treated those around us, and were we connected in positive or negative ways to many or few and 2. Our craft.

The deep work required to build a skill to the point of excellence is a shrinking thing in modern society. Too many of us feel and succumb to the pressure to be everything, do it all. But in chasing this many faceted ideal, we make our own purpose unclear and never cultivate talent into craft. We lose touch with the authentic bits of ourselves that really matter, and we never give ourselves the chance to transcend the mediocre.

And let me be clear, “the World” (whoever that is) doesn’t have to know your work for it to reach a level of technical and artistic mastery that makes others sit up and take notice. My grandmother passed away late last year, and based on the numbers at her funeral you might suspect that she had a minimal legacy. Maybe in some quantity based metric she did. But all who knew her spoke of her service. Her constant attention to the needs of others was the hallmark fo who she was. And her quilts!! She made some of the loveliest, softest, most beautifully stitched quilts in the world. They are considered treasures among our family. The masterpiece she made for my wedding, one of the last before arthritis rendered her hands unable, is undergoing quilting triage at the able and expert hands of my mother-in-law who shares her talents, because we loved that blanket a little too well.

In my office sits a framed 3×5 canvas depicting a cabin in winter, a delightful monochrome painting done by my paternal grandmother that reminds me every time I sit down to work that I am an inheritor of a legacy of creativity. She was a woman so gentle and intuitive that hummingbirds would sit in her hands. Her paintings are treasured possessions among our family, not merely for their beauty and proficiency, but for the piece of her they carry into the future.

If either of these women had said, “Well, I don’t have time,” or “I’m just not that creative,” their families, if not the whole of society, would have lost out on an example of what it means to strive to develop oneself and examples of what expression channeled by skill can manifest.

The world, most school age children of my generation, and those of future generations can thank Tomie DePaola for doing the same. For learning craft and technique and applying it again and again in ways that were not always successful, but left indelible imprints on those that experienced them. From the levity and silliness of The Popcorn Book to the wordless quiet of Sing, Pierrot, Sing he invited all audiences to feel and laugh and wonder with him. He embraced his own style when illustrating the words of others and his distinctive voice when creating his own. He illustrated the tales of his Christian faith, unabashedly loving Christmas and illustrating multiple yuletide tales.


Just a few of my newest acquisitions. Story time!

He was himself. And he was an artist. And because he simply set out to do work that he enjoyed, pursued the skill that resonated with himself, and didn’t stop he leaves us a bounty. Not only will I get to introduce my children to The Knight and The Dragon, but a tiny piece of Tomie will linger in the learning of my children and perhaps theirs. It will inform and inspire my own work, as it did my development as a child. All artists cultivate a creative lineage, master storytellers and artists that leave their mark on us as we grow into the artists we will be.

It is my desire, arrogant though it may be, to leave such a legacy. To construct a body of work, one story at a time, that others (though perhaps not many others) will cherish. The greater challenge, for me anyway, is to be the sort of person that even if unremarked on by the world, would be a touchstone of my family’s ethic. I am the recipient of the love and example of so many good people who simply sought to do good in the world, to beautify it, to make it a little more livable for those around them.

If my work is remembered with fondness because I am remembered with fondness, I think that might be enough. And if the work itself is good enough that others know it and carry it on, well that’s good, too. I think it is the change in our nature, not production numbers, wrought by humble creation– daily pursued– that brings us peace in the end.

I hope he had such peace. I hope he knew how many of us loved him and were grateful for how willing he was to share himself with us. And that his passing, despite its appointed moment, did not go unmourned or unmarked. We will miss you, Tomie.


Integrity in Every Industry

There’s been quite a hullabaloo in literary circles of late about the love/hate relationship between reviewers and writers. I don’t like to make knee-jerk comments on issues that are this highly charged. Letting them stew tends to allow the language center and the limbic system of my brain time to mesh with each other.

And I think my opinion on the subject comes down to integrity.

Before I dive in too deep I want to make it explicitly clear that this post is in no way pointed at anyone specific. These are general observations and ideas for/about the industry as a whole. Moreover, REVIEWERS ARE AWESOME!! Also, AUTHORS ARE AWESOME!! We are, however, also people. And sometimes people just suck. No getting around it.

But integrity can help us be true to our awesome natures. In fact, I’m reasonably certain that might be a functional definition of the word. In a situation like the one The Guardian reported on in recent weeks, integrity on both sides of the story would have eliminated the bizarre circumstances and made the whole thing evaporate. And there were plenty of places along that journey that an act of honesty would have neutralized what became such a controversial and chilling story.

Since I am one, let’s start with authors.

When you write a book, you want to make sure it is successful. You have a vested interest in it performing well and in it being represented fairly. The first step to this is write a GOOD book. And then be honest with yourself about what you wrote. If you are putting a bunch of teenage sex on the page, you are inviting your reviewers into conversations about rape and slut-shaming and all kinds of other dicey topics. So don’t be shocked when they engage in such discussions. Even if you are thinking to yourself, that’s not how I meant it, that’s not how I see it, you work in a subjective industry where other people get to make up their own minds about what the author presents. You don’t want people to say that you are making light of a certain disease/group/social issue? Don’t write about it. HOWEVER, if you feel like you really need to write about that topic, then be realistic with yourself about the potential for others to take your words out of context. Their own experiences are going to color the way they see your story. Deal with it. Move on.

That, however, does not mean you role over and take abuse. There are channels and means available to authors to push back against unfair and inaccurate reviews. Report the bad in the way recommended by the site. Rally your troops to go review your book in positive terms with lots of stars!! Do the due diligence of marketing by getting your book into as many hands as possible so that you can (hopefully) drown out the haters with positivity. Do not engage in online debates about your book, let other readers who get your vision do that. And if there is no one standing up for you, then maybe it is time to admit that this book wasn’t a great offering. Maybe you need more study/practice/editing for the next time around.


Writers need reviewers. They help our readers find us. They make us more visible. If the good ones start going to ground because we authors cross the line in terms of retaliation at the ones that just suck, then how will we build a following or expect anyone to give us the time of day? Part of having integrity as an author is knowing your own limits in terms of what you can handle reading about yourself and what you can’t. Maybe you need someone to check Goodreads and Amazon for you and present you with only the most glowing sentiments. Or maybe you just need someone to say, “Ok, brace yourself, this one’s a bit harsh.” Perhaps you should eschew all interaction with the outside world and just write the next book. (I know I’m seriously considering digital isolation).

Reviewers, however, are not off the hook. Posting a review for a book you have not read is dishonest, unethical behavior. Yeah, I said it. I don’t care how busy you are, I don’t care how much you hated the cover, if you are not giving the book a complete read-thru before offering a review then you are acting without integrity. And that includes a five star review.

Look, everyone likes seeing those shiny, five pointed shapes next to the title of their book, but if they aren’t earned then they are a lie to the reader. Giving someone a five star review if you haven’t read it is just as wrong as tossing one star out at a book whose title fonts rubbed you the wrong way. In a similar vein, remembering that you are telling other readers what to expect and what you (really) think, should be at the forefront of every serious reviewer, particularly those that build a blogging platform and internet presence on such. I would think, that in the interest of other people taking reviewers seriously, the integrity of the honest opinion would be a high priority. Too many bad reviews to books that were actually ok, or five stars on every book you ever review regardless of quality will eventually drive people away from you. They will know that you are not being forthright about what you are reading.

Moreover, for heavens sake, be honest about the content you encounter. If there is a legitimate issue with a book’s content, then rate it accordingly and describe the issue in fair and informative terms. Reviews are not merely an expression of opinion (or I suppose in my own opinion they shouldn’t be). You are informing other readers about what reading the book did or didn’t do for you, and vulgar, expletive laden reviews don’t make you more right. They just make you vulgar and covered in, well, you know.


Posting a troll of a review in an attempt to get the author or other reviewers to engage in a petty online debate is not ethical or polite. It is selfish, divisive, unproductive behavior that only serves to tell others you aren’t worth interacting with. And when you engage in any of the above behaviors you make writers afraid to post and put themselves out there. You make it harder for us to interact online with fans and reviewers alike because we have to be ever more cautious, lest we say something that will be taken out of context and used to ruin our careers, or at the least make us persona non grata in specific corners of the digital world.

On a personal note, my favorite review of The Accidental Apprentice so far was from Matt Ely. It was posted to Goodreads as 4 stars, but the original was posted at JC’s Book Haven as a 3.5 stars- Better than Good. It is my favorite because it is completely honest. It is the perfect example of integrity in reviewing. I get to feel great about the stuff I did well because I know he is being honest about them since he includes, in very clear terms, the things he struggled with. I now have some great input about how to improve in the future. And I hope Matt will grace future works with similar honesty.

I love all those that have given me a review. And I am so grateful for every review I get. It tells me that the book is getting out there. It tells me that I have made (a very tiny) impact. And it gives others who may be passing by a heads up, “Hey someone actually read this book, and thought something about it.” Sometimes that’s enough to make a fellow reader curious about picking it up.

So conclusion? Writing and publishing books is a subjective field. As a result, like every other industry, it only works if all those participating do so with integrity. Honesty about how well/poorly a book is written, how interesting/boring it is, and treating each other with dignity (as well as behaving with dignity) are the only way we can trust each other. It’s the only way this relationship works. And if that wonderful give and take breaks down, what is left will never be as true to our awesome natures as it could be. And the loss of that potential, rather than a ranking on some social media site, is the real casualty.