26 Fairmount Avenue – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 1999
Here We All Are – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2000
If you know Tomie dePaola’s work exclusively from his picture books, (I don’t want to write “only know,” as if the incredible quality of those works of art and narrative were not enough to support his reputation), you need to read his series of chapter book autobiographies, beginning with Newbery Honor winner 26 Fairmount Avenue. There are eight books so far, each one chronicling around one year in the life of the young Tomie as he experiences the joys and sorrows, mainly joys, of a close-knit family and a supportive community in Meriden, Connecticut. The series begins when Tomie in 1938, shortly before Tomie begins kindergarten, and right as he confronts the excitement of the hurricane that hit the east coast that year. Tomie narrates his story from the perspective of a young child without a hint of condescension or sentimentality.
The remarkable nature of these books, aside from the signature dePaola pictures of family and friends, this time in black and white, is that they are both sophisticated and innocent at the same time.
That is, dePaola must have thought carefully about how to convey the process of growing up as a talented, warm, and well-loved child of supportive parents without minimizing conflict or disappointment, and eventually presenting the young Tomie’s terrifying confrontation with World War II. Tomie’s mother is just about perfect. Even as his school insists he must write his name as “Tommy” to avoid some kind of confusing lack of conformity, his mom constantly expresses how pleased she is with Tomie’s love of music and art. Even his teachers, products of an era that couldn’t quite tolerate “Tomie” with one “m” and an “ie,” are kind and generally flexible. Tomie wants to learn to read, and he loves drawing so much that he is allowed to cover the walls of his new house with images, even if they will be painted over. His wonderful grandparents provide reassurance, and even a great-grandmother at the end of her life elicits empathy from Tomie; he insists on sitting tied to his chair, as she needs to be, when they are together.
When Tomie has the thrill of seeing Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he explains to the reader that the movie, although wonderful, is not faithful to the “true story,” omitting many essential details of the fairy tale that he had held as the standard. Tomie is grounded in reality in all the books of the series, but his imagination also informs everything he feels and does, just as it will for Tomie the adult artist.
In the second book of the series, Here We All Are, Tomie begins attending dance school with Miss Leah, another empathic maternal figure. He also awaits the birth of a baby sister and needs to accommodate himself to changing caregivers while his mother is in the hospital. What looks a little frightening, as Nana Fall-River, is Italian grandmother, has different expectations from this Irish maternal grandparents. The books include ethnic and religious details in a matter-of-fact way, encouraging children to relate to customs that may be similar or different from those they know.