On My Way – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001
What a Year – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2002
In my last post, I wrote about the first and second volumes of Tomie dePaola’s unforgettable autobiographical series. In the third and fourth volumes, the new decade of the 1940s brings changes to Tomie’s family, but, so far, they are positive, or at least ones that Tomie is able to assimilate with relative ease. When his beloved baby sister is hospitalized with pneumonia, Tomie has to confront not only his own fear but also that of his parents. The new availability of sulfa drugs to treat infections ensures Maureen’s recovery; this is the kind of historical detail that the author introduces to his young readers. A family visit to the World’s Fair in Queens, New York City, captures its futuristic wonder, even as the world is about to be engulfed in a war which seems to negate this vision of possibilities:
“We stood in line until it was our turn. We went inside and there was the world and the cities the way they might be in the future, with automatic highways and big, tall buildings with places on top for helicopters to land. I loved it.”
Tomie continues to feel pride and affirmation in his dance class with Miss Leah, another adult in the series who recognizes his gifts and validates him. Tomie also participates in the fun of a “Tiny Tot Wedding,” an idea that may seem not to have aged well. (His mother got the idea from a Little Rascals movie, an idea that definitely has not aged well.) But that’s not the point. Tomie was thrilled to play the bride to his tall female friend Carol Crane’s groom. Every time Tomie asserts his identity without seemingly trying to do so, we cheer for him.
In What a Year, Tomie cooks with a little help from his parents, sees Walt Disney’s new release, Pinocchio, and continues to enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts with his family. His letter to Santa Claus is pure Tomie, gracious and accommodating, requesting a doll for his sister. Meanwhile, even an isolating bout of chicken pox does not prevent a recovered Tomie from acting in the school play because he had memorized all his lines. Children reading the book, unlike adults, will not have the sense of foreboding that tragic events will soon transform everyone’s life. The final chapter does foreshadow what will come next.
Tomie has received a diary with a lock and key, an item that will figure later in the series in one of the darker episodes. On December 31, 1940, he notes some of the most significant events of the past year, including having chicken pox, getting his own library card, and the birth of his little sister. In the book’s last picture, we see Tomie wearing the diary’s key around his neck, and proudly showing what he had written to his Aunt Nell. Tomie is wearing his argyle socks and short pants. Aunt Nell is wearing the long dress of his older female relatives, and heeled pumps with double t-straps, typical of the era. Tomie and his aunt represent different generations, but in the narrative he empathizes with members of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations, as they do with him. The book concludes:
(I wonder what 1941 will be like?)
Once again, the author weaves the most mundane yet meaningful events of his young life into the larger world, and we wait for the next book, knowing of at least some of what 1941 will bring.