Why Will Things Never Be the Same? Tomie dePaola’s War Years

Books discussed:
Things Will Never Be the Same – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, 2003
Why?  – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, 2007

things samewhy

The cover to each of these volumes in Tomie dePaola’s autobiographical series (see here and here) features a picture of young Tomie looking out a window.  For Things Will Never Be the Same, he leans on the windowsill with his hands on his cheeks.  On the cover of Why? Tomie rests on his crossed arms in the same window, but a picture of his cousin Blackie in uniform, the frame covered with a red, white, and blue ribbon, looks out from the background.  Blackie is smiling, but it is clear from the both the title and the previous book that Tomie is frustrated and uncomprehending.  Why do bad things happen? The author doesn’t attempt to offer children any definitive answers, only to share his own experiences and to reassure them that feeling anger and grief are a part of children’s lives.

The year 1941 starts out for Tomie on a promising note. The new sled he got for Christmas prompts his mother to tell some stories about her own childhood, and Tomie is always an avid listener and imaginative participant in tales of the past, whether true or fictional. He becomes involved in collecting money for the March of Dimes, the personal cause of his revered president, Franklin Roosevelt.  Tomie understands that FDR has personally confronted polio, the dreaded disease which parents and children feared.  Readers will learn that, in this era, it was considered appropriate and even compassionate to Tomie’s favorite radio program to broadcast “The Little Lame Prince in honor of the president’s birthday.” As always, the historical details in the series are presented from the perspective of the time; they offer a great opportunity for discussion with kids.

Several of the episodes in this series are ones which dePaola also covers in picture books, including The Art Lesson, where Tomie famously benefits by compromise when the art teacher is more flexible than Tomie’s classroom teacher, allowing him to use his box of sixty-four Crayola crayons and to draw an additional picture after completing the rote assignment.  So we get to meet the understanding Mrs. Bowers, with her funky jewelry and exotic combs.  Tomie narrates significant events in his special diary, the one with the lock and key. But by the end of the year and the end of the book, things will never be the same.  When the adults hear the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor over the radio, Tomie and his friends are confused and panicked.  How did this event insert itself into their lives, right in the middle of reading the funnies and listening to the “Horn & Hardardt (sic) Children’s Hour?” Tomie takes time out to explain to readers that “Horn & Hardardt’s was a chain of restaurants called AUTOMATS…You put a dime in a slot and the little glass door opened. You took out whatever food you had picked. It sounded neat.” To children, this detail is essential to the chain of events.

Tomie hears words but doesn’t understand them all: “I wasn’t sure what a fleet was, but I knew what the word destroyed meant. I knew what killed meant.” The book ends with Tomie’s ominous realization that he and his family would feel the impact of the attack, although he doesn’t understand why.  The next book begins with everyone celebrating the New Year of 1942, as all the adults in Tomie’s life try to maintain a normal structure to their lives, for which Tomie is grateful.  He helps in his grandfather’s store and learns how to draw flowers in art class. A highlight is the visit of Tomie’s cousin Blackie, back from serving in Hawaii and about to leave for Europe. He brings Tomie a ukulele and a grass skirt. When Tomie’s brother Buddy sneeringly remarks, “That’s a good present for a sissy,” Blackie defends Tomie. Unfortunately, this cruel comment is neither the first nor the last time when Buddy’s intolerance threatens his younger brother.

Then Tomie records in his diary that Blackie’s plane has been shot down “and everyone died.” The book ends with a series of questions, from the philosophical terror of “Why was there a war anyway,” to the more specific “Why did Blackie’s plane get shot down?” The adults in his life can only do so much to protect him. Tomie’s elegy for his cousin, whom he now calls by both his nickname and his “real” name, precedes the final “WHY” of the last chapter.

“Why was my cousin Blackie, my cousin Anthony, who gave me Hawaiian guitar and a hula skirt and who carried me on his back and listened to every new song I learned – why was Blackie dead?”

In the continuing series, Tomie resumes the daily adventures of his life but continues to remember.


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