I’m Still Scared – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006
For the Duration – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009
Each volume in Tomie dePaola’s series has a moving dedication to family members, friends, and other significant people in the author’s life. The dedication to I’m Still Scared reads: “For all those who also remember/the terrifying weeks right after, December 7, 1941.” The author emphasizes the gravity of the events he describes by appending President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “Day of Infamy” speech of December 8, 1941, as well as “A Note from the Author” explaining the intensity of his memories, and noting their relevance to the current state of the world. Tomie is scared by air raid drills, by his uncle’s enlistment in the army, and by the suspicions that some Americans have of those of Italian descent. But he also reassured by parents, grandparents, and other compassionate adults, who try their best to explain the changes in the context of their normal, daily lives: “See, all I have to do is ask my dad or mom or Tom (his grandfather). They always tell me the whole truth! Still, Tomie is “still scared.”
Miss Leah’s dancing school remains a joyful haven for Tomie, and family Christmas celebrations still allow him to pick out presents for everyone. This time he chooses stockings, rather than the traditional Tweed perfume for his mother, since his father points out that nylon will be restricted as it was used to manufacture parachutes. Every historical detail is refracted through the lens of childhood: “Well, even though we were at war, Christmas was great. We had a beautiful tree.” But Tomie is sensitive and aware. When he watches a newsreel of the London blitz for a few minutes, before his mother takes him out to the theater lobby, he understands that this is real, that he had actually seen “…WAR, even though it was only in the movies.”
In For the Duration, Tomie is surprised by the way in which grief can gain control at unexpected moments. He is excited to participate in his school’s Memorial Day assembly, which this year includes a medley of armed services songs. By the time the children begin to rehearse the Army Air Corps’ “Off we go into the wild blue yonder,” Tomie becomes overwhelmed by its association with his beloved cousin Blackie’s death. Tomie’s teachers and the school nurse allow him to talk about his feelings and to leave school early. He is escorted home by his brother Buddy, who has been one of the few unsympathetic characters in the series. He taunts Tomie for crying. Their mother’s attempt to instill empathy in Buddy by reminding him of how much Tomie had loved their cousin only provokes more selfishness: “He always does stuff so everyone pays attention to him…It embarrasses me! He’s a big sissy. Everyone thinks so.”
Tomie’s differences from some of the other boys are noted throughout the series, but almost always in a positive way. He is musically talented, intelligent, artistic, and literate. The character of Buddy is a reminder that childhood has not always been easy for children who do not conform to gender stereotypes. In one of the most painful episodes from all the books, a group of boys harasses and bullies Tomie for carrying his tap shoes to school. When he begs his older brother for help, “Buddy turned his back as if nothing was going on.” He also steals and defaces Tomie’s diary, the emblem of his future authorhood, and threatens to hurt him if he reveals the truth to their parents. This was one point in the series when I felt that Tomie’s parents revealed some weakness. How could his mother, who knew how concerned Tomie was about the missing diary, not have suspected that her older son had taken it? There are no recriminations. But Tomie’s rationalization has a tinge of bitterness: “Why is my brother so mean? I wondered. I guess it’s just like a war. I guess I’ll have to put up with him for the duration.”
These eight books are all we have so far in this odyssey of Tomie dePaola’s young life. We know that he grew up to be a brilliant artist and author. We know that he had some adversity but lots of support. We want to know more!