Happy 75th Birthday, Mr. de Paola!
I’m always a bit torn when this happens. Sometimes I will get a simply lovely invite to an event here in town. A special event that I would like to brag about. But then I think, "Betsy, you twit. Don’t become little miss bragsalot. Keep it to yourself. What good does it do to crow?"
So I say nothing. Swallow it way down deep where it resides in the pit of my stomach, congealing.
There are exceptions, however. And I do believe I speak the truth when I say that Tomie de Paola’s 75th birthday celebration held here in NYC at the Valbella Restaurant in Manhattan should at least be mentioned.
You may not know it, but Mr. de Paola is now seventy-five years of age. This is particularly difficult to remember when you look at his art. For this particular outing Penguin displayed original art from the new Strega Nona book Strega Nona’s Harvest. Now, here is something I have noticed. Generally, when a beloved children’s illustrator grows older their style begins to loosen up. Steven Kellogg, Maurice Sendak, Rosemary Wells… they’ve gotten a bit free with their pens, right? Now look at the newest dePaola and damned if the man isn’t being contrary as usual and becoming MORE precise and MORE exacting as he ages. Those smooth rounded pen lines don’t draw themselves, you know. Staring at his art I expect to see… I dunno. Pencil erase lines maybe? Not so much as a jot of it. It’s a little eerie, actually.
But the party. Oh, the lovely party. One of those cases where you’re not sure if there will be a sit down dinner or not. Answer: not. However there were ten or so waiters on hand with plates of tiny food. I love tiny food. Tiny food gives meaning to my life. The joy of tiny food is that more often than not you don’t know what’s in it. And for picky eaters like myself, that means you might accidentally discover you’ve developed a taste for, say, fried eggplant and goat cheese wrapped in prosciutto. Lord knows what you’ll do with that information once you have it, but at least it’s there.
Back to the birthday boy. Since we didn’t know if there would be a sit down dinner (and waiters passed out plates of pasta later on, so it was a moot point) there was equal confusion as to whether or not Mr. dePaola would himself show. This could easily be a case of folks celebrating in his stead. But no! Arrive he did and he was immediately shown a trio of delightful marionettes based on Strega Nona, Big Anthony, and Tomie himself.
Tomie, as you may or may not know, is adorable. This is not a respectful thing to say. In my position as lowly librarian I should be so awed that I call him things like learned, wise, yadda yadda yadda. Well forget that. The man’s the cutest little thing I ever did see. Made me want to fold him up and stuff him in my pocket to take home (if that darned dress I’d been wearing had pockets… talk about having no foresight).
I don’t mean to brag but I fancy myself an expert in the art of the meaningless conversation with great big names. I have mad skills. My conversation with Judy Blume? Consisted entirely of the relative deliciousness of a plate of black and white cookies. Neil Gaiman? Mumbled fumblings and fumbled mumblings. If I get to know them a little better (Jane Yolen or Jon Scieszka) then my mumbles turn into actual repeatable sentences with nouns and adverbs and everything. With Mr. dePaola I felt I had an ace up my sleeve, though. Why not bring up that story I wrote up when Strega Nona hit #44 on the Top 100 Picture Books Poll? It was worth a shot. But when push came to shove and Tomie stood before me, I fell back on the old panicked for-the-love-of-god-mention-someone-he-already-knows plan.
TD: (inquisitive stare)
Me: (blurting) IreallylikeyouinthatvideoyoudidwithJarrettKrosoczkawhereyouplayedthesensei? [note: actual video mysteriously missing… here are the outtakes, though.]
TD: (evidently wondering if he should call one of those nice young waiters over in case I get violent) Oh yes?
Me: (nods head enthusiastically)
TD: You know I had pneumonia when that was filmed.
Coulda gone worse, I figure.
Then the Penguins (Penguinites?) feted the man thoroughly. They sang his praises. They gave him a great big jumbo sized card. Finally, they contributed money in his name to his favorite cause. Tomie’s cause of choice involves wells in parts of the world where clean water is difficult to come by. The money Penguin contributed will create a new well, in addition to the two he has already donated money to himself.
Tomie spoke after this about being in the business a good forty-five years. Casual mention was also made by Mr. dePaola to the presence of Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda who were standing surreptitiously in the back of the room. Geez. After that it was time for dessert prepared by . . . well, see for yourself.
Someone later asked me what this dessert was. Dunno. It definitely involved a white filling of some sort, and a crunchy almost almondy outside layer. Suffice it to say, it was devoured quickly and neatly. Tomie blew out the candles on his cake . . .
. . . and everyone had a rousing good time.
Bathroom Update: Since finding two commodes in a single stall over in Massachusetts I’ve found the bathrooms of various establishments particularly amusing. Here’s how Valbella prefers that you get your toilet paper in their room:
One gets the definite feeling that it’s two steps away from walking itself out of the room under its own volition. Also, the faucet for the big bowly sinky thing was not intuitive. I found myself pulling, prodding, and punching the strange Y-shaped contraption at the top for quite a while before I discovered the secret to its design.
A thank you to Penguin for the lovely evening and to Mr. dePaola, our esteemed host.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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