If I were to count up all the hours my boys and I read Strega Nona, or Days of the Blackbird, or our very favorite Tom, it would span a life time. At least, it would seem so. I cannot think of another author whom we read more than Mr. Tomie de Paola in those preschool and very early elementary years. He absorbed the largest amounts of time, along with perhaps, Beatrix Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Barbara Cooney. This all makes me smile through my sadness, because, well, what great friends I introduced my children to!
Tomie de Paola passed away yesterday due to complications from surgery after an injurious fall in his studio. Because of the necessity of isolation during COVID-19 concerns, he apparently died alone in a hospital room. I don’t want to think about this too much. He was not alone. From all I have read about him, he was a gentle man full of kindness and joy. I know he provided our family with more laughs and hugs than we would have otherwise shared.
Today, we will sit under the willow tree in our backyard. The leaves are just barely returning to bending branches. G has always called it “the Jesus tree,” because the flowing branches waft in breezes as he imagines Jesus’ hair did. We will sit and we will thank Mr. de Paola for Strega Nona, and Big Anthony, for the beautiful Bible story illustrations, for Fin McCoul, for The Night of Las Posadas, but especially for Tom and his poignant and hilarious relationship with his grandfather. And he will be in our thoughts and prayers. He will not be alone.
It is unlikely that I could ever over exaggerate the significance Tomie de Paola has had on my children’s early years of reading. For family and humor, we have read Tom, for silliness we visit Strega Nona and Big Anthony, and for culture and language, we love Tony’s Bread and Days of the Blackbird. However, Jingle the Christmas Clown is new to us this year. I am reading it with G for the first time. He has chosen it on his own to be our book of the week. We must have read it ten or twelve times this week alone. Funny, because flipping through it at the library I wasn’t all that impressed. Isn’t it interesting how a book often expresses its magic only once you read it with your little one?
Not only has G expanded his Italian (I have caught him greeting me with a Buon Natale, and addressing one of his stuffed buddies as bambino mio), but has completely fallen in love with the book’s characters. Whether it is because of the funny, frenetic monkeys or the baby animals’ saddened eyes, G continues to pay more attention to the illustrations and details in the text with each reading.
Unable to perform for the nearly abandoned Italian village, il circo piccolo– the little circus- moves on to the next town, leaving Jingle and the baby animals to rest with the elderly citizens. While the ending miracle seems a bit trite, G smiles every time. The beauty of the little tale is in its spirit of giving. As the vecchietti– the “old-timers”- brighten at Jingle’s gift of Christmas, the real miracle of the story happens back in the middle of the book.
Now Jingle began to feel sorrier for the villagers than for himself and the baby animals.
This line alone made Tomie de Paola’s story of joy and giving well worth multiple readings….at least for G. I love sharing stories that demonstrate kindness and empathy, especially toward others so dissimilar on the surface.
Included is a recipe for stelline d’oro- golden star cookies, which are part of the final miracle. The recipe was created by PBS’s Mary Ann Esposito, host of Ciao Italia. This basic sugar cookie recipe has the extra delight of orange juice mixed in the dough as well as in the icing.