Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
One of my most vivid memories from childhood is when Mrs. Tarkington read Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona to my kindergarten class. The richly illustrated Italian folktale of a kindly witch, her overflowing pasta pot and mischievous Big Anthony has been engraved on the walls of my imagination ever since.
Every October, I gather my own kindergarteners on the rug and watch the their faces as I recite its familiar opening lines: “In a town in Calabria, a long time ago, there lived an old lady everyone called Strega Nona, which meant ‘Grandma Witch.’” Afterward, I pull out my photographs of Tomie and introduce him as the author and illustrator of more than 260 books.
Indeed, dePaola’s books are mingled throughout my entire repertoire of library lessons. By the time they reach the fourth grade, students at my elementary school have become familiar with his style and can quickly identify a dePaola illustration, even if they’ve never seen the book before.
DePaola died on March 30, 2020. Like most of his readers, I wasn’t ready for a world without him. In the days following his death, I revisited all of his books in my own personal collection, studying his heartfelt language and lingering over his cheerful and deceptively simple illustrations. I wanted to identify the elements that make his work so transcendent and timeless. Why did I love his books just as much now, in adulthood, as I did when I was a child?
Perhaps the answer lies in dePaola’s personal picture book philosophy. He once explained, “A picture book is a small door to the enormous world of the visual arts, and they’re often the first art a young person sees.” dePaola’s sincere love and respect for children is evident in all of his work. His books are playful and earnest. Their stories mingle sadness with hope and darkness with light.
Generations of dePaola’s fans will find hours of delight in Barbara Elleman’s The Worlds of Tomie dePaola, a comprehensive study of the author-illustrator’s life and work. In this revised and updated version of her 1999 book, Tomie dePaola: His Art and His Stories, Elleman, a children’s literature scholar, offers readers an in-depth look at his life, work and legacy. The book includes color photographs that provide glimpses into dePaola’s home and studio, as well as Elleman’s insights about dePaola’s artistic techniques and anecdotes that capture a life lived intentionally, full of love and joy.
After reading it cover to cover (twice), my love and admiration for dePaola’s work and life of generosity was deepened. Share dePaola’s books with your students because, to quote another beloved children’s book creator, Trina Schart Hyman, the world of Tomie dePaola is “loved, needed, and meaningful.”
Modeled after the organizational categories Elleman uses to structure The Worlds of Tomie dePaola, here’s how I use dePaola’s books with my students.
Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, Oliver Button Is a Sissy, Tom, and The Art Lesson form the foundation of a first-grade unit in which we answer, “How can stories tell us more about an author-illustrator?” As a class, we fill in a graphic organizer that shows how dePaola uses personal memories in his stories and illustrations.
After we read and discuss The Art Lesson, students participate in a directed drawing activity of a turkey, then use art supplies to create their own turkey. We hang everyone’s creative turkeys on a bulletin board to remind us that there is no a right or wrong way to create an artistic interpretation.
I begin to generate excitement about Strega Nona by identifying the Caldecott Honor medal on its cover. Next, I locate Italy on a world map and briefly define the folktale genre, then read the story aloud. Sometimes I play the audio edition, which is read by Peter Hawkins. His excellent narration and the production’s musical accompaniment enhance the story wonderfully.
Since this is the first dePaola book I share with kindergarteners, I take time to introduce dePaola himself to children. We all walk over to the shelf where his books are in the library; I hold up a photograph of dePaola and tell students, “This is one of my very favorite author-illustrators. I hope you will love his books too!”
Next, I hand out my magic pot activity sheet and invite students to illustrate what they would want to fill their own magical pots with. Together, we read the poem “Strega Nona’s Magic Pasta Pot” by Susan Kilpatrick. Students who memorize the poem by the end of the month earn a special prize.
Over the course of the school year, my second graders read four of dePaola’s folktales, two in the fall semester and two in the spring. In the fall, we read The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush and The Legend of the Bluebonnet. Afterward, students work in pairs to compare and contrast the stories using a Venn diagram. In our next lesson, students use liquid watercolors to paint sunset skies.
In the spring, we study Ireland and read Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato and Jamie O’Rourke and the Pooka. We discuss how folktales usually include a lesson, then we identify the morals in the Jamie O’Rourke books. Sometimes we take a scientific approach and use potatoes to learn about the properties of osmosis, energy or simple machines.
It’s no surprise that Christmas was dePaola’s favorite holiday. His Christmas books provide the foundation for my December lessons. As we learn about customs around the world, I share The Legend of Old Befana (Italy), The Night of Los Posadas (Santa Fe, New Mexico) and The Legend of the Poinsettia (Mexico). We learn about American holiday traditions by reading An Early American Christmas, The Night Before Christmas and Tomie dePaola’s Christmas Tree Book. I find picture books that relate the biblical story of Christmas to be overly saccharine and sometimes inaccurate, but not so with dePaola’s reverent and luminous renditions. Start with The Story of the Three Wise Kings, The Birds of Bethlehem and The Friendly Beasts.
Religious and spiritual themes
In December, I read The Clown of God with my fourth graders. By this point, they have become familiar with dePaola books and are immediately excited when they see the book’s cover. Before we read, we locate Sorrento, Italy, on a map and briefly discuss the Italian Renaissance.
After they recover from the book’s moving ending, students reflect on their gifts and how these gifts can bring happiness to others. We discuss the character of Giovanni, and I invite students to share the value of older people in their personal lives and our community. Last, we use tissue paper and contact paper to create stained-glass cards in a nod to the round stained-glass windows in the book’s illustrations for grandparents or other important older adults.
Mother Goose and other collections
Never assume that kindergartners begin school knowing nursery rhymes. Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose illustrates rhymes collected by English folklorists Peter and Iona Opie. Use the collection to practice oral language skills. My favorite oral language exercises are echoing (I read a line and students repeat it), clapping (clap the rhyming words) and act-it-out activities. Many nursery rhyme collections represent cultures around the world. Use dePaola’s collection as your anchor text but share several additional titles with students. Some of my favorites are Susan Middleton Elya and Juana Martinez-Neal's La Madre Goose, Nina Crews' The Neighborhood Mother Goose and Salley Mavor's Pocketful of Posies. Be sure to display them in your classroom’s reading nook.
Is there a snack more beloved than popcorn? Tomie dePaola's The Popcorn Book explains the history and science behind this amazing confection. It’s an ideal book for collaboration across grades.
I begin by giving older students (I’ve done this with both third and fourth graders) a pre-quiz to see how much they know about popcorn. Once we've read the book together, I divide students into small groups and assign each group an area of popcorn history to research. The groups are responsible for synthesizing and restating the information in The Popcorn Book as well as their own research in language that can be understood by younger students. Students add their information to an oversized class timeline.
Together, we work on public speaking skills. When we’re finished, I invite a younger class to “pop” into the classroom for a popcorn party where the older students present the history of popcorn. It’s so neat to watch older students teaching the younger students, and of course, I provide a popcorn snack for everyone!