In an entry he wrote for Children’s Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, legendary author-illustrator Tomie dePaola recalls advice he was given as an illustration student at Pratt Institute in the 1950s. One of his instructors, Richard Lindner, had told the students:
What Lindner and some of dePaola’s other instructors were talking about, specifically, was an artist’s style and how to discover it. They all seemed to agree: it’s an elusive thing, finding a style of one’s own.
DePaola is, without any doubt, one of contemporary illustration’s most distinctive and popular artists with a style easily recognizable and largely adored. In reading his slim, new picture book for young readers, Look and Be Grateful, one can see the influence of Lindner’s advice—not only via dePaola’s signature style of artwork, but in the words of the book itself, which is a fitting read for a day, like today, of giving thanks.
The hand-lettered text is very spare (though large on the page), asking readers to observe, just as Lindner once advised the young artist. “Open your eyes, and look,” the book opens. See. Say thank you. Have gratitude. Today is a gift, dePaola writes. In the illustrations, we see a boy with bright blue-green eyes. He observes the world around him, primarily the natural world. He sees the sun in the window, and he sets a ladybug free.
A white dove, a symbol of peace, is also part of the aesthetic. An orange tree dominates one spread, and the boy later gives an orange to a young girl (perhaps his sister) as a gift. Oranges can symbolize many things in literature, but perhaps dePaola, whose books often include religious symbolism (and who, according to this piece from David Mehegan, has also created liturgical art in churches), intended for the fruit to serve as a reminder of life and new beginnings. After all, in China—particularly at Chinese New Year—the fruit can represent such concepts, as well as prosperity and prayers for good fortune. Indeed, at the book’s close, the boy and girl are on their knees in prayer, the dove right at the boy’s side and the orange at the girl’s.
The Kirkus reviewer for this book notes that dePaola “has been moving toward an ever more simple and radiant aesthetic, as his pictures become increasingly iconic and his colors, as on this beautiful tea-stained paper, become as translucent as glass.” It’s an astute observation. Think of such books as 2011’s Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise, another one with a palette that is, on the whole, slightly more muted than his earlier books. Look and Be Grateful is graceful in its simplicity and an open-ended book, one that slows down to invite contemplation and discussion. No time for busyness here, either via the art or design or text.
It’s not a book with a long list of items for which either dePaola is grateful or for which he thinks his readers should be thankful. That book would be easier, in many ways, to do. Instead, it’s a wide-open invitation to be aware, to be in the moment. “For today is today,” he writes. He even encourages readers to be grateful for “everything” they see. Both of these concepts are almost Zen-like in nature: Focus on the moment at hand, no matter what it is. Focus on what’s around you. See it. What you see are gifts, even if you don’t recognize them as such at first.
“[T]oday is a gift and I am / ready to receive you,” writes Kathryn Starbuck in her poem, “A Gift.” DePaola is primed and ready, too, and suggests to children that they do the same in this lovely little prayer of a book.
It’s something to think about, no matter our religious bent (or not), as we eat our pumpkin pie today.
LOOK AND BE GRATEFUL. Copyright © 2015 by Tomie dePaola. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Holiday House, New York.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.