As a parent, when your hair isn't on fire, you are likely surrounded by the blare of, say, The Octonauts ("Creature report! Creature report!"). Life is wall-to-wall activities and noise; you're alway hurrying to or from something. Sometimes I feel like my job as a mom of three comes down to managing my kids' time, and the one piece that never seems to fit into our days is quiet. That was until a magical book waltzed into my life: Tomie dePaola's book Quiet just came out, and it's everything I needed to slow down and appreciate the simple moments. The rare children's book that creates a pathway for children to experience what we over-programmed adults term "mindfulness." Romper spoke with dePaola by phone about how he did it.
Quiet (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) tells the story of a grandfather and two grandkids. They are out for a walk, and notice just how busy everyone is, from the dog, to a frog in a pond, to the ants and the bees. Basically it sums up how I feel day to day, hurrying through our routine, stressing about the news, trying to get work done. But then the grandfather suggests something radical: why don't they just sit on a bench and just be. They just watch the world go by and appreciate the moments of calm that have been there all along.
It's a gorgeous book, really. Every part of it — from the typeface, to the illustrations (which have dePaola's signature style, albeit a quieter tone), to the expansive white pages — feels tranquil. Part of the reason it feels so different to other children's books is the intent.
DePaola speaks to that feeling. "Now, I think what’s happening with books, they’re becoming almost like toys, the illustrations tend to be decorative. This isn’t all books, this is just a trend," he says, explaining that stories today tend to be more "slight" — less of a journey. "I got a little worried that I was a dinosaur, because I actually like to tell stories."
He has been telling stories since 1965, when he illustrated a volume of Science Is What And Why. The following year, he wrote and illustrated The Wonderful Dragon of Timlin, published by Bobbs-Merrill. From there, he became wildly prolific. You might know his Strega Nona series, or the Tomie's Little... books.
We would just all sit. We wouldn’t be jabbering: 'Oh move. Turn the page.' We’d just sit quietly and she’d go through a wonderful book.
He thinks that there will always be a place for "quiet" picture books. And since I enjoy spending quiet time reading with my children, I tend to agree. Of course, my kids love a funny, potty-humored story. (They especially love Skeleton Cat for all the rhythmic language, and Captain Underpants for the... underpants.) As dePaola said of this type of trend, "Any time you get a book into a kid’s hands it works. But I would hate to see books that have longer text get ignored, because that means you’re throwing out things like Where The Wild Things Are or you’re throwing out these beautifully illustrated tales like Trina Schart Hyman's Little Red Riding Hood. Books that are beautiful art."
Mindfulness as a trend has reached a sort of peak in 2018, buoyed by the greater wellness trend, and dePaola believes it is important. He meditates every morning and says that, more and more, it is an integral part of his day. If he doesn't have the moments of calm and quiet, he really feels like something is missing. He encourages parents everywhere to keep an eye out for places where mindfulness can be built into the day. His recommendation is to take a moment before you sit down to dinner — you can choose that moment to have a little contemplative silence. You can say grace. Or you can just try and notice the food, and your place settings. Just observe for a moment. Of course, he also hopes that bedtime is a nice contemplative time. "My mother would just sit down on the sofa with all of us [me and my two younger sister] together, and quietly read to us," he recalls. "And we would just all sit. We wouldn’t be jabbering: 'Oh move. Turn the page.' We’d just sit quietly and she’d go through a wonderful book. Maybe it was a book we loved, or maybe it was just a story. I was the one who would just zone off, and I’d be Jack and the Beanstalk, you know?"
Looking back on his childhood with some distance, this kind of family ritual is, if anything, more important to him now. "I think that it would be wonderful that with everything going on there’s so much busy-ness it would be nice if a family would say 'OK it’s our absolute quiet time' and we all just sat for five minutes," he says.
I used to just find myself in stories that I was making up.
He hopes that even the busiest of kids will find joy in quiet moments. He, himself, was busy. He tells me he was always running, skipping, pretending, playing. Except on rainy days in his family's home in Connecticut.
"The attic was sort of our rainy day playroom and I would go up there ... and just sit there and look out the window at the mountains for hours at a time," he recalls of those indoor days with their quiet energy. "My mother knew, if she couldn’t find me, she knew where to find me. And I would just go up there and I would fantasize or just think and I used to just find myself in stories that I was making up. And just having adventures in a way. But it was always very quiet and very kind of the opposite of the rest of my day. "
Books have long been a way to escape. One of my greatest joys is reading a picture book for the first time. I always read it to myself before I invite the kids to read it with me. A lot of times, I flip through a new book fairly quickly, just getting enough of the gist to do a first reading of it well. But this one was different. From the first spread, I felt as if dePaola was inviting me to take my time, to notice each detail. And, in fact, that first spread, as busy as it is, invites the reader to take it all in. My eyes moved from the butterflies to the bees, around the flowers, and finally noticing a mole, a worm, and a mouse.
As Quiet goes on, and the characters become still and observant, the illustrations really become peaceful, and the design of the spreads does as well. There is a lot of room to breathe. To just be. When I read this to my kids, I took my time with the page turns. Which is, in fact, something that dePaola hopes every reader will take their time with.
Pondering the difference pace and mindset of this book and talking to dePaola (I could tell just by the sound of his voice that he was smiling), I started to worry that most of my kids' "quiet" moments take place with their faces buried in a screen. I realized that I want my kids to have time to think and dream. Not only is meditation and mindfulness good for you, but I remember my imagination being the source of hours of amusement when I was a kid. Something that led to my becoming a writer. And I still dream. A lot.
Knowing my family found a moment to breathe as we read Quiet, I asked dePaola what his hope is for readers who pick up his book.
"I’m hoping that everyone picks up the book... and just try and sit and look. And just be and see what happens. Just turn everything off for a minute. You don’t need to become a Buddhist monk. You don’t have to learn how to do meditation. Just sit. Just sit."