AUTHOR + ILLUSTRATOR: Tomie De Paola
PUBLISHED BY: Holiday House, 1995
In anticipation of the feast of the Immaculate Conception, let’s focus on Mary. This is, by far, the most remarkable, beautiful, moving, joyful, present picture book dealing with the life of Mary that I have ever seen. It breaks my heart that it is no longer in print.
I would be hard pressed to pick a true favorite of Tomie de Paola’s books. But this beautiful book is high on my list, not only of his work but of all children’s books. As usual, de Paola manages to blend the story of our Faith with true artistic merit, all the while making these stories accessible to children. It is as much a prayerful meditation as it is a story book.
Incorporating scripture and tradition, along with meditations from the antiphons of different Marian feast days, de Paola presents various important scenes from Mary’s life. The text alone is well written and engaging — a lovely adaptation of the words of the Gospel. Facing each page of text is a corresponding icon of Mary — showing her first as a young girl, then a bride (above), then the wondrous girl receiving the message of an angel, on through the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and her Assumption into Heaven.
In his introductory note, he says: “When I was an art student in 1956, I saw the Giotto frescoes of the life of Mary in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. I knew that some day I would attempt my own visual version of Mary’s life. I have drawn on scripture, legend, and tradition for this praise of Mary the mother of Jesus.” These drawings are done in de Paola’s simple, clear, earthy style, so well adapted to religious elements. (I especially love his St. Joseph–solid yes gentle.) Above we see Mary comforted by St. John at the foot of the cross. It is not Caravaggio, but does not fail to move our hearts, evoking the pain and sorrow of that day.
My favorite illustration is of her betrothal to St. Joseph (above). He directly evokes Giotto’s fresco of the same image with the arch and buildings in the background, and the lily-staff in St. Joseph’s hand. They sky is that same deep azure and his use of perspective is similar. This image sums up what I love about de Paola: he knows all the classical motifs, techniques, and vocabulary, and he incorporates them into his work with his own style and voice.
Perhaps the most striking illustration is (above) the mother’s weeping over the death of the Holy Innocents. Above this is the antiphon: “A voice was heard in Rama, moaning and wailing, Rachel weeping for her children.” On the facing page is a beautiful image of Mary and the Christ Child, playing with a dove. From a young and impressionable age, I remember latching on to this heartbreaking story. It was presented to me well by my parents, and I have come to love the Holy Innocents more than almost any other Martyrs. Some parents may shy away from sharing this story, but I encourage you not to do so. De Paola presents it in the proper way: showing the sorrow and pain — evoking great pathos — and yet focusing on the beauty, joy and glory of their sacrifice. It is truly remarkable. This book is indeed a work of praise, and I encourage you all to track it down.