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Valenti Angelo (1897-1982)

UNTIL I WAS EIGHT YEARS OLD I LIVED IN MASSA Tuscany, Italy, a small village nestled on the richly foliaged slope of the Little Alps in northern Italy. My home faced the checkered corn and rice fields in the lowlands, and in the west, from my window, I could always see the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean.

My early school days were interesting. A solemnshaved monk taught the village children. In a corner of the white-washed walls of the small room he always kept a row of willow switches. It was seldom, however, fiat he ever used one. He was a most kind and patient teacher, and taught us how to understand the golden rule.

I became interested in drawing at an early age. It was Jacabo, the village wood carver, who first took an interest in me when he saw some drawings I had made. From then on I was allowed to go to his shop and to stay as long as I wished. "Do it all over again," he would say. "Do it until there's nothing more to do with it. And always do your best."

Of course I spent much time in our little church too. It was decorated with many fine religious paintings by old masters. Seeing the work of these artists helped to steer my course toward a love for drawing. I remember vividly my childhood in the little village.

In 1905 I was brought to America and lived for a brief period on New York's Bleecker Street. My stay in the Little Italy of the great metropolis also made a vivid impression on me. When I returned to New York thirtyeight years later I was amazed to find how much I remembered. And it was on this street that I set the scene for my story The Bells of Bleecker Street, which tells of Italian family life in New York's Latin Quarter.

Shortly after my arrival at Bleecker Street my family moved to a small town in California. My first two years were spent in school, and then I had to work in the fields. At fifteen I worked in a paper mill, and later in rubber, steel, and glass works as a laborer. There I spent my lunch and after work hours drawing the things around me. Every day it was great fun to find so many new things to draw. Some of the laborers encouraged me and bought my drawings, thus providing the money with which I bought paper and colored pencils. Others tried to discourage my endeavors. But I had faith in my pursuit of the joys of finding new things to draw. I loved every minute of it, and kept right on.

At nineteen, after I left the small town and went to live in San Francisco, new vistas opened for me. It is true that I continued to work as a laborer, but I haunted the libraries at night and the art museums on Sundays, and from these institutions I learned a great deal that my few school years had failed to provide. In between times, being of a rather sensitive nature, I underwent many harrowing experiences. But now as I look back upon them, I believe it was all for the good. For even it the time of the most trying hardships, my faith in my direction remained unbroken. I made many pilgrimages looking for work in the art field. After much struggle, I was hired by a photo-engraving firm where I did any sort of art work that came into the shop. With my first week's wages ($10.00), I bought a new box of oil paints and a smock. And much to the amusement of and sincere encouragement from the head of the firm, I had at last established myself as an artist. I worked there three years.

On July 23, 1923, I married Maxine Grimm. We have two children, Valdine and Peter. The first is an artist-author and the latter a musician who plays the oboe and English horn in various symphony orchestras.

In 1926 I made my first illustrations for a book for the now famous Grabhorn Press in San Francisco, printers and publishers of fine books. In the past thirty four years I have decorated and illustrated some two hundred and fifty books, both contemporary and classic. All have been a source of inspiration to do many more. Among these works are the folio edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, The Voyages and Travels of Maundiville, and many books from the Bible. Since 1927, thirty-seven of these books have been included in the annual American Institute of Graphic Arts exhibitions. Since 1933 I have been a free-lance author and artist in New York.

It was not until 1937 that I turned to writing stories for children. It was partly through the inspiration of my own children, who were very fond of stories. But mostly I was encouraged by Miss May Massee, editor Viking Press, through whose guidance I found an outlet for my expression. For it was one afternoon after had delivered a set of illustrations for my first children's book, Roller Skates, that Miss Massee detained me in her office and told me that I ought to write a story for children. "With my schooling!" I exclaimed. "A story about what?" "Your childhood memories of Italy," she answered. "I know you can do it!"

So I went home and began to write the story Nino. I shall never forget the encouragement and understanding my first editor gave me. Not only did writing open up new vistas to me, but it brought back to life old and precious memories that had been dormant in me for many years. It brought back to me things which are the beauty, the dreams, and the happiness of all childhood. Nino tells of my own life in a Tuscan village before I came to America. It was followed by a sequel, Golden Gate (1938), a story of an Italian family making a new home in a new land, really an account of Nino's early days in America. The horse and buggy days, and those of barefoot boys and dusty roads, peaceful rivers, and graceful mountains, and rich fields of golden grain and vineyards, and the invasion of the four-wheeled carriages.

Viking Press also published the books which followed: Paradise Valley (1940), a story of Mexican migrant workers; Hill of Little Miracles (1942); Look Out Yonder (1943); The Rooster Club (1944); The Bells of Bleecker Street (1949); The Marble Fountain (1951), a story of two war orphans from a bombed village, it treats of faith and reconstruction among the people there, Big Little Island (1955), a story also concerned with the readjustment of a sensitive war orphan who finds himself in the great metropolis of New York City, it deals with his loneliness and his fears, and his desire to become an artist; The Acorn Tree (1958), a story of a greedy bluejay, it is my first picture book written and illustrated for very young children. In The Honey Boat (1959), I go again to Italy for theme and setting, a quiet village on the river Po. It is a story of sorrow, joy, and adventure concerning a family of bee raisers and candle makers. The Candy Basket (1960), a short story of an inquisitive mouse that becomes involved with a banquet, expressly written for the very young.

All my stories are largely derived from my own experiences coupled with some sprinkling of fiction. Many of the characters in them are actual persons I have known. It is my conviction that all stories for children should be told simply and sincerely in a manner which contributes to their better understanding of life in an ever-changing world; the sorrow, love, hate, and happiness around them.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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