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