Barbara DiLorenzo is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Renato and the Lion. She teaches at the Arts Council of Princeton and she lives in New Jersey.
Q: You write that Renato and the Lion was inspired by your son's reaction to a stone lion on a family trip to Italy. How did that experience turn into this picture book?
A: For years and years I sketched a stone lion coming to life for a little boy. But I had trouble putting their story into a context that made sense. Everything seemed like an adventurous romp–but for what purpose. I even tried to write a novel, but 80 pages in, I realized that didn’t work either.
The plot came together when I learned about World War II Florence, and how the Italian people bricked over their sculptures to protect them from harm. When I had that information, the plot fell into place almost magically. But I had been waiting for a good six years, struggling and sketching, for all that time.
Q: Can you say more about why you decided to set the book during World War II?
A: A Jewish friend of mine suggested that a World War II story might be difficult to stand out from the collection of quality books already available. She offered that maybe the story take place at a different time, where lions would still be revered, such as ancient Babylon. But I knew the Italian culture and history better, and the specifics of the art preservation.
I wondered if her comment had another meaning–as I’m not Jewish. I thought about whether I had the right to tell the story of a family fleeing from persecution for being Jewish. After extensive research, I made sure that Renato could have been either a Jewish refugee from Italy or another country, or from a Christian family that supported the resistance.
As an ode to my research, and because he was such a fantastic human in saving so many lives, I put a portrait of Gino Bartali in the title page. The renowned cyclist kept training throughout the war, and local police never bothered to check his bicycle as he made his way from town to town.
Inside the shaft, he smuggled fake documents to give to new refugee families in various towns. He quietly worked with a priest and a rabbi, and kept it quiet for most of his life.
But there is a new documentary on his life which is fascinating to watch: My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes (2014).
Q: Did you write the story before doing the illustrations, or did you work on both at the same time?
A: I began with sketches for six years. Then tried to write a novel. Then I went back to sketches for a graphic novel. Then I drew out 50 pages with no words for the Bologna Silent Book Contest in 2014. This dummy is what sold, so we added the words after the fact. My editor, Tracy, is the main force behind the text as it is in the book.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: I hope that little children that are not yet aware of the specifics of World War II take away a sense that they will be cared for even in tough times. And that those tough times don’t last forever. For the older audience, I hope that the story gives hope that even in dark times, good still can take place.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have another historical fiction mixed with fantasy book in progress about the young Leonardo da Vinci. I learned that he came from a broken home, and the art studio was the first place, under artist Verrocchio, that he felt at home.
I love the idea that the most famous artist persevered from a rough beginning. I just read that his painting of Salvator Mundi broke records and sold for $450.3 million!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: For writers and illustrators young and old, the only answer to getting published: don’t stop. Don’t stop writing, drawing, thinking, being inspired. There will be down days. Rejection takes the wind out of all our sails. But don’t stop. With time, my firm belief is that we are all able to find our voice. Just don’t stop.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb