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Children’s book artists Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi keep the focus on fun

  • Maquettes made by Phil Tippett, based on illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi’s drawings for “The Spiderwick Chronicles” film, are part of the colorful array of treasures in the DiTerlizzis’ Amherst home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Tony DiTerlizzi shows a puzzle based on his drawing "A Golden Afternoon." A Holyoke company will soon be releasing a line of puzzles based on a selection of DiTerlizzi’s illustrations. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • This prototype of a “beetle fairy” will be part of a large mobile Tony DiTerlizzi has designed as part of a retrospective exhibit of his art, opening in November at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • “The Spiderwick Chronicles” illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi sketches in his home studio in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A sketch by illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi features notes about coloring. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Tony DiTerlizzi often collects pine cones, leaves and other natural materials when he goes for a walk; he uses the objects as inspiration for the shape of some of his illustrations. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Wood artist Richard Dunbrack designed this exotic art supply cabinet for DiTerlizzi after the illustrator told Dunbrack he wanted something “totally ridiculous” for storing his materials. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Children's books author Angela DiTerlizzi was once a freelance makeup artist; among her clients were the heavy metal band Metallica. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • In this photo, Angela DiTerlizzi  poses with one of her more famous makeup clients, Bill Clinton; she had prepared the president for a TV shot in New York during his second term of office. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Angela DiTerlizzi’s traveling case from when she worked as a freelance makeup artist. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The view from the back porch of Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi's Amherst home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The spooky/funny touches in Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi's dining room, like wallpaper with goblin faces, were designed by Angela. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Angela DiTerlizzi's personal bathroom counter is filled with a variety of makeup that she’s kept from her days as a makeup artist in the entertainment industry. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A “gelfling” doll, based on a puppet from the 1982 film “The Dark Crystal,” has a prominent place in the library of the DiTerlizzis’ Amherst home. The wig and costume are the originals from the film. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The library of Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi’s Amherst home, where they often start their day with a cup of coffee. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A custom-made art supply cabinet made by Richard Dunbrack for Tony DiTerlizzi; the design was inspired by the illustrations in DiTerlizzi’s books. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A schedule board, in the DiTerlizzis’ basement, helps them and their studio manager keep track of their administrative tasks. 

  • Tony DiTerlizzi and Angela DiTerlizzi have a go on one of the arcade games in their basement.binet machine Oct. 12, 2017 at their Amherst home.

  • Tony DiTerlizzi plays a round on his Elton John Captain Fantastic pinball machine, circa 1975, in the basement of his Amherst home.

  • Angela DiTerlizzi, her husband says, is an ace at the controls; the couple sometimes take a break from work to play Pac-Man and pinball.



Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2017

For Tony DiTerlizzi, childhood is never that far away. The Amherst-based artist still recalls how, when he was in the fifth grade and struggling to write a report on Beverly Cleary’s “The Mouse and the Motorcycle,” his teacher suggested he make some drawings based on the book — and suddenly the story made sense to him.

Fast forward about 38 years, and DiTerlizzi has carved out quite a career from drawing. There’s the 2003 Caldecott Medal he received for the picture book “The Spider and the Fly,” for instance, and the acclaim he has won as illustrator and co-creator of the “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” the popular middle-grade series of fantasy books that was made into a 2008 film (his friend and co-creator, Holly Black, also of Amherst, wrote the text).

Tony DiTerlizzi also collaborated with his good friend, Northampton children’s writer Mo Willems, on a bestselling picture book, “The Story of Diva & Flea,” and he has created hundreds of images for games like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. He has made his mark in particular with his detailed portraits of all manner of imaginary creatures: fairies, trolls, dwarves, elves and other figures from fantasy worlds.

And aside from offering him important feedback and other support for his work, Angela DiTerlizzi, his wife, has made her mark over the last several years as a children’s author, with eight picture and board books for young readers to her credit. That’s a new direction for her: She previously worked as a freelance makeup artist, preparing clients as varied as former President Bill Clinton and Metallica for TV and magazine shoots.

With two people so heavily invested in telling stories for children, it’s no wonder their home is something of a shrine to childhood and to children’s art. From a basement featuring arcade games, Star Wars action figures and lots of children’s books (as well as Tony’s drawing table), to stairwells and hallways lined, salon-style, with original illustrations by famous children’s artists, their Amherst home exudes a distinct sense of playfulness.

We met with the DiTerlizzis, who are in their 40s, to talk about their careers, their role as parents to their 10-year-old daughter, Sophia, and what they like about living in the Valley since moving here 15 years ago from New York City. It’s a busy time for both — Tony has been preparing for a retrospective show of his work at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge and writing a new children’s book, and Angela just finished a new book, “I Wanna Be a Cowgirl” — but the couple had plenty to share.

Before we do anything else, what’s with those arcade games — a 1970s pinball machine with an image of Elton John on it, and a Pac-Man game — in one corner of the basement?

Angela: “I bought them both for Tony as birthday presents. It’s amazing what you can find online! (laughs) It’s one of those things, if you’re working at home and your creative space is here, why not be able to take a break at something in that spirit? They’re also a hit when friends come over, with their kids, too, or our daughter’s friends.”

Tony (on his love of Elton John): “I’ve had to wear glasses since I was in second grade. You remember glasses in the ’70s? They were horrible, clunky things. But then here’s this person on my mom and dad’s records who has giant glasses and everyone loves him and you think, ‘Oh, it worked out for him.’ When you’re a kid, you look for heroes in some unlikely places.”

What’s your daily routine like?

Tony: “After Sophia goes to school, we have a cup of coffee and talk about the day, what we have to get accomplished, what’s going on in the world or our lives. Just having someone you can talk to or even rant to, that’s really vital, just talking about what we’re feeling and thinking — it gets us charged up to kind of tackle the day.”

Angela: “We have a studio manager who really helps us stay organized and keep on top of the administrative stuff. We get to make the art and be creative, and she helps us organize the business of creativity. Tony’s real disciplined about doing his work … I work down [in the basement] a lot with my laptop.”

One of the most memorable things in your basement is this crazy art supply cabinet that looks like something from “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”

Tony: “That’s made by [Cape Cod wood artist] Richard Dunbrack, who uses a lot of reclaimed wood and other materials. I told him I wanted something totally ridiculous, and he asked me what I wanted it to look like. I just grabbed a copy of each of my books and said ‘There you go, you look through those and you’ll get what I’m about.’

He said, ‘Well, it’s gonna be about three months, I’ll call you when it’s ready.’ Three weeks later: ‘I’m done.’ It’s great, just made of all this stuff he thought would inspire me.” (The giant cabinet even has a built-in tramway for letting marbles roll from the top to bottom.)

To Angela: How did you go from makeup artist to children’s writer? 

Angela: “I moved to a town where no one wears makeup! (laughs) I didn’t grow up in a household with many books — we moved around a lot — but I loved music, loved hearing lyrics and storytelling. When I met T [Tony], I rediscovered this missing literary childhood … eventually I started writing and thinking of rhymes and story ideas.”

Tony: “She knows how to write rhymes — I can’t. And she’s really good at writing short; she’s helped me pare down the manuscript for my new book (‘The Broken Ornament’).”

To Tony: What are some of the biggest inspirations for your work?

Tony: “A big part was the ‘Golden Age’ of children’s books from the early 1900s, particularly in Britain. I still have a memory of my mom reading ‘Winnie the Pooh’ to me and being curled up next to her and seeing those little ink drawings by Ernest Shepard. Then there was Arthur Rackham and the Grimm Fairy Tales.

There’s also Brian Froud and Alan Lee (he pulls out a copy of ‘Faeries,’ their seminal book of fantasy illustrations from the mid 1980s). This is just a spectacular book that brought fairies to life in a way I’d never seen before. It was hugely influential on ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles.’ ”

What else do you guys like to do when you’re home?

Angela: “We play a lot of board games with Sophia and with friends: The Great Dalmuti, Arcadia Quest, Uno, Ticket to Ride, and the old standards like Monopoly, Life. We do a lot of puzzles, too. Living [in the Valley] really lends itself to that kind of thing, just finding a way to enjoy the pace of life and the countryside and not get overwhelmed with work.”

Tony: “We’re trying to teach moderation by not being on our phones all the time, just the idea of saying ‘Hey, let’s all watch a movie together, let’s play a board game together.’ This is part of what you do, and it’s genuine. We’re not doing it to make a point; we’ve always been that way.”

Your basement has other odes to kids’ stuff, like maquettes of some of the creatures from “The Spiderwick Chronicles” and model WWI planes hanging from the ceiling. But the dining room and library upstairs have unusual touches, too, like a recreation of a animatronic puppet from the 1982 fantasy film “The Dark Crystal.”

Angela: “We both grew up in south Florida, and we loved the haunted mansion at Disney World, so we had [Valley painter] Jonathan Kohrman create this silkscreened wallpaper in the living room” (the dark paper is full of goblins and fairies, and heavy drapes on the two windows add to the spooky effect).

Tony: “ ‘The Dark Crystal’ was directed by Jim Henson. It was hugely influential on me. Our puppet has the original wig and costume from the movie. Wendy Froud (Brian Froud’s wife) was the puppet builder for the film — she also made Yoda from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ — and she sculpted a new doll for us from wire and foam.”

And let’s not forget the bathroom in the basement, which has some interesting stuff on the walls.

Tony: “Yeah, we invited our artist friends, children’s book illustrators, to draw on the walls. There’s nothing truly inappropriate there. That’s Mo Willems right by the toilet, and Diane deGroat, Jon Klassen, Brian Froud … it makes for a pretty entertaining look.”

Angela: “And will still have the obligatory books on the back of the toilet as well.”

Tell us about your upcoming retrospective exhibit at the Normal Rockwell Museum. It sounds like there will be some special parts, like a huge mobile of fantasy creatures, as well as some of your earliest art. 

Tony: “It’s been a lot of work, but I want it to be special. I want it to be more than just art hanging on the walls. But [curator] Jesse [Kowalski] and I also wanted children to be able to come in and see themselves in the art, kind of a “I can draw that” feeling, so we have things that I made when I was a kid. It can be a little overwhelming when you walk into a museum and you see these beautiful paintings and drawings, and you don’t know how that person got there … so [the early art] is kind of a demystifying process.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Tony DiTerlizzi’s website is diterlizzi.com. His exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum, “Never Abandon Imagination,” runs from Nov. 11 to May 18, 2018; more information is available at nrm.org.

Angela DiTerlizzi’s website is angeladiterlizzi.com.