Award-winning author-illustrator Tomie dePaola, widely known for his stylized folk-art illustrations and vast catalogue of popular picture books, died March 30 at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., of complications from surgery following a fall. He was 85.
Thomas Anthony “Tomie” dePaola was born September 15, 1934 in Meriden, Conn. He credited his mother’s consistent reading aloud to him every night as a great influence, stating in an interview with Something About the Author that the experience “had a lot to do with my decision to become an artist. She would read the old fairy tales and legends, especially during World War II, when my father was working the graveyard shift at a war plant job.”
DePaola recounted many episodes from his childhood—and his colorful Italian and Irish family members—in picture books like Nana Upstairs and Downstairs (Putnam, 1973) and in his 26 Fairmount Avenue series of autobiographical chapter books. The first of those, 26 Fairmount Avenue (Putnam, 1999) was awarded a 2000 Newbery Honor.
He had a love for drawing early on and also began writing poetry during middle school. He pursued his talent for both throughout his school years and earned a scholarship to Pratt Institute in New York. While in art school he discovered an appreciation for such artists as Matisse as well as for such iconic religious artists as Botticelli, and for folk art as well—all of which can be seen as influences on his children’s book illustration.
DePaola graduated from Pratt in 1956 with a B.F.A. and then went to Vermont where he continued his art while living in a small Benedictine monastery. Following his time there, dePaola embarked on an art career, which including teaching art and theater to college students and doing design, painting, and illustration projects. In 1965, he published his first book as the illustrator of Sound by Lisa Miller (Coward McCann, 1965). The first book he both wrote and illustrated followed a year later, The Wonderful Dragon of Timlin (Bobbs-Merrill,1966). These titles kicked off what would be a very prolific career.
In the midst of producing his early picture books, dePaola had headed west and earned his M.F.A. at California College of Arts and Crafts in 1969 as well as a doctorate equivalency from Lone Mountain College. By 1971 he had crossed the country again and settled in a small town in New Hampshire, which was his home base for many years, where he worked out of a renovated 200-year-old barn.
Strega Nona: An Old Tale (Prentice-Hall, 1975) launched what was perhaps his best known series of picture books, and follows the humorous adventures of kindly Italian witch Strega Nona and her hapless assistant Big Anthony. That title won a Caldecott Honor in 1976.
In all, dePaola created more than 270 books for children which have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. Among the copious accolades he received over the years are the New Hampshire Governor’s Arts Award for Living Treasure the Smithson Medal from the Smithsonian Institution and the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota.
DePaola produced much of his work during a 20-year exclusive global contract with Putnam, and following that term had embarked on a new, very full chapter of his career. In 2015, he celebrated his 50th year in publishing and in a PW interview marking that milestone, he spoke of his book Look and Be Grateful (Holiday House, 2015) and shared information on a burst of projects including The Magical World of Strega Nona treasury (Putnam, 2015) and a slate of new and reissued picture books from Simon & Schuster, including the Andy & Sandy series, his first-ever early reader books. In October 2018, his S&S title Quiet hit the New York Times bestseller list. At least 12 of dePaola’s books are being published in new or refreshed editions in 2020 by a variety of publishers. Among those is The Cloud Book, which was originally published in 1975 and reissued by Holiday House earlier this month.
In the same PW interview, dePaola reflected on his life and career. “With [Look and Be Grateful], I want to show children what gratefulness is, because I’m concerned that it has become lost at the moment,” he said “I’ve made so many great friendships and relationships along the way, and now, in my sage years, I am thankful every day for being where I am.”
Doug Whiteman, dePaola’s agent, former publisher, and longtime friend, offered this remembrance: “My memories of times spent with Tomie could quite literally fill a book, although perhaps not one intended for children. Plucking a fairly recent one from the air, I was visiting Tomie’s house shortly after his mini-tour for Quiet, which had made the New York Times bestseller list. Tomie didn't like to brag, but in close company he could let it be known that he was well-pleased with such an accomplishment. At this time he was often wheeled around in a wheelchair, even to go across the courtyard from his studio to his house. As we talked late into the night, I mentioned the incredible autumn he had just experienced: a show at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, a presentation at the Guggenheim in New York, a sold-out signing tour, and that Times bestseller. Tomie literally got up from his chair, danced across the room, and skipped up some steps to get me another drink. Diminished as he was physically, sheer joy and spirit lifted him and made him young again—and Tomie never really grew old.”
For a collection of tributes to Tomie dePaola by his friends and colleagues in the industry, click here.