Award-winning author-illustrator Tomie dePaola, widely known for his stylized folk-art illustrations and vast catalogue of popular picture books, died on March 30 of complications from surgery following a fall. Here we have gathered tributes to him from authors, colleagues, and friends.
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.
Tomie was such a towering and beloved figure in so many of our lives and we are so devastated to lose him. Some of my fondest memories were working with him at his home in New Hampshire. If you worked with Tomie you were lucky enough to get invited to his wonderful home and have him cook you dinner. He made an excellent meat loaf and an amazing lemon pasta. We’d sit for hours at his table talking about art, film, and food. There were always great stories from his past, great gossip, and so many laughs. Then you’d wake up early — so early after the late night before — and cross the courtyard from his house to his barn and spend the day working together on the newest story. He had such energy. He was such a font of knowledge about art and culture and religion. He loved the richness of life and appreciated all its mysteries and miracles. So, a day spent working with Tomie was a day steeped in appreciation for life’s beauty, the wonders of history, the glory of storytelling, and topped off by the satisfaction of breaking bread and laughing together — it was a day full of the best life has to offer.
I’ve known Tomie for roughly 25 years, and he was one of those people you just thought would be around forever,” he said. “He absolutely exuded life, and had such a mischievous spirit that of course the very best stories about him could never be put in print! But what I can say is that 10 years ago, Tomie came to Simon & Schuster to begin a new publishing partnership at a time in his life when most authors and illustrators have already retired. Not only was it a wonderful experience for all of us who got to interact with Tomie, but Tomie himself seemed to thrive, producing some of his most joyous work. And even as he turned 85, he was showing no signs of slowing down, with nearly a dozen projects in the pipeline. I know this is the only thing that could have stopped Tomie from turning in his next book, and that’s exactly as he would have wanted it. He was truly a legend in children’s literature, and it’s just hard to imagine that he’s gone.”
Kate’s [Briggs] and my relationship with Tomie began in 1970 and lasted more than 45 years and over 35 titles that lit up our list big-time. His friendship was unwavering, as was his loyalty.
All the people I ever met who knew Tomie felt their lives had been enriched by the experience. Tomie was brimming with creativity, good will, and a true joie de vivre, which he gleefully spread in every direction. His art was inspired by both the great Renaissance painters as well as the folk art he collected, yet all his own. His mastery of color was extraordinary. His work ethic was inspiring.
I first met Tomie dePaola back in the 1970s when he delivered a keynote speech to the newly formed SCBWI. He read us The Clown of God and had every person in the room in tears. That moment turned into a profound lifelong friendship, both personal and professional. Tomie joined the Board of Advisors of the SCBWI, and became an ardent advocate for illustrators; he was responsible for putting the I in SCBWI (before that, it was just the Society of Children’s Book Writers). As a mentor, he established our first master class program. He created, judged, and funded an award for illustrators, which lives on today as the Narrative Art Award. He spoke at all our conferences over a lifetime, donated his art to our charities, and of course, illustrated the first full-color cover of our Bulletin. He is a pillar of the SCBWI. When he rose to the top, he sent the elevator down to bring up the next person, all the while creating over 200 beautiful, meaningful and personal books. Tomie’s body of work reflects the joy he took in life—in food, family, friends, spirituality, celebrations, cultures, music, art, theater, animals, children, and living life to the brim.
Tomie often said that an artist creates beauty in his own life, not just in his work. He practiced that to full effect, creating his yearly exquisite Christmas trees, wearing unique scarves and glasses, crafting his homemade pizza dough, building his beautiful sitting room looking out on his flower-filled meadows. To be in his presence was a treat for the eye and the senses. Then add to that the contagious ring of his robust laughter, and you have a recipe for the perfect friend.
Tomie was dance and music and color and wit and theater. He crafted all of these elements into his art, layering them in just the right amounts depending on the story, and created books that were beautiful but also spoke to the soul of a child. He understood the minds of children, their desire to discover, their need for respect. While I’ve never known anyone whose laugh resonated as deeply as Tomie’s, he wasn’t all light and sparkle (though he certainly was those!) He was also profound and thoughtful about the peaks and valleys of his life. He had his woes.
But I learned from him and was profoundly inspired by how he got through—no, how he grew—during difficult times. He spoke of being young and gay in the 1940s and 1950s and the blatant discrimination he faced, the horrible losses of family he loved and friends who were his chosen family, and painful low points in his long career. But he always had hope. The last time I spoke with him was on Sunday, March 21. I asked him about the unsettling and unknown times we’re facing today. No offense, I said, but you’ve lived a long time and seen so much. (He laughed and said no offense taken—he’d earned his 85 years!) How did this horrific virus compare to anything he had experienced before? He said it’s nothing like what he has known, but he was hopeful. He spoke of wanting to use this time to look at things differently, to have more compassion for others, to rethink how we live our lives and come out better than we were before. I am devastated that he is gone and still can’t believe it. But as we face the future without him, I shall carry his hope, and his sparkle, with me every day.
As a very new editor, I was inexplicably handed the contract for Merry Christmas, Strega Nona. When I blurted out to Tomie that I had never edited a book, he was unfazed. Instead of insisting on the pro he deserved, he invited me to Whitebird and offered to give me a crash course in picture books. In spite of being intimidated, I gamely boarded a plane.
Tomie was both exacting and a true joy. He insisted on excellence because his work was for children and his approach to picture books was instinctive. We started with a long discussion about the story, followed by some research to double-check the details of our Italian Christmas memories. Tomie had perfect recall, making me realize the importance of remembering childhood events and emotions. I loved watching his hands as he sketched or spoke. Next, Tomie went off and worked alone on the text. He eventually handed it to me saying, “Read it several times, sometimes out loud, and don’t make any changes. Instead, just ask me questions about the rough spots.” With that, Tomie taught me fundamental respect for artists and their work. After numerous rounds, we had a rich and amazing manuscript. Then it seemed as if Tomie pushed the text off the table where it fell into perfect page breaks. Not really—it was just that he had an innate ability write a text that was a perfect read-aloud.
Months later when the book was published, I saw the dedication painted into the art: “To Maria, my editor and friend.” That gave me the confidence to edit more picture books by Tomie and by so many other talented authors and artists. Over the years, intimidation changed to affection and Tomie has always been my touchstone.
I knew Tomie dePaola best while I was in the retail end of the business. He was one of our great joys in those days whenever he came to the store for a signing. I think all one has to do to know who Tomie was is to look at his art. His own buoyant personality and sly wit is reflected in his characters. To quote from The Prince of the Dolomites (HBJ, 1980), “His smile lighted up the dark corners of the palace.” He will be missed by all who knew him and by all who read his books.
I honestly still can’t believe I had the good fortune of meeting this idol of mine, let alone getting to work with him and enjoy his friendship. Tomie was just like his books—filled with warmth, love, nourishment, and good humor. Everything children’s literature should aspire to be.
I realized the incredible influence Tomie dePaola had on readers the first time he came to do a book signing in our bookstore, I AM Books. First of all, we had several hundred people show up and brave the New England cold for hours (it was December 2015), just to have a few minutes with Tomie. But no matter how long they waited, everyone left the store elated, after having exchanged a few words and taken a picture with one of their idols.
The thing I always tell people is that our bookstore actually is still around mostly thanks to those signings that Tomie did in our little shop. Every year, he kept coming back and believing in us. He truly made a difference in my life, as a bookseller but more importantly as a human being. He showed me the importance of a good story, and how that story can be carried within us for all our life. And I know his stories will do just that with so many of his fans.
Years ago, when I was about to introduce him at an ABA breakfast, I stood in front of the immense crowd and realized I wasn’t sure how to correctly pronounce Tomie dePaola’s last name. Was it dee Payola, dePala or….? So I said “Ladies and gentlemen, we all know him, presenting Tomie!” Afterwards Tomie approached me and said, “I don’t think I’ll include dePaola when I sign books. Clearly Tomie is enough.” When I look at my signed Tomie books I can tell which were the before the breakfast titles and the after.
Another stand-out Tomie time was when I discovered his signing pen. When fans were lined up to have their books signed Tomie carried two pens. One he usually used for signing. The other—and I can picture it with the Golden Gate Bridge floating on its base—was the one he picked up when it was time for his driver (media escort Kathy Goldmark, who stayed close when he was signing), to step in and move the current talkative fan on. “Brilliant,” I thought.
Whether at a book event or having a late-night drink following long conference days, when Tomie was in the room there was laughter. I will miss him.
Tomie and I met as students at Pratt Institute during the 1950s when I joined the “Playshop,” the school’s drama club. Sweet, charming Tomie, an enthusiastic member of the drama group, and I, quickly became very good friends, and remained so, throughout our school years. Over time, we were cast in several plays.
The most improbable was a one-act play about a fiery South American revolutionary played by Tomie, who, with his rebels, crashes into the mansion of a prim, aristocratic lady, played by me. The couple stalk each other, spout diatribes for 50 minutes, and by the fall of the curtain become lovers.
After art school, Tomie’s and my life went separate ways. For many years we only ran into each other at book-related events. When the opportunity presented itself, we had great fun telling teachers and librarians about the time we had played fiery lovers on stage at Pratt.
It was not until a weekend in September 2016, when my husband Billy and I were invited to be the surprise guests for Tomie’s birthday party at his New Hampshire home, that our art school friendship experienced a solid rebirth. Over the two leisurely days and evenings in the beautiful surroundings of the Whitebird compound, there was so much to talk about and remember and embroider on, our old friendship rushed back and overwhelmed us. We bragged about good fortunes and rued disappointments and betrayals. We spun on whatever our life had brought us. And, just plain gossiped about friends and competition in our field, which we were both very good at.
After that magical weekend we did not lose touch. We emailed and talked on the phone regularly. Tomie’s and my friendship now included Billy. Over the next few years, whenever Tomie came to New York to see publishers or for other book-related events, we found time to see each other. At one such event, Tomie introduced me to his agent, Doug Whiteman. That introduction has resulted in a fine new friendship, and a restart to my work in children’s books. I have Tomie to thank for that.
As a creator of so many beautiful and witty books, Tomie was and will forever be a much beloved star. All his interests found their way into his work. With great generosity, he brought what he knew of art and history and theatre and faith and friendship and social consciousness and stirred it all in his creative cauldron.
He will be genuinely missed by everyone who knew him well or knew him only a little. We will miss his lively presence and wit, his twinkling eyes behind the round lenses of his glasses. And his wonderful laugh.
Dear Tomie. What a character! Out of the box. He told great stories to those of us who knew him, and of course created other, starkly different, marvelous stories for young children, which he illustrated himself. What an artist he was!
He claimed that in Strega Nona Meets Her Match he had based one of the main characters on me. Was it due to Strega Amelia having red hair, or being a gossip, or both? Either could have been true, but whether the claim itself was true was anyone’s guess, such was his talent for making up hilarious tall stories on the spot to please his audience. What a joker he was!
I once sat in the front row at one of his thousands of presentations at which he directed so many amusing barbs at my expense I slid off my seat laughing and had to slide back up with everyone else watching and applauding. What a comedian he was!
His flamboyance was surely at its height at his 60th birthday party. I recall him lying across a grand piano, singing several songs to an out of control audience, an act he’d obviously devised, directed, and rehearsed over many months. What a performer he was!
He never forgot to send me emailed birthday wishes, which always arrived on the right day. What a friend!
And now, without him, ah, what a gap.