Marking what would have been his 86th birthday, family, friends, and colleagues honored the late author-illustrator Tomie dePaola during a digital memorial service on September 15. DePaola died on March 30 of complications from surgery following a fall.
The virtual celebration of dePaola’s life and career kicked off with a photo montage assembled by Laurent Linn—dePaola’s art director at S&S, which featured an array of images from the author-illustrator’s private collection provided by dePaola’s assistant and close friend Bob Hechtel.
Jon Anderson, president of the children’s publishing division of Simon & Schuster, who worked with dePaola for nearly 25 years, introduced the event, noting, “Tomie’s talent could never be contained by just one publisher so I make this introduction on behalf of the other three houses that provided a home to Tomie—Holiday House, Penguin, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.”
Anderson’s recollection of first meeting dePaola in the mid 1990s was: “I was amazed to find he was just like his books: bounding with joy, full of life, colorful as all get-out, sometimes delightfully off-color, and exuberant to the point of exhaustion. As we all know, authors don’t always match their work. But not Tomie. Everything you saw on the page you saw in the person.”
Linn spoke next, telling viewers that a tribute website—rememberingtomie.com—had been created as a place where anyone can share their memories of Tomie and his books. A video recording of the memorial service is located there, as well as various obituaries and other remembrances.
Linn recalled his friend as “a storyteller in every aspect of his life. He would take events and make them his own—good, bad, everything that happened…. He really was able to own his life on his terms, and that is such an inspiration to me, personally.” Linn went on to add, “He celebrated everything. He was all about theater and color and glitz, so I’m wearing my sequin jacket for you, Tomie, because we know you would want a show today.”
Those attending the virtual memorial learned more about some of the earliest sparks of dePaola’s creativity via memories shared by his sister, Judie Bobbi, the youngest of the four dePaola siblings. As a boy, she noted, “Tomie was always creative, whether it was making papier-mâché puppets of the cast of the Disney movie Cinderella, in all their costumes and then putting on a puppet show in the attic, making fudge, having a taffy pull, and popcorn on Friday nights when [friends] would come to watch prize fights or Gorgeous George wrestling.”
She described how dePaola and his father designed and constructed “life-size Christmas decorations of the Nativity or three wise men or angels for the front lawn at the holidays” and compared his yard sales in more recent times to the “old-fashioned Macy’s basement sales.” The entire family, Bobbi said, was “extremely proud of Tomie’s talent, hard work, success and recognition.”
Author-illustrator Anita Lobel became friends with dePaola when she was 19 and they were both art students at Pratt Institute in New York City. She shared fond memories of their days participating in the Pratt drama club productions and eloquently described how dePaola’s children’s book art was “really informed by theater.” Lobel recounted how she and dePaola had reconnected and become close again in recent years, noting, “I don’t think anyone ever enjoyed his success as much as he did. He not only took, but he gave of himself. He created scholarships, he was devoted to his nuns and made stained glass windows, and he talked very affectionately. There were some enemies and he and I had a great time chewing up this one or that one when we got together. But most of the time it was really about joy.”
Fine artist Susan Whiteman, whose husband Doug is dePaola’s literary agent and was previously his publisher at Putnam, characterized the longtime friendship her family had with Tomie. “It’s fair to say we all miss his laugh, his impish grin, and his retelling of stories. So many stories,” she said. Whiteman shared highlights and some of the very impressive stats of dePaola’s career. “He published more than 270 books in his lifetime, with at least three more in the pipeline. You can count on two hands those he did not illustrate himself,” she pointed out. “For those of you in attendance who are children’s book creators, that will have special resonance for you. Imagine illustrating over 260 books in your career, none of which were created using computer technology. Put another way, Tomie averaged over four new books per year for 55 years.”
In total, more than 25 million Tomie dePaola books have been sold worldwide, Whiteman added. And she also cited one of the achievements that most pleased him. “He was proud to be the first children’s book author-illustrator to be signed to a multiplatform global agreement, something previously only extended to movie stars, a few of Max Perkins’s legendary authors, and people like Tom Clancy. You can imagine Tomie’s delight.”
Cecilia Yung, executive art director for G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Nancy Paulsen Books at Penguin Random House, said she has been art director of Tomie’s books at Putnam since she joined the company in 1994. “All of you who know Tomie will chuckle at the idea that he can be directed on anything, let alone his art.” She reminisced about the rhythm of their work together. “As part of my job as his art director, we talked about picture books and illustration by passionately dissecting everything else in life,” she said. “Theater, ballet, dogs, frescoes… the use of color in Gee’s bend quilts… and of course food. Our appetite for the topic was insatiable—food and cooking, food and travel, food and restaurants. We just never had enough time to eat all the food we talked about, nor time to talk about the food we wanted to eat.”
Yung went on to say, “Picture book people talk about finding their inner child. And it’s really no secret that Tomie had an inner and an outer child available at all times and he brought him everywhere. His spontaneous groans, gasps, chortles and belly laughs remind me of what childhood sounded like.”
She also circled back to current events and paralleled today’s state of affairs with a favorite plot point from dePaola’s beloved Strega Nona, in which blowing three kisses is the key to stopping magical pasta production. “Here we are in the sixth month of our pandemic,” Yung said, “and this is what I am hearing from Tomie upstairs: Love will ultimately stop our overboiling pasta pot. Love is our secret ingredient. We want to make magic with our lives and our words.”
Author illustrator Pat Cummings said she was “overwhelmed and fangirling” when she first met dePaola years ago at the Boston Public Library and he took her under his wing, making her feel welcome and giving her the lowdown on the children’s book business. “He showed that generosity toward everyone,” she said.
Once when Cummings asked dePaola if he ever talked to kids about the book business he told her, “I tell them ‘Strega Nona built my swimming pool’ and they sit there trying to imagine a little old lady digging a hole in his backyard.”
In 2004, dePaola donated money to Pratt to renovate a studio space in honor of his twin cousins Franny and Fluffy, who had graduated from the school in 1941 and had inspired him to study there. The space was named “The Three Cousins: Tomie dePaola, Kathryn ‘Fluffy’ McLaughlin, Abbe and Frances ‘Franny’ McLaughlin-Gill,” and Cummings expressed her joy at being able to teach classes in that studio.
Cummings invited dePaola to a big event at Pratt in 2013 to discuss his art and career. “He wanted me to interview him like Inside the Actors Studio,” Cummings recalled. “He wanted me to play James Lipton and ask him a series of questions. We went through them and when I got to ‘What is your favorite curse word?’ he had a very wicked grin on his face, and he said ‘RISD’ [the Rhode Island School of Design] and the whole audience exploded with laughter.” Later, said Cummings, “He wrote me that the presentation will go down in the annals of history never to be forgotten, never to be duplicated. And that’s how I think of Tomie—never to be forgotten, never to be duplicated.”
Charles Massey, former executive director of Newport Opera House in Newport, N.H., offered several anecdotes about his and his longtime friend dePaola’s shared love of theater and their special connection to the show Billy Elliot. He also praised dePaola’s exuberant hospitality. “I will never forget the Halloween parties he had in Wilmot Flat,” he said. “Every party had a theme, and you had to dress in accordance with the theme. Insanity. Insanity everywhere.”
But most of all, Massey wanted to impart the advice dePaola had given him over the years: “When you find something you like, don’t buy just one or two, buy more.
When you’re decorating and you are not sure what color to use, always use white.
There are never, never too many candles. And if you’ve been to Tomie’s house you probably saw the candle room.
Listen to storytellers.
Stay close to your friends no matter how far away they may be.
Continue to love and nurture folk art and outsider art. They tell the truth.
Treat books like friends. Love them, treasure them, share them.
And when you have a good story, tell it.”
He then shared a fun story that dePaola had loved, featuring Ethel Merman.
Alan Chong, who serves as director and CEO of the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., related his admiration for dePaola and his work before announcing that the museum has established the Tomie dePaola Art Education Fund, which “will provide scholarships and opportunities for young people to discover themselves through creativity and the arts.”
Then-rookie children’s book authors Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser founded the Society of Children’s Book Writers back in 1971. Tomie dePaola spoke at the banquet for the organization’s second conference to an audience of roughly 50 people, Oliver recalled. “I met him and loved him instantly.” He soon became an early member of the group’s board of directors.
By 1978, dePaola was invited to return as a keynote speaker for an SCBW conference, speaking to about 300 people. Shortly after that, Oliver said, dePaola made a request. “About 10 years into our friendship he asked that we change the name to SCBWI,” she said. “He believed that illustrators are a key part of the equation and it’s not fair to exclude them. I said, Tomie, the name is already unwieldy, I can hardly say SCBW, let alone SCBWI. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘That’s fine, and in that case I resign.’ It was simple, it was clear, it was drawing a line in the sand. He was right, we listened to him. We all took elocution lessons and learned to say SCBWI and 50 years later, we have a worldwide organization with more than 27,000 members.”
Oliver shared stories from their long friendship, and their passion for theater, food, art, and travel. On an emotional note, Oliver showed images from her book Little Poems for Tiny Ears, which dePaola illustrated, and which she called a “career highlight.” Of side by side illustrations of a girl and a boy, Oliver told dePaola, “That looks like us when we were kids.” And he had responded, “It is us. I drew us together as kids, and I drew us across from each other on these pages so that we can be together through all eternity.’ I hope that’s so.”
Additionally, Oliver announced that SCBWI has created the Tomie dePaola Professional Development Award, which she described as “a generous financial award [$2,500] given on his birthday—September 15—each year to two newly published picture book illustrators who can use this fund to perfect and hone their art and their craft.” The inaugural winners of the prize, selected from more than 100 entries, were revealed on September 15. They are Lynnor Bontigao (Jack & Agyu) and Daniel Gray-Barnett (Grandma Z).
A retrospective of dePaola’s book covers, prepared by Linn of S&S, closed the memorial service.