September 15, 1934 – Thomas Anthony dePaola:
“A picture book is a small door to the enormous world of the visual arts, and they’re often the first art a young person sees.”
Writer-illustrator Tomie dePaola, left this world in spring 2020. I studied with him in Boston in 1972-73, taking two semesters of his Color and Design class. He had a huge impact on my life with his impish disposition, sweet sense of humor, and encouraging and engaging teaching style. I didn’t possess the talent to become a commercial artist, and he knew that, but the things I learned from him guided my tastes in gardening, home décor and wardrobe. I remained a fan of his books, which I frequently give as gifts to young and not-so-young friends and acquaintances.
As a kid, his mother read aloud to him every night. DePaola:
“She 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 told our class stories about his Italian and Irish family when he was growing up, tales reflected in his illustrated books like Nana Upstairs And Downstairs (1973) and in his 26 Fairmount Avenue series, with the first of those, 26 Fairmount Avenue (1999) winning the 2000 Newbery Award. DePaola:
“I knew what I was going to be when I grew up. I was going to be an artist, and write stories and draw pictures for books, and I was going to sing and tap dance on the stage.“
For eight decades, that is what dePaola did.
He had degrees from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the California College of Arts and Lone Mountain College in San Francisco. While in art school he fell in love with such artists as Henri Matisse and the religious work of Sandro Botticelli, plus folk art, all influences on his illustrations.
DePaola was married briefly in the 1960s, but much later in life he came out of the closet. Last year, in an interview with T: The New York Times Style Magazine, he said:
“If it became known you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your chest, and schools wouldn’t buy your books anymore.”
He wrote and illustrated 270 books. My favorite, Oliver Button Is A Sissy (1979), inspired by his own life, was the first children’s picture book to even come close to using the word “gay.” It is about a young boy who is bullied by his peers for preferring dancing and reading to playing sports.
Just as it happened in dePaola’s real life, Oliver Button is rescued by a stranger who crosses out the word “sissy” written on a wall, and replaces it with “star”. DePaola:
“I was called sissy in my young life, but instead of internalizing these painful experiences, I externalize them in my work.”
DePaola’s books often feature young people grappling with troubles he himself had experienced in youth, including bullying and the deaths of loved ones.
Strega Nona: An Old Tale (1975) was the first of his best-known series of picture books. It follows the humorous adventures of kindly Italian witch Strega Nona and her hapless assistant Big Anthony. It won the prestigious Caldecott Award in 1976.
His books were frequently banned by school libraries for gay content and for showing magic in a positive light.
Throughout his long career, dePaola was given many prestigious awards, including the Smithsonian Institution‘s Smithson Medal and the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, given in recognition of his “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children”. His books have sold 30 million copies worldwide.
DePaola lived and worked in a renovated 200-year-old barn in New Hampshire with his Welsh terriers. He died at a hospital in Lebanon, NH. Due to quarantine restrictions imposed by the spread of COVID-19, dePaola died alone.
“As a grownup, I want to give children the credit for everything I can. Their courage, their humor, their love, their creative abilities, their abilities to be fair, their abilities to be unfair … I do wish that we grownups would give children lots of credit for these ephemeral kind of qualities that they have.“