Tomie dePaola Left a Legacy of Comfort, Kindness, and Quality Children's Books

The death of Tomie dePaola this week left fans and friends seeking solace in their memories and in the comfort and joy of his books.

Tomie dePaola brought comfort and laughter to young readers for decades. His death this week after a fall felt somehow more difficult to endure for his fans and friends at this uncertain time when the world could use Strega Nona to blow a few kisses and save the town.

Photo credit: Laurent Linn

Unable to gather together and remember him in person, even those closest to him took solace in his literary legacy.

“His books radiate his love of life, food, family, music, art, travel, culture and friendship,” said Lin Oliver, president of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and a friend of dePaola for 40 years. “His joyful spirit and big heart spill from every page. Who doesn’t love both Nanas, the one upstairs and the one downstairs? Who doesn’t cheer for Oliver Button when he triumphs over those bullies? Who doesn’t think of Strega Nona every time you put up a pot of pasta?

“Tomie’s books offer children his soul and spirit, which is why they will be forever loved. In that sense, he is with us forever.”

Educators and parents muddling through remote learning right now could “do a lot worse” than to build a collection of dePaola’s work.

“A parent could build a completely satisfactory home library for two- to seven-year-olds with nothing but Tomie’s books—folklore, nursery rhymes, picture books, beginning readers and early chapter books, fiction and nonfiction,” said Horn Book editor-in-chief Roger Sutton. “He was often criticized for publishing too much but almost every book was solid and well-made. And some classics, too—Strega Nona,The Popcorn Book, 26 Fairmount Avenue and, above all, Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, one of the first truly honest—and heartbreaking—books about death for young children.”

The themes, messages, and mood of the books reflect their creator, according to those who worked with him.

“Tomie dePaola was one of the most life-affirming people I have ever met,” said Elizabeth Law, backlist and special projects editor at Holiday House. “He knew how to find joy in, and feel gratitude for, the little things in the world, which is one of the reasons he was a children's book master—because children know the significance of the smallest things, just like Tomie did.”

Upon learning of his death, children’s authors and illustrators took to Twitter to express their sadness and share some memories. His kindness and generosity was a recurrent theme. It’s something Oliver witnessed for years.

“We first met in the 1970s, when he delivered a keynote at an SCBWI early conference and captured the room by reading The Clown of God,” she said. “From that moment on, he became a member of the SCBWI Board of Advisors, a fervent advocate for illustrators, and a mentor to many artists who have gone on to become some of our great picture book creators. When he reached the top of his field, he sent the elevator back down to pull up the next person.”

While tributes to dePaola the person came pouring in, his artistic skill and style were not overlooked.

“As I worked with him on updating books that were sometimes 40 years old, he showed a masterful eye for color and design, but unlike so many of our great artists, he was no diva,” said Law.

“Working with Tomie dePaola was extraordinary,” said Holiday House editor-in-chief Mary Cash. “He was overflowing with ideas and completely unafraid to try new approaches. His use of color was precise, often unusual, and bold. I so admired it. His style referenced great Western art as well as folk art from many cultures, yet it was uniquely his own. Tomie's books, art, and entire way of being in the world seemed bent on spreading joy. We were lucky to have him.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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