Tomie dePaola, 'Strega Nona' author and illustrator, dies at 85

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Tomie dePaola, 'Strega Nona' author and illustrator, dies at 85
Author Tomie dePaola signs books at the fourth annual "Scribbles to Novels" gala to benefit Jumpstart April 28, 2008 in New York City. Jonathan Fickies/Getty Images for Jumpstart for Children/AFP.

by Iliana Magra and Julia Carmel

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Tomie dePaola, the celebrated author and illustrator whose scores of children’s books nurtured and delighted several generations of readers, died Monday in Lebanon, New Hampshire. He was 85.

His literary agent, Doug Whiteman, said the cause was complications of an operation that dePaola had after a fall.

DePaola, whose best-known work was the “Strega Nona” series, wrote or illustrated more than 270 books. The ones that resonated most with children, he told The New York Times in 1999, were the ones inspired by his own life.

A grandmother and great-grandmother of his formed the basis of the characters in “Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs” (1973), one of his most widely read books, which dealt with the death of each woman. The homecoming of his baby sister Maureen inspired “On My Way” (2001). His grandparents were from Calabria, the region in southern Italy where dePaola chose to set his “Strega Nona” books.

“Strega Nona” (1975) and its sequels tell the story of a kindly “grandma witch,” the title character, who helps her fellow Calabrian townspeople with magic and an eternally full pasta pot.

“De Paola’s illustrations aptly capture the whimsy of this ancient tale,” Norma Mauna Feld wrote in her review of the first book in The New York Times. “And while his simple line drawings clearly reveal the agony and ecstasy of pasta power, the muted colors create just the right ambience for a quaint Mediterranean village.”

The book went on to win the Caldecott Medal, which recognizes the most distinguished American picture book for children.

Thomas Anthony dePaola was born Sept. 15, 1934, in Meriden, Connecticut, to Joseph and Florence (Downey) dePaola. His father was a barber, and his mother was a homemaker.

He studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, (which named him “one of the top 125 Pratt icons of all time” in 2012, according to his website), the California College of Arts in Oakland and Lone Mountain College in San Francisco. He taught in the art and theater departments of colleges in California, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

DePaola was married briefly in the 1960s, but later in life he spoke openly about being gay.

“If it became known you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your chest,” he said in a 2019 interview for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, “and schools wouldn’t buy your books anymore.”

DePaola’s “Oliver Button Is a Sissy” (1979), inspired by his own life, was the first picture book to come close to using the word “gay.” The book, about a young boy who is bullied by his peers for preferring dancing and reading to playing sports, was briefly banned by a suburban Minneapolis school, dePaola recalled in the 1999 interview, “because they felt it was anti-sport.”

Like Oliver Button, dePaola was a tap dancer when he was young. To the chagrin of his father, he insisted on dangling his tap shoes from his shoulder. But after he started performing, he added, his father took pride in his abilities.

Echoing dePaola’s experience, Oliver Button was rescued by an unknown helper who crossed out the word “sissy,” scribbled on a wall, and replaced it with another S-word, “star.”

“I was called sissy in my young life,” dePaola said in 1999, “but instead of internalizing these painful experiences, I externalize them in my work.”

DePaola received multiple awards, including the Smithson Medal from the Smithsonian Institution and the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota. He was the U.S. nominee for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award in illustration in 1990. In 2011, he won the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, given by the Association for Library Service to Children, for his “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.”

Despite almost universal admiration for dePaola’s books, some were briefly banned. Before “Oliver Button Is a Sissy” briefly met that fate, “Strega Nona” had been banned by a number of U.S. libraries for painting magic in a positive light.

Later in life, dePaola lived and worked in a renovated 200-year-old barn with his beloved Welsh terriers: Madison, Markus, Morgan and Moffat. After his terriers died about 2010, he got an Airedale named Bronte, who died several years ago.

According to his agent, Whiteman, the book dePaola was working on at his death was titled “Where Are You, Bronte?”

DePaola is survived by two sisters, Maureen Rogers and Judie Bobbi. His older brother, Joseph, died in 1973.

In a 2002 interview with the website Reading Rockets, dePaola said he had known he would be an artist since he was 4.

“‘Oh, I know what I’m going to be when I grow up,’ ” he recalled telling his family. “‘Yes, I’m going to be an artist, and I’m going to write stories and draw pictures for books, and I’m going to sing and tap dance on the stage.’

“And,” he added, “I’ve managed to do all those things.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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