When he was 4 years old, Tomie dePaola already knew how he would leave his mark on the world.
“Oh, I know what I’m going to be when I grow up,” he told his family, as recounted in a 2002 interview. “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.”
Over the next eight decades, dePaola accomplished each of those goals. His death on Monday at the age of 85 marks the close of a celebrated career as the author and illustrator of hundreds of children’s books, including the famous Strega Nona series, which chronicles the tales of a kindly Italian witch, reports Kathy McCormack for the Associated Press.
DePaola died at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, after suffering complications from a surgery to treat an injury sustained during a fall in his barn, according to a statement released by literary agent Doug Whiteman, as reported by Rebekah Riess and Hollie Silverman of CNN. Due to quarantine restrictions imposed to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the hospital, dePaola died in isolation.
Born in Meriden, Connecticut, in 1934, dePaola pursued the arts from an early age. He went on to receive degrees from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the California College of Arts in Oakland and Lone Mountain College in San Francisco.
By 1965, he had finished work on the book Sound by Lisa Miller—the first of more than 270 titles he’d have a hand in as an author, illustrator or both over the next 54 years, according to Anastasia Tsioulcas of NPR.
Spanning topics both lighthearted and profound, dePaola’s books often featured young children grappling with troubles he himself had experienced in youth, including bullying and the deaths of loved ones, reports Iliana Magra of the New York Times. One of his works from 1979, Oliver Button Is a Sissy, features a young boy who is persecuted by his peers for his love of dancing and reading—a gentle mirroring of the gay author’s own conflicted childhood love of tap dancing.
Tormented by the stereotyped expectations of others, both dePaola and his fictional protagonist took solace in the kindness of a stranger, who crosses out the word “sissy” scrawled on a wall and replaces it with a far more apt term: “star.”
Oliver Button’s lessons weren’t loved universally, however: At least one school in Minneapolis banned the book for being “anti-sport,” according to the New York Times.
In almost all other instances, dePaola’s work, which drew inspiration from folklore and legends, was met with critical and popular acclaim. Particularly well-received was Strega Nona, a colorful, grandmotherly character who featured in more than a dozen of his books, with storylines based in Italy, where dePaola’s grandparents once lived.
Throughout his career, dePaola garnered multiple prestigious awards, including the Smithsonian Institution's Smithson Medal and the 2011 Children’s Literature Legacy Award, given in recognition of his “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.” The author’s books have cumulatively sold almost 25 million copies worldwide.
In a statement quoted by the New York Times, Chris Sununu—governor of New Hampshire, where dePaola lived out his last years—described the author and illustrator as “a man who brought a smile to thousands of Granite State children who read his books, cherishing them for their brilliant illustrations.”
DePaola’s legacy, then, is perhaps fittingly commemorated in the imaginations of the children who will enjoy his books for decades to come.
“As a grownup, I want to give children the credit for everything I can,” he told NPR in 1998. “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.”