September 5th – Tomie 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.”

Tomie dePaola

Tomie dePaola was born on September 5th, 1934 in Meriden, Connecticut. His father was a barber, his mother a homemaker, and he had one brother, Joseph (nicknamed Buddy), and two sisters, Judie and Maureen. From the age of four, dePaola knew he was going to be an artist.

He studied art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (BFA), the California College of Arts in Oakland (MFA), and Lone Mountain College in San Francisco (doctoral equivalency in fine arts). From 1962 until 1978 dePaola taught art at a number of colleges before retiring to write and illustrate books full time.

The first book he illustrated was the 1965 volume of “Science is what and why”: Sound in the Coward-McCann series. In 1966 his first solo work – The Wonderful Dragon of Timlin was published. 

He was married briefly to a woman in the nineteen-sixties, but later in life came out as gay. In 2019 he explained to The New York Times Magazine that for much of his career he remained closeted because of the fear that schools wouldn’t buy his books.  His 1979 Oliver Button is a Sissy, was inspired by his own life. Oliver ‘didn’t like to do the things that boys are supposed to do,’ but wanted to read and draw and sing and dance, and was bullied at school. dePaola explained that he was called a sissy as a child, but instead of internalizing the painful experiences of bullying, he externalized them into his work. 

His grandparents were from Calabria, Italy, the setting of his famous Strega Nonaor Grandma Witch books. The initial book, published in 1975, and was finalist for the Caldecott Medal. His book 26 Fairmount Avenue was awarded the Newbery Medal in 2000. 

During his life he created more than two-hundred and seventy works for children. He received the Children’s Literature Legacy Award in 2011 for his lifetime contribution to American children’s literature. 

Tomie dePaola died on March 30, 2020 at the age of 85 due to complications from surgery after falling and receiving a head injury. 

Lesson from Paola:

Don’t underestimate the impact your work has and on whom. Muted colors and simple pictures in a short work can reach out a hand of understanding across otherwise unmanageable pain. 

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