Tomie dePaola understood that life is difficult and yet redemption is possible. What marks him out ultimately as a conservative of the imaginative variety is that his understanding of childhood includes not only the child-protagonist’s sense of self, but also the sense of self of the other children and indeed the adults in the stories.
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” By this judgment, all of the late Tomie dePaola’s books are very good children’s stories.
The author and illustrator of more than 270 books, Thomas Anthony “Tomie” dePaola was born in Meriden, Connecticut on September 15, 1934. I don’t think I knew that, but I certainly knew about his parents, Joseph and Florence. I also knew about his brother Joe, his sisters Judie and Maureen, his Italian grandmother Nana Fall-River, his Irish-American grandparents Tom and Nana, his twin cousins who were artists, his love of popcorn and pets, and a whole raft of other facts. While he was perhaps most famous for his Caldecott-winning Strega Nona (1976), he also told much of his own childhood story in a number of illustrated memoirs and also a number of individual stories telling some part of his childhood. My favorites are The Art Lesson (1989), Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (1973), and Tom (1993).
One of the things many notices of his death on March 30 included was a recognition of his unique ability to remember what it was like to be a child and communicate that. The biennial Children’s Literature Legacy award committee, which honored him for his lifetime achievements in 2011, commented on his “innate understanding of childhood, a distinctive visual style, and a remarkable ability to adapt his voice to perfectly suit the story.” What marks him out ultimately as a conservative of the imaginative variety is that this understanding of childhood includes not only the child-protagonist’s sense of self, but also the sense of self of the other children and indeed the adults in the stories. One sympathizes with the teacher in The Art Lesson who tells the 5-year-old Tommy that he can only have one piece of paper, use only the 8-color school box of crayons, and draw the Pilgrim man and woman along with the sacrificial turkey. Anyone who has dealt with school-age children knows that after one exception, le deluge. Yet we still rejoice when the beautiful visiting art teacher allows Tommy an extra piece of paper to do his own picture with his own 64-color Crayola box. (He draws the beautiful teacher!)
In the world of Tomie dePaola, one follows the advice given by legendary football coach Lou Holtz: Root for everybody!
It’s not that there aren’t cruel or selfish people in his stories. Some, such as the children and adults who throw fruit at and drive away the old juggler who has lost his touch in The Clown of God, are indeed not kind. DePaola does not depict them as monsters, however, and many of those who are selfish are laughed at, especially when their own selfishness rebounds on them. Young Bambolona’s father, a baker who exasperates his daughter by making her do all the work, has to hire the oafish Big Anthony when his daughter leaves to join in the service of the Calabrian “Grandmother Witch,” Strega Nona. Big Anthony eats all the pastries, falls asleep, and then forgets to do his work. In order to get the bread he forgot to start go faster, he puts in too much yeast. The result is of course hilarious. And not just to children.
The hilarity is due in part to the slapstick plot and also that distinctive visual style. Sally Thomas observes that it is his drawings of people that are so recognizable. The “stylized human figures, with their almond eyes and austere, often inscrutable faces, recall iconography—if icons were friendlier and more like folk art.” Ms. Thomas sees a “stiff” quality akin to the icon tradition, but what is remarkable is the dynamism in these stiff figures. When the bread fills the bakery in the scene mentioned above, I see the angry father, stiff though he may be, tilted at an angle and being carried away. The faces, angry or happy, might be stylized, but they convey something of the eternal glimpsed in time. Maybe they are more like icons than even Ms. Thomas admits.
The adaptation of just the right voice for just the right story is the third element mentioned by the committee. That too is correct, and it is accompanied by the perfect pacing to deliver the story with maximum impact, whether it is the triumph of the five-year-old with his picture or the sense of adjustment and peace when the twin terriers Morgie and Moffie Barker get a new adopted baby brother who speaks Spanish, or the sense of eucatastrophe when we along with the friars see the odd miracle that happens in his classic The Clown of God (1978). This is true not just for the stories he wrote but also the ones he illustrated with other great writers’ words. DePaola is most famous for his Christmas stories, but along with The Clown of God, his 1988 illustration of Caryll Houselander’s Easter tale Petook is my favorite of his explicitly religious tales.
If I were to say why they are my favorites, I could answer as a scholar and a theologian. Their power is to depict what St. Paul describes as “power made perfect in weakness,” and to depict life even amidst death. But if I were to answer as a man, I would say it is because they make my throat go lumpy and cause the tears to flow, even though the stories make me happy. Tomie dePaola understood that life is difficult and yet redemption is possible.
I suppose it was no surprise to find out last year that the artist had announced he was “gay.” His 1979 book Oliver Button is a Sissy, about a boy who likes to sing, dance, and do art, is often called a “progressive” classic. But there is a range of kinds of boys and men, some of whom like more “feminine things,” not all of whom have same-sex attractions. DePaola’s work is not “explicitly gay,” as one writer for the gay magazine The Blade observed, even if those who do experience such attractions find a “particular resonance” in some of those stories. One doesn’t need to read the adult themes into his child characters to identify with the difficult lot many people who don’t fit in are given.
I didn’t know till after he died that his favorite adult book was Kristin Lavransdatter, Norwegian Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s epic of a woman who had difficulties due to her own headstrong character and sexual desires, but who found comfort and peace in her Catholic faith in the end. Despite formally leaving the Church, I hope Tomie dePaola loved the book because its story represented not only a difficult path but also a reconciliation he still desired.
I leave his destiny, like my own, in the hands of God. But I do pray for him, and I thank God that I can and will continue to both learn and enjoy his imaginative, and in their own way deeply conservative, tales drawn from family life, folk and fairy tales, and what Tolkien called the “true myth.”
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Obituary of Tomie dePaola, The Guardian, April 15, 2020.
 Sally Thomas, “Tomie dePaola’s Icons,” First Things, April 14, 2020.
 Kathi Wolfe, “Tribute to beloved gay children’s book author,” The Blade, April 11, 2020.
The featured image is the Editor’s own photo of a page of Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God.