Children's Author/Illustrator Biographies
September 15, 1934 -
2000 Ludington Award Winner
"Thomas Anthony dePaola." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.
Photograph provided by Penguin Young Readers Group.
"Tomie dePaola is one of the most popular creators of picture books for children in America today," state Richard F. Abrahamson and Marilyn Colvin in Reading Teacher. Calling dePaola "an artist and writer of seemingly boundless energy," Anne Sherrill noted in an essay for Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Writers for Children since 1960 that he "has worked in several areas of children's literature." His art illumines the work of dozens of other authors in addition to the scores of books he has written himself. Several critics, such as Abrahamson and Colvin, have found that dePaola is at his best, though, "when he both illustrates and writes a picture book," and have considered his retold folktales to "represent some of the most beautiful picture storybooks available today."
DePaola was born in 1934, near the end of the Great Depression, to Irish and Italian parents in Meriden, Connecticut. He grew up during World War II, before television deposed radio in American homes, in a family that appreciated books and creativity. "Growing up before television," dePaola once commented, "I had what I can only consider the good fortune to be exposed to radio and I never missed that wonderful Saturday morning show, Let's Pretend. I have always felt that that particular program, plus the fact that my mother was in love with books and spent many long hours reading aloud to my brother and me, were the prime factors that caused me to announce to my first grade teacher that when I grew up I was going to make books with pictures." He has frequently said that from the age of four, he knew he wanted to be an artist. "I must have been a stubborn child," he once commented, "because I never swayed from that decision."
DePaola once noted that the Christmas of 1943, when he was nine years old, was one of his most memorable holidays: "All my presents were art supplies: paints, brushes, colored pencils, all sorts of instruction books, watercolors and even an easel." Throughout his grade school years, teachers more or less encouraged his art; when he graduated to middle school, though, he was excited to learn that he would actually be able to take an entire class in the subject. By the time he was a sophomore in high school, dePaola knew that he wanted to attend Pratt Institute in New York City and wrote to them to find out what classes he should be taking to prepare for his studies there; in 1952 he entered Pratt, earning a degree in 1956.
After graduation, dePaola entered a Benedictine Monastery in Vermont where he stayed for six months. He once recalled that he was grateful for the time spent there because it "solidified, not religious, but some deep spiritual values." Moreover, because the Benedictines are involved in the arts, he also learned that "culture was an important thing as well. If you can add to the culture of the race of man, you're doing a really hot number. It certainly gave me time to delve even more into the study of art; I was sort of the resident artist." DePaola maintained his association with the monastery when he returned to the secular life. In addition to crafting liturgical art, he designed fabric for the monks' weaving studio, designed Christmas cards, and started them in a little business. Living in the monastery influenced the subject matter of his writing as well. Several of his children's books draw upon religious stories or themes, often from the perspective of legend. The Clown of God: An Old Story, for example, is a retelling of the story about the rise and fall of a juggler and the miracle that occurs at his final astonishing performance before a statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. Sherrill remarked that dePaola's tale "was inspired by Anatole France's version of the legend about a juggler who offers his talent as a gift to the Christ child. DePaola retells it with an Italian Renaissance setting."
Beginning his career as a teacher of art at Newton College of the Sacred Heart in Massachusetts in 1962, dePaola first illustrated Lisa Miller's science book, Sound, in 1965; the following year, he illustrated the first of his own books, The Wonderful Dragon of Timlin. In 1967, he traveled west to teach at San Francisco College for Women, which became Lone Mountain College; and while in California, he earned a master of fine arts degree from the Californian College of Arts and Crafts in 1969, and a doctoral equivalency a year later at Lone Mountain College. "The time I spent in San Francisco also helped raise my consciousness--about women's issues especially--and to realign my thinking about antiwar and peace organizations," dePaola told Lisa Lane in a Chicago Tribune interview. Following his graduate work, he returned to New England where he continued to teach art, adding theatrical writing, technical direction, and set design to his professorial tasks. DePaola has also exhibited his work extensively in numerous one-man and group shows, both nationally and internationally. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors as well as high praise from reviewers for his appealing retellings of religious and ethnic folktales, realistic fiction with elements of fantasy, and concept books that combine fiction with educational topics. But as Abrahamson and Colvin remark, "Can there be a higher honor for a creator of children's books than to be selected by children as a favorite? In 1978, children across the U.S. chose four of Tomie dePaola's works among their favorites. No other creator of children's books in 1978 was given such an honor."
DePaola's family was a closely connected one and some of his stories for children focus upon relationships among family members. One of dePaola's first books, Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, is "based upon the death of his grandmother," noted Lane, adding that he admits that "it was a highly personal and challenging book to write." It is the story of Tommy, whose grandmother and great grandmother both live in the same house with him. When he is very young, his great grandmother dies; several years later, his grandmother passes away also. Remarking that "years later when the grandmother dies, he thinks of them both as Nana Upstairs," Sherrill added that "though the book deals with the death of loved ones, the focus is on affection and fond memories." Writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Sutherland observed that the book ranks with the "best of stories for very young children that shows the love between a child and a grandparent and pictures the child's adjustment to death." According to Janet Dobbins in the World of Children's Books, dePaola "reinforces the conviction that the infirmities which so often accompany old age are a fact of life which need not be feared, ridiculed, or hidden." For instance, during Tommy's visits with his great grandmother, who is tied into her chair so that she will not fall out, he insists on being tied into his chair as well, just for the fun of it. In School Library Journal, Melinda Schroeder suggested that "children will want to hear this again and again, as they puzzle over what it means to be young and old and very old and, finally to die."
A companion piece to Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs is Now One Foot, Now the Other, which involves young Bobby and his grandfather, Bob, who enjoy doing many things together. When the grandfather suffers a stroke, though, Bobby helps him to learn to walk again. Indicating that the "explanations are forthright and appropriate to readers' level of understanding," Karen Harris added in School Library Journal, "The tone is gentle and low-key and the illustrations are, as usual, first-rate." Natalie Babbitt remarked in New York Times Book Review that although "this is a big and difficult story compressed into a small and simple story," dePaola omits nothing and is able to "present a warm and positive picture of the power of love." She also found that "the illustrations are exactly right. In calm browns and blues, with figures that are just realistic enough, they reinforce the straightforward tone of the prose."
Sherrill suggested that dePaola's work is "particularly strong when it builds upon his Irish and Italian family background." Watch out for the Chicken Feet in Your Soup, for example, is based on his relationship with his own Italian grandmother. "Like Joey's grandmother in the story she pinched my cheeks, talked 'funny,' and made Easter bread dolls that were a highlight in my young life . . . ," dePaola once reminisced. "She always put chicken feet in chicken soup, and I was fascinated. It certainly was something to brag about. I could mow down my opponents with 'My Grandma puts chicken feet in the soup!' Da Dah! Stardom." In the story, Joey brings his friend Eugene home to meet his Italian grandmother, who tends to embarrass Joey by her Old World ways. Eugene, however, is amazed by the real chicken feet in the soup; he thinks she is fantastic and even helps her to bake marvelous bread dolls. This upsets a pouting Joey, who eventually learns to appreciate his good fortune in having such a remarkable grandmother. Although Leah Deland Stenson, in a School Library Journal review, found the "food-obsessed" grandmother "a humorless cliché," Sherrill believed that "besides showing a boy in a nonstereotypical role, the story provides a good sprinkling of Italian words that make the Italian grandmother memorable and authentic." DePaola includes a recipe for bread dolls at the back of the book, a recipe he recalls his grandmother having used.
Many critics have concurred with Sherrill that dePaola's greatest achievement has been "in retelling traditional folktales and in writing stories in the folktale tradition." Strega Nona: An Old Tale, which was named a Caldecott Honor Book and received the Nakamore Prize in Japan, is a traditional tale about a magic pot that, upon the recitation of a verse, produces food and ceases only with the recitation of another verse. According to Sherrill, dePaola discussed the origin of Strega Nona in an interview with Phyllis Boyson in New Era: "In doing research for writing a porridge pot story, he found among other variations the rice pot in India but no Italian variant for the well-known tale, so he created one. Porridge became pasta and the magic character became Strega Nona, his own creation. 'That was when I became aware of the folktale variant,'" dePaola said. In his variation, Strega Nona ("Grandmother Witch") has hired a helper, Anthony, who secretly observes her and believes that he too can make the pot perform magically. What Anthony has missed is that Strega Nona also blows three kisses to the pot to get it to stop. Chaos ensues, threatening the entire town. Strega Nona sets things right and chooses to punish Anthony not by hanging him, as the townspeople suggest, but by forcing him to eat all the pasta he has created--"an ending children will probably enjoy tremendously," as Zena Sutherland remarked in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.
In Helga's Dowry: A Troll Love Story, a traditional-seeming tale that dePaola invented himself, a beautiful but poor troll who accumulates a dowry and attracts the handsome king of the trolls as her suitor eventually discards him for another of her own choice. According to Jennifer Dunning in New York Times Book Review, "Mr. dePaola's inspiration often comes from faculty-meeting doodles. 'A troll appeared on the doodle pad,' Mr. dePaola recalled. 'I thought, "Gee, must be a troll story inside me." So I did a lot of research on trolls and found the women are condemned to wander the face of the earth if they have no dowry.'" DePaola's troll acquires her dowry from doing enormous tasks for others--cows for laundry, land for clearing trees; and, according to Sutherland in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "Most of the fun is in Helga's magical despatch of loot-producing tasks."
DePaola also has some very definite ideas about the presence of sexual stereotyping in children's books. Sherrill remarked that dePaola has frequently said that he "consciously tries to avoid presenting sexual stereotypes, and certainly the independent Helga underscores that." He indicated to Dunning: "I feel strongly about stereotyping roles. If the children's book people don't make an effort to avoid them then we're in trouble. My mother always mowed the lawn and my father cooked. I guess I feel that the younger a child can get the proper values, the better. But ultimately it has to be a good story. I don't want to preach."
In Fin M'Coul: The Giant of Knockmany Hill, Celtic motifs frame the half-page illustrations and text involving the legendary Irish hero Cu Chulainn. M'Coul is a huge and powerful good giant who is afraid of being beaten by the larger Cucullin, as dePaola calls him. M'Coul's clever wife comes to his rescue, and he appears dressed as a baby stuffed into a real cradle; Cucullin retreats fearing that if the giant M'Coul could produce a child the size of the baby before him, what must the father be like? "Fin M'Coul comes alive through Tomie dePaola's comic illustrating and retelling of this tale," wrote Fellis L. Jordan in Children's Book Review Service. "You can almost hear Fin's Irish brogue as you read the story." "Much as we may admire the sheer cleverness of the book it is the humour that lives longest in the mind," stated a reviewer in Junior Bookshelf. "This is the perfect version of the immemorial theme of the triumph of cunning over force, and Mr. dePaola tells it for all it is worth."
DePaola's gently drawn illustrations are hallmarked by bright colors and an almost primitive style that is reminiscent of folk art. "Although colored inks and watercolors on handmade watercolor paper are used most frequently as a base for dePaola's books, he also uses pencil drawings, etchings, charcoal drawings, and other techniques," wrote Sherrill, adding that his "interest in theater is evident from pictures that frequently resemble stage sets. . . . Characters in the stories are made distinctive through dePaola's treatment of eyes, facial expressions, noses, hair, and mouths. Tousle-haired children have become an identifying characteristic of his work." Considering his use of color "distinctive," dePaola added: "I think my style of illustration has been refined over the years. Style has to do with the kinds of things you are drawn to personally, and I'm drawn to Romanesque and folk art. I think that my style is very close to those--very simple and direct. I simplify."
In Books for Your Children, dePaola indicated that he tries not to form images for a book until the story line is set, and the text has been written and edited. "Once the story-line is good and strong (and hopefully appealing) then I can let my pictures not only illustrate the text but amplify it, add to it, and sometimes include a sub-plot told only through the pictures. This, of course is extremely important in a picture-book. My personal definition for a picture-book (as opposed to an illustrated story-book) is that the very young child who may not even know how to decipher words can indeed read the book by actually 'reading the pictures.'" According to Sherrill, "Perhaps the two qualities that consistently emerge from the work of this popular and talented author-illustrator are his keen sense of humor and his love of childhood and children." DePaola says that he enjoys writing and drawing for children not only because it stimulates his own imagination, "but hopefully I will touch at least some children to instill in them the great love I personally have always had for books. Making children's books has literally forced me into an honesty of expression because . . . children demand honesty and recognize false performance."
"The child dePaola once was shines through all his works, captivating readers and enriching the field of children's books," remarked Barbara Elleman in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. "Of all the zillions of things that could be said about Tomie dePaola," observed Robert D. Hale in Horn Book, "the one that comes most strongly to mind is his exuberance. He is joyful, ebullient. His exhilaration fills all the spaces around him, wrapping everyone present in rare high spirits. The books he creates radiate this quality of good cheer, even when they have serious messages to impart. . . . Everything Tomie does is done with gusto and zest--which is why his work appeals to all generations. Tomie's softly-colorful illustrations invite tots, while at the other end of the cycle adults appreciate his sharing of feelings." "For me," dePaola once remarked, "my expression is always the sum total of my personal experience with people. Not that it shows consciously or conspicuously, but it is the inner support that makes the terrifying experience of starting a new project less frightening."
At the age when many people consider retirement, dePaola continued to write and illustrate new books. In 2001's Meet the Barkers dePaola created new characters based on his own Welsh terriers. "For the first time we're going to use the same characters across all the lines--board books, picture books, easy-to-reads," dePaola told Shannon Maughan in an interview for Publishers Weekly. The book was a new avenue of creativity for dePaola because it is about contemporary children. He also continued his "Strega Nona" stories with Strega Nona Takes a Vacation, and developed new creative relationships such as his collaboration with Kathleen Norris, author of Cloister Walk. The two collaborated on The Holy Twins, which is about Saint Scholastica and her twin brother, Saint Benedict. The two saints developed the Benedictine Rule, which is followed by numerous religious orders. DePaola also collaborated on a daily episodic television series produced by Jim Henson Television that featured vignettes from dePaola book characters and readings by dePaola. "I'm getting less sleep, but I'm really enjoying it all," dePaola told Maughan.
Some sources cite surname as de Paola; name pronounced "Tommy de-powla"; born September 15, 1934, in Meriden, CT; son of Joseph N. (a union official) and Florence (Downey) dePaola. Education: Pratt Institute, B.F.A., 1956; California College of Arts and Crafts, M.F.A., 1969; Lone Mountain College, doctoral equivalency, 1970. Religion: Roman Catholic. Memberships: Society of Children's Book Writers (member of board of directors), Authors Guild. Addresses: Home--New London, NH. Office--c/o The Putnam & Grosset Book Group, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.
Professional artist and designer, and teacher of art, 1956--; writer and illustrator of juvenile books; creative director of Whitebird Books, his imprint at G. P. Putnam's Sons. Newton College of the Sacred Heart, Newton, MA, instructor, 1962-63, assistant professor of art, 1963-66; San Francisco College for Women (now Lone Mountain College), San Francisco, CA, assistant professor of art, 1967-70; Chamberlayne Junior College, Boston, MA, instructor in art, 1972-73; Colby-Sawyer College, New London, NH, associate professor, designer, and technical director in speech and theater department, writer and set and costume designer for Children's Theatre Project, 1973-76; New England College, Henniker, NH, associate professor of art, 1976-78, artist-in-residence, 1978-79. Painter and muralist, with many of his works done for Catholic churches and monasteries in New England; designer of greeting cards, posters, magazine and catalogue covers, record album covers, and theatre and nightclub sets. Member of board of directors of Society of Children's Book Writers of Los Angeles. He has been a guest artist on several episodes of the television program Barney, and executive producer of a live-action television program called Jim Henson Telling Stories with Tomie dePaola. Exhibitions: Work has been shown at one-man shows at the Botolph Group, Inc., Boston, MA, 1961, 1964, 1967; Putnam Art Center, Newton College of the Sacred Heart, Newton, MA, 1971-72, 1975, 1978; Alliance Corporation, Boston, MA, 1972; Library Arts Center, Newport, NH, 1975, 1982, 1984; Rizzoli Gallery, New York, NY, 1977; Clark County Library, Las Vegas, NV, 1979; Englewood Library, Englewood, NJ, 1980; Louisiana Arts and Science Center, Baton Rouge, LA, 1981; University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, 1981; Children's Theatre, Minneapolis, MN, 1981; Yuma City-County Library, Yuma, AZ, 1981; Charles Fenton Gallery, Woodstock, VT, 1984; Arts and Science Center, Nashua, NH, 1985, 1986; Bush Galleries, Norwich, VT, 1987; Women's Club, Minneapolis, MN, 1988; Dayton's-Bachman's Annual Flower Show, Minneapolis, MN, 1989. Work has also been exhibited in group shows at the South Vermont Art Center, Manchester, VT, 1958; Grail Festival of the Arts, Brooklyn, NY, 1959; Botolph Group, Boston, MA, 1962, 1964, 1969; San Francisco College for Women, San Francisco, CA, 1969; Immaculate Heart College, Los Angeles, CA, 1969; Botolph in Cambridge, MA, 1971-74; Library Arts Center, Newport, NH, 1975; "Children's Book Illustrators," Everson Museum, Syracuse, NY, 1977; "Exhibition of Original Pictures of International Children's Picture Books," sponsored by Maruzen Ltd. and Shiko-Sha Ltd., Japan, 1977, 1979, 1981; "Illustrators' Exhibition," Children's Book Fair, Bologna, Italy, 1978; "Art and the Alphabet," Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, 1978; "Book Forms," Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, OH, 1978; "Children's Book Illustrators," Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, Brattleboro, VT, 1980; "This Pure Creature: The Unicorn in Art," Wilson Arts Center, Harley School, Rochester, NY, 1980-88; "December Art Exhibit," Port Washington Public Library, Port Washington, NY, 1981; "A Decade of Original Art of the Best Illustrated Children's Books, 1970-80," University of Connecticut Library, Storrs, CT, 1982; "Annual Exhibition," Society of Illustrators, New York, NY, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985; "Illustrators Exhibition," Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, 1982, 1983; "A Peaceable Kingdom: Animals in Art," Museum of Fine Art, Houston, TX, 1982; "D Is for Dog," Dog Museum of America, New York, NY, 1983; "Once upon a Time," Boulder Center for Visual Arts, Boulder, CO, 1983; "Illustrious: Contemporary New Hampshire Illustrators," University Art Galleries, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, 1983; "And Peace Attend Thee," Trustman Art Gallery, Simmons College, Boston, MA, 1984; Bush Galleries, Norwich, VT, 1985; Congress Square Gallery, Portland, ME, 1985; Denver Public Library, Denver, CO, 1986; Colorado Academy, Denver, CO, 1986; "Daffodil Arts Show," New London Historical Society, New London, NH, 1985, 1986, 1988; Aetna Institute Gallery, Hartford, CT, 1986; "Once upon a Picture," Miami Youth Museum, Miami, FL, 1986; and "New Hampshire Illustrators Exhibit," New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, NH, 1988. Works are also included in many private collections.
For information on purchasing books by these and other authors, click here.