When I heard Tomie dePaola had died this week, after complications from a fall, I felt … confused. In the midst of this pandemic, with global death counts rising, the news came as a shock to me. This was a different kind of death, not part of the daily numbers. I had to sit down and process it.
I’m a picture book author myself, so of course dePaola looms large, but that’s not why he matters so much to me. When I was a little girl, my grandmother loved his work. She was a children’s librarian, and he was one of the few authors she followed. When I say that, I mean that she literally followed the man around. She trekked all over her home state of California, just to get his books signed. Then she shipped them to me, in Baltimore, where I read them. And kept them. I held onto those books, when I abandoned so many others.
Four decades later, when I finally met Tomie, I asked him to re-sign those books, for my own kids. It felt important to me, a way of connecting my children to my grandmother, who never met them. Tomie’s books were something we had shared and loved in an uncomplicated way, and Tomie signed them cheerfully, exclaiming at the out-of-print copies, some of them books he said he hadn’t seen in years. Later, reading with my kids, I remember thinking it was funny that so many of his books held up. That felt like a kind of magic, in an age where so many older books feel inadequate, or problematic.
Now, I’m sitting here, trying to figure out why they held up, and also why his work mattered so much. Beyond the Caldecott Medal he won for “Strega Nona,” the book for which he’s best known, his Newbery Honor for “26 Fairmount Avenue,” his nomination for the Hans Christian Anderson Award, and countless other accolades. Beyond the sheer number of books he wrote and illustrated, what was it that made much of his work so timeless, so meaningful?
What I’ve arrived at is this — some children’s authors seek to provoke, and many seek to comfort or entertain, but dePaola did all of these at once, mixing delicately, naturally. He wrote and illustrated with delight and playfulness, but also an embedded honesty, a sort of grit.
Strega Nona means “grandmother witch” and that feels like a perfect metaphor for much of dePaola’s work. After all, every grandmother has a little witch in her, and every witch might be a grandmother. It’s this sort of layering that makes dePaola so great. He isn’t someone who jumps to mind when you think of provocateurs, and yet he approached themes many authors shy away from. I remember reading “Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs” — in which not one, but two grandmothers die — and being shocked, but also reassured. And there’s a strange moment in that book, where the family ties a 94-year-old woman to a chair, and the young boy asks if he might also be tied to his chair. The parents comply, and that image, of the old woman and the young boy, tied into their chairs, side by side, is a perfect picture book moment. It’s so weird, and so funny, and so human. That’s dePaola.
When, in 1979, “Oliver Button Is a Sissy” challenged gender norms, School Library Journal called it “an attractive little book.” Little? For many kids, this was the first book to offer authentic representation. It was a huge life-giving book, and yet, the subject matter was handled in such a daily, matter-of-fact way, with such gentleness, that it could be read as “little.”
Perhaps my own favorite dePaola is “Helga’s Dowry,” in which a young troll without a dowry subverts the troll patriarchy. While there’s a strong feminist tone, Helga never felt messagey to me, scaffolded as it is with hilarity, lovable characters, and dePaola’s irrepressible artwork.
Tomie dePaola’s gift was in the blending of things — real life frustrations into fantasy worlds, moments of laughter into unsolvable problems, witches into grandmothers. And I find myself thinking now, of my own Strega Nona, realizing that she probably saw things in dePaola’s work that I could not have imagined or been ready for. But perhaps now I am. And this moment, this realization, could not have been possible without the stack of books beside me — full as they are of stories that capture so much about being human, but do so with a little extra humor and grace.
Laurel Snyder is the author of many books for children. Recent titles include “My Jasper June,” “Hungry Jim,” and the “Charlie and Mouse” easy-reader series.