Tomie dePaola, creator of gently humorous picture books, dies at 85

Tomie dePaola filled thousands upon thousands of pages in his children’s books with talking animals, Irish giants, trolls, Native-American guiding spirits, and Strega Nona, a homespun, affable healing witch from southern Italy.

Yet the germ for most of his characters, and often the story lines themselves, were drawn from his childhood in Meriden, Conn., and extended family through New England.

“For me, those memories are the crux of my work,’’ Mr. dePaola told The Boston Globe in 1993. “It’s how I know if things ring true.’’

Mr. dePaola, a prolific writer and artist who some years would illustrate 10 or more books annually, died Monday at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. He was injured in a fall and died of complications following surgery, his agent, Doug Whiteman, told the Associated Press. He was 85.


In all, he worked on about 270 books, selling nearly 25 million copies worldwide, with some translated into more than 20 languages. More than 100 of those books he both wrote and illustrated.

His illustrations carried a folk art quality, with simple, bold lines and muted colors, sometimes conveying a story of whimsy, sometimes a tale of solemnity. He worked in acrylic paints, watercolors, ink, and collage — almost every medium except pastel, Mr. dePaola said, which is ‘‘too dusty and makes me sneeze too much.’’

In his audience, he often saw a reflection of his early childhood.

“I look at myself working for very young children, preschool up to second, maybe third grade. By the time they get into sixth grade I don’t understand them at all,’’ Mr. dePaola told the Globe. “I was like these young kids are in kindergarten. I don’t see them as any different. By the time they get into second or third grade the impact of modern society starts imploding on them.”


He was the second of four children, his father an Italian-American barber, his mother an Irish-American housewife, his extended family a loving font of fun and stories.

His mother often read aloud to her children, with Tomie sometimes illustrating the tale as she unspooled it. His parents transformed the attic into a studio for him.

The boy began spelling his name ‘‘Tomie’’ at the suggestion of a cousin, Irish tenor Morton Downey, who encouraged his drawing and dancing. In his autobiographical chapter book ‘‘Here We All Are’’ (2000), Mr. dePaola recalled Downey telling his mother: ‘‘He’s got to have an unusual spelling for his first name so people will remember it!’’

“I thought everybody who is famous has to have a desperate childhood and work his way out of it,’’ he told the Globe in 2007, “but I had a great one.’’

Yet, painful and poignant moments from these times would, too, find their ways into a dePaola creation.

His “Oliver Button Is a Sissy” was decades ahead of its time when it was published in 1979. Like the title character, young Tomie dePaola was a dancer who dangled his tap shoes from his shoulder, to the dismay of his father. Yet, once he started dancing, his father’s pride swelled.

In one scene from the book, the boy was rescued by an unknown helper who crossed out the word “sissy,” scribbled on a wall, and replaced it with another S-word, “star.”

“I was called sissy in my young life,” Mr. dePaola, who was gay, told The New York Times in 1999, “but instead of internalizing these painful experiences, I externalize them in my work.”


In his autobiographical “Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs,” the 4-year-old protagonist has a beloved great-grandmother (Nana Upstairs), who is cared for by his grandmother (Nana Downstairs). When the boy is told Nana Upstairs has died, he does not understand and races up to her room. One of the final illustrations shows the boy from behind, staring at the empty, stilled bed.

“I get chills — the hair is already standing up on the back of my neck — when I think of that drawing,” he told the Globe. “I still remember that room. It was completely flooded with light, and I think it was as simple as that my grandmother had always kept the shades half pulled-down so that the room wouldn’t be too bright for my great-grandmother. They had just taken her body away, and my grandmother hadn’t remade the bed, but had taken the sheets off. Just this white space with white light.

And then I knew she was gone.”

Mr. dePaola studied art at Pratt Institute in New York, receiving a bachelor’s degree. On a trip to the Modern Museum of Art with a classmate, he encountered a painter who would become his hero: Henri Matisse.

“He didn’t want the viewer to see the hard work that went into his painting. He would start out with a rendering, then simplify and simplify,’’ Mr. dePaola said of the French painter. “I try to be as clear and simple as I can be in my illustrations, so that the child can tell what is going on and what the emotions are.”


After graduating from Pratt, he joined Weston Priory in Vermont, intent on becoming a Benedictine monk. He lasted a few months before the silence sent him scurrying back in the secular world. “People said, ‘Tomie, they don’t sing and dance in the monastery,’” he told Publishers Weekly.

Yet, the Catholicism from his childhood and the experience of synthesizing liturgy with art in the priory would spawn several books about saints, including “Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland’’; “Mary, the Mother of Jesus’’; and “Brother Francis of Assisi.’’ He also created several paintings for the Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham.

Mr. dePaola taught at several colleges — including Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H., and Chamberlayne Junior College, which was folded into the now-shuttered Mt. Ida College in Newton — before focusing on his writing and illustrating while renovating a late 1700s farmhouse and barn that would serve as his studio near Colby-Sawyer.

He was a frequent, and ebullient, presence at readings and book signings in the Boston area.

His most famous character, Strega Nona (“granny witch” in Italian), would appear in 10 books, often playing off her oafish sidekick, Big Anthony, as she concocts elixirs for headaches and potions for love.

In Nona are echoes, again, from the creator’s past. Mr. dePaola’s maternal grandmother, born in Italy and settled in Fall River, cured the headaches of neighborhood women by putting warm water in a special bowl and swirling olive oil on top, Mr. dePaola told the Globe.


“Then,” he said, “she’d say a magic prayer over it and take a lady’s hairpin and dip it in the water and put it back in and the lady’s headache would be cured.”