When we were four, many of us daydreamed about being a ballerina, astronaut or magician. But, mostly, we were clueless about what we’d be when we grew up.
That wasn’t the case with Thomas (a.k.a. Tomie) dePaola, the acclaimed, gay children’s author and illustrator, who died at age 85 in Lebanon, N.H., from complications from surgery after a fall. DePaola, whose award-winning work was beloved by children and adults, wrote and illustrated more than 270 books. If you’ve been spellbound by magical grandmas; bullied; eagerly awaited the arrival of a new baby brother or sister; or frightened by news that adults wouldn’t explain to you – you’ve found or will find a beautiful, comforting home in dePaola’s books.
DePaola knew what his life’s work would be before he started kindergarten. In an interview with readingrockets.org, he said, “I said, ‘Yes, I’m going to be an artist, and I’m going to write stories and draw pictures for books…I never, ever thought of considering any other profession.’”
From then on, dePaola never looked back. In second grade, dePaola told his art teacher “real artists don’t copy,” dePaola wrote in his series of memoirs about growing up in Meriden, Conn.
The teacher was so pleased with the picture the seven-year-old dePaola drew of her that she asked if she could keep it. “‘I told her, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I have to keep it. I might be able to sell it someday,’” he told readingrockets.org.
DePaola’s stories were often inspired by his memories of his family and childhood. “I’ve discovered that children most respond to books based on my own life,” he told The New York Times.
DePaola grew up in an Italian and Irish, Roman Catholic family. His early childhood was filled with Sunday dinners with his grandparents, dancing school recitals (he loved to dance like Fred Astaire!), Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first years of World War II.
“Strega Nona,” one of his most beloved works is set in Calabria in Italy where his grandparents were from. It features a “grandma witch” who works magic with a pasta pot. DePaola received the distinguished Caldecott Medal for the book, which was banned by some libraries for daring to expose the young to magic.
Today, though much improvement is still needed in LGBTQ representation, a variety of children’s books — from “Heather Has Two Mommies” to “I Am Jazz” to “Harriet Gets Carried Away” — feature queer characters. This wasn’t so for kids’ book authors and illustrators of dePaola’s generation. Most children’s book writers couldn’t be openly queer then. “If it became known you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your chest,” dePaola told T: The New York Times Style Magazine in 2019, “and schools wouldn’t buy your books anymore.”
DePaola’s work isn’t explicitly gay. Yet his picture books and chapter books have a particular resonance for queer readers. Though he didn’t come out until late in his life, his experience of being gay is reflected in some of his most seminal books.
“I was called a sissy in my young life,” dePaola said in a 1999 interview with the Times, “but instead of internalizing these painful experiences, I externalize them in my work.”
As a queer reader, I feel seen and heard as I read dePaola’s books. DePaola’s “Oliver Button Is a Sissy,” released in 1979, is the story of a young boy who’s bullied because he doesn’t like sports and wants to dance and dress in costume. It never says the word “gay,” but it’s queer quotient can’t be missed.
In his memoirs, dePaola writes of being a scared seven-year-old when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II. He only knew that, as his mom said, “things will never be the same.”
Things won’t be the same after COVID-19. Thank you, Tomie dePaola for comforting us during our Pearl Harbor. R.I.P.