Beloved New Hampshire Author Tomie dePaola Dies At 85

Mar 31, 2020

Credit Courtesy - Tomie dePaola via Facebook

Beloved New Hampshire children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola died Monday at Dartmouth Hitchcock in Lebanon after complications from a fall. 

The New London-based artist was 85.

NHPR’s Sean Hurley spoke with New Hampshire storyteller and fellow children’s book writer Rebecca Rule about one of her favorite people and authors.  

Listen to the story:

Rebecca Rule recalls the first time she met Tomie dePaola. “And he walked through the room and just had this glow,” she says. “I mean, he had this glow, and this warmth that just, it just came off in waves.

You can hear that warmth and almost feel those waves in this 2013 NHPR interview as dePaola describes an epiphany he had in his 20’s while reading a homily about his favorite holiday, Christmas.

“That Christmas was the feast for the artist. Because Christmas, the invisible became visible. And I thought, that's exactly what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to take something that's just in my head, something that's invisible and make it tangible and visible on a piece of paper or canvas or wall or whatever. And once I started to embrace and do that in my life, then it became my way of living.”

Born on September 15, 1934, dePaola grew up with his extended family in Meriden, Connecticut.  While many of his best known stories like Strega Nona were reworkings of classic folk tales, Rebecca Rule says her favorite dePaola book was autobiographical.

“Nana Upstairs Nana Downstairs is one of my favorite books of all time by any writer,” Rule says. “It's a true story, as I understand it, of his childhood," she says. "You know he had an extended family living at his home and one of the Grammies lives upstairs and one of the Grammies lived downstairs.”

dePaola often worried in interviews that his childhood had been too happy for an artist. He recalled drawing on bedsheets as a boy, how his family made an artist’s room for him in the attic.

“I remember the moment when I was four,” dePaola said in the 2013 interview, “when I told everybody in my family, ‘When I grew up, I'm going to be an artist. I'm going to write stories and draw pictures for books. I’m going to sing and tap dance on the stage.’”

Rule says dePaola did all those things and remained that child throughout his life. 

“He believed that inside we're all a certain age and some of us are 13 even though we're 80.  And Tomie was five,” she says, laughing. “I think he was always five. And that allowed him to write these books that spoke so clearly to five year olds.”

The magic of dePaola’s work, Rule says, is that there is no separation between author, writing, and art. He resembled his own images, his stories reflected his nature. He lived a life of love and mischief.

“His stories are how we are with each other,” she says, “and his characters like himself are very loving with each other, even when they get into mischief they are loving human beings.”

As much as he enjoyed being with people, Rule says the prolific author spent so much time in his 200 year old barn in New London writing and drawing that at one point he needed surgery on his wrists.

“That's how much drawing he did. You know, he had actually worn out his hands with all the work that he was doing,” Rule says.

“You know, you see an empty piece of paper, and it's got to be made better,” dePaola said in 2013. 

dePaola made many many sheets of paper better.

“I'm sorry you never got to meet him,” Rules says to me. “You would have loved him. His spirit was so strong. I mean, you just felt it. It just sort of emanated from him. What a loss. What a loss to the world.”

His favorite food was popcorn. He loved to wear scarves. Almost every day was Christmas. He was 85 years old. And he was 5 years old.