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The Extraordinary Tomie dePaola

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Tomie dePaola and Children's Books Guide

Tomie dePaola and About Children's Books Guide Liz Kennedy at a book signing

Tomie dePaola was born in 1934. By age four, he knew he wanted to be an artist. At the age of 31, Tomie dePaola illustrated his first picture book. Since 1965, he has published at least one book a year, generally four to six books annually. Now, Tomie dePaola is acclaimed as an award winning children's author and illustrator, with more than 200 books to his credit. In addition to illustrating all of these books, dePaola is also the author of more than a quarter of them. In his art, his stories, and his interviews, Tomie dePaola comes across as a man filled with a love of humanity and joie de vivre.

Much of what we know about Tomie dePaola's early life comes from the author's own books. In fact, he his series of beginning chapter books is based on his childhood. Known as 26 Fairmount Avenue books, they include 26 Fairmount Avenue, which received a 2000 Newbery Honor Award, Here We All Are, and On My Way.

From these books and several of his picture books, we know that Tomie came from a loving family of Irish and Italian background. He had an older brother and two younger sisters. His grandmothers were an important part of his life. Tomie's parents supported his desire to be an artist and to perform on stage.

When Tomie expressed an interest in taking dance lessons, he was immediately enrolled, even though it was unusual for a young boy to take dance lessons at that time. (In his picture book Oliver Button is a Sissy, dePaola uses the bullying that he experienced because of the lessons as the basis for the story.) The emphasis in Tomie's family was on enjoying home, school, family and friends, and embracing personal interests and talents.

We know from his biography that dePaola received a BFA from Pratt Institute and an MFA from the California College of Arts & Crafts. Between college and graduate school he spent a brief time in a Benedictine monastery. DePaola taught art and/or theater design at the college level from 1962 through 1978 before devoting himself fulltime to children's literature.

Tomie dePaola's work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a 1976 Caldecott Honor Book Award for his picture book Strega Nona. The title character, whose name means "Grandma Witch" is apparently very loosely based on Tomie's Italian grandmother. DePaola received the New Hampshire Governor's Arts Award as the 1999 Living Treasure for the entire body of his work. A number of American colleges have awarded dePaola honorary degrees. He has also received several awards from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota, and awards from the Catholic Library Association and the Smithsonian Institution, among others.

DePaola's picture books cover a number of themes/topics. Some of these include: his own life, Christmas and other holidays (religious and secular), folktales, Bible stories, Mother Goose rhymes, and books about Strega Nona. He has also written a number of informational books like Charlie Needs a Cloak, which is the story of the creation of a wool cloak, from shearing a sheep to spinning the wool, weaving the cloth, and sewing the garment. His collections include Mother Goose stories, scary stories, seasonal stories, and nursery tales. His books are characterized by humor and light hearted illustrations, many in a folkart style. DePaola creates his artwork in a combination of watercolor, tempera, and acrylic.

Today, Tomie dePaola lives in New Hampshire. His art studio is in a large barn. He travels to events and makes personal appearances regularly. DePaola continues to write books based on his own life and interests, as well as illustrating books for other authors. To learn more about this extraordinary man, read Tomie dePaola: His Art and His Stories, which was written by Barbara Elleman and published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 1999. In her book, Elleson provides both a biography of dePaola and a detailed analysis of his work.

Since we probably won't have time to read them all, are there certain Tomie dePaola books that you consider "must reads" and want to recommend to the About Children's Books community? If so, please post your recommendations on the About Children’s Books Forum.

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