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Remembering ‘Tomie’: Amherst resident pens new table-style book about the seminal children’s book writer and artist

  • At her home in Amherst, Barbara Elleman holds “Days Of The Blackbird” by Tomie dePaola next to a framed illustration from that storyme in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Elleman at her home in Amherst, next to a wall that holds framed illustrations from several children’s book artists, including Tomie dePaola. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Elleman at her home in Amherst. A former editor of a review publication of children’s books, she’s the author of a new book about the life and art of the late Tomie dePaola. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Elleman holds a signed copy of “Strega Nona” by the late Tomie dePaola, a breakthrough book for him in the mid 1970s.erst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Elleman holds a signed copy of “Strega Nona,” a breakthough book by the late Tomie dePaola. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Another key book by Tomie dePaola was 1979s “Oliver Button Is a Sissy,” a somewhat autobiographical story by the late children’s book writer and artist. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Elleman at her home in Amherst, next to a wall that holds framed illustrations from several children’s book artists, including Tomie dePaola. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barbara Elleman discusses the life and work of the late Tomie dePaola at her home in Amherst. A former editor of a review publication of children’s books, she’s the author of a new book about the author and illustrator. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tomie dePaola is seen in his studio in his New Hampshire home in 2013. He died March 30 last year at age 85. AP

  • Tomie dePaola, seen here in his studio in his New Hampshire home in 2013. He died March 30 last year at age 85. AP

  • DePaola’s artwork was generally characterized by its warm tones and colors and figures that were inspired by folkloric art. AP

  • Barbara Elleman provides an in-depth look at the life and art of the late Tomie dePaola in her new book. AP



Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2021

When children’s book writer and illustrator Tomie dePaola died last year at age 85, he left behind an enormous and critically acclaimed body of work, millions of fans, and a truckload of awards.

Obituaries from across the media noted not just dePaola’s talent and sense of humor but his empathy for people who felt put down or out of place. Writing in The New Yorker, Naomi Fry noted that she had enjoyed dePaola’s books as a child, as a mother reading to her young daughter, and also as an adult, sensing that dePaola was an excellent guide for navigating the “jungle” that childhood can be.

“Though I surely wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time,” Fry wrote, “to encounter, as a child, dePaola’s visual and writerly voice — clear-eyed, sympathetic, gently shy — felt like coming across an ally with whom to brave that jungle.”

Just short of a year after dePaola’s death, one of his biggest fans, Barbara Elleman of Amherst, has produced her own tribute to the late artist. “The Worlds of Tomie dePaola,” published by Simon & Schuster, is a handsome coffee table-style book that takes an in-depth look at his art and the themes of his writing, while also offering a basic biography of dePaola that traces the origins of his work.

The book is chockablock with examples of art from dePaola’s career, including paintings he did as a college student, and photos of the studio in the rambling New Hampshire farmhouse he lived in. There are also pictures of his family, including some of dePaola as a child, as well as chapters on the themes of his work, his creative process and his publishing history. A fellow artist, the late Trina Schart Hyman, and one of dePaola’s college art instructors, the late Roger Cosgrove, contribute short essays.

The book represents a considerable expansion, updating and redesign of a 1999 book Elleman wrote about dePaola. She’s also the author of a biography and study for young readers of Virginia Lee Burton, the Massachusetts native who wrote the famous children’s story “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.”

A deep friendship

Elleman, a former children’s book editor for “Booklist,” a review publication of the American Library Association, also infuses her book with the kind of close observation of dePaola’s work that came from her deep friendship with the artist. In a recent interview, she recalled that the two got to know each other in the early 1980s after meeting at a book conference.

“We just kind of hit it off,” she said. “He was a great talker, he liked to talk about his work and about art in general, and I was most anxious to learn.”

Elleman recalled that when she first began working with “Booklist,” she felt she had a good grasp on story themes and text in children’s books “but I didn’t know that much about art yet, so I bounced a lot of ideas off Tomie … He gave me a better understanding about [art] and the materials artists brought to children’s books.”

“He was always a joy to be with, just a great sense of humor,” she said. “He was interested in a lot of different things.” 

And dePaola, who wrote and/or illustrated some 270 titles during his career, “was amazingly prolific,” Elleman said. “I can’t think of another children’s book artist who did as much.”

Their friendship was also sealed, Elleman writes in an introduction to her book, by the fact they were born the same year — 1934 — grew up in the Great Depression, and shared a love of theater and art. Though Elleman and her late husband, Don, lived in Chicago when Elleman first befriended the artist, the couple made occasional trips to New York to see plays, and dePaola would invite them to visit him in New Hampshire while in the East, including once for Thanksgiving.

Once Elleman and her husband moved to the Valley in the early 2000s, they saw dePaola more frequently, and that enabled her to learn more about the artist’s background and the inspirations for his work.

For instance, she notes that dePaola, born in Connecticut to an Italian-American father and Irish-American mother, had a “deeply felt spirituality” that led him to live in a Benedictine priory in Vermont for a stretch after college and to develop a great love of modern liturgical art. He was also interested in the mysteries of the Catholic Church, such as the stories of saints.

Even after dePaola later grew away from the church, he maintained contact with some nuns he had known “and used their faces in some of his work,” Elleman said.

‘Attention to the child’s mind and eye’

In books such as “Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland” and “Christopher, the Holy Giant,” Elleman writes, dePaola “conceived his books with attention to the child’s mind and eye and concern for the ways children process thoughts.”

A fan of folktales and folkloric art, dePaola brought those styles to bear on his spiritually imbued books as well.

DePaola, who was gay, also spoke to the bullying he endured when he was a kid because he liked art and dancing rather than sports. In his 1979 book “Oliver Button is a Sissy,” a young boy is teased because he likes to tap dance, then wins admiration at a dance contest. The book, lightened with humor, became one of his big early successes along with “Strega Nona,” a 1975 tale about a kindly Italian witch, Strega Nona, and her hapless assistant, Big Anthony.

Elleman says she was always impressed with dePaola’s ability to frame a story — something not every children’s book writer does, she said. “Theater was very important to Tomie. An artist has to remember when they’re creating a story that they have to bring the characters on stage, dress them consistently, and get them to the next page in a consistent, understandable way. He always did that.”

She notes in her book that dePaola’s work extended beyond picture books for young children. A graduate of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, he taught art in a number of places up until the 1980s, and he also painted murals and frescoes.

When she worked with the library association, Elleman also founded and became editor-in-chief of another publication, “Book Links,” and she and her husband donated about 1,000 books to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, where the collection is known as the Barbara Elleman Research Library (BERL). Elleman also works as a volunteer at the museum.

As such, she knows something about children’s literature — and she says dePaola’s books and art stand out for their thoughtfulness and themes and for “the line work, color palettes, and character placements.”

“You can’t replace Tomie DePaola,” Elleman said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.