When I heard that Tomie dePaola died, I had the strange feeling that I had lost a friend that I had never met. I had read his stories and enjoyed his illustrations with my children for years. Love was definitely a muse of his, I thought; his paintings and writings are alive with love. As I was thinking this, I pulled the books that we own by him off my children’s shelves and flipped through them. I saw a heart drawn on the flyleaf of one of them, with an ink scribble. “TOMIE” was written there in pen, with a heart drawn under the arm of the “T.” My copy of The Miracles of Jesus was signed by the author, and I never knew it until the day that author passed, I pray, to the arms of Jesus.
There are only a few children’s-book artists and authors who are immediately recognizable and whose contributions to children’s literature deserve that recognition. Tomie dePaola is one of those artists and authors, and especially in the sphere of Catholic picture books. He died on March 30, 2020 at the age of 85, having suffered a fall in the barn that served as his studio. DePaola will be well remembered for his charming tales and distinctive drawings that brought new life to old legends. But his is also a legacy that will be cherished by Catholics. DePaola’s significant contributions to an authentic Catholic literature for children—from the humorous Italian adventures of Strega Nona, to the rollicking myths of the giants of Ireland; from Mother Goose to the Bible; from the Holy Twins Benedict and Scholastica to Our Lady of Guadalupe—evoke the passion of a joyful man who found his vocation in bringing children to God through his art.
Tomie dePaola’s story began with a joke that may very well have been the premise of one of his stories: a monk who couldn’t stand silence. After studying art at the Pratt Institute in New York, the Connecticut native joined a Benedictine monastery in Vermont. Tomie had been a Catholic all his life, but after six months determined monasticism was not for him. About his time in the monastery, dePaola said that it “solidified, not religious, but some deep spiritual values,” and he learned through the artistic heritage of the Benedictine tradition that “culture was an important thing as well. If you can add to the culture of the race of man, you’re doing a really hot number. It certainly gave me time to delve even more into the study of art; I was sort of the resident artist.” Sadly, Tomie dePaola eventually left the Catholic Church, but he seemed one of those who remained in pectore, in his heart, Catholic, especially in his sensitivities as an artist, a decorator of Catholic churches, and a storyteller for children.
Tomie dePaola may have lost the Faith in some way, but his faith in beauty never failed and, as Dostoevsky famously said, “Beauty will save the world.” The artist would have agreed with a grin as he applied his busy brushes to this principle. Interestingly, dePaola especially saw the beauty of the Catholic faith with its enduring power, its charm, its sacred mystery, and its qualities of lore and legend. If he did not keep the Catholic Faith, he at least kept the Catholic heart, and shared that heart with the best of audiences—children. To these, he presented the heroes of the Faith and the traditions of the Church with a vitality that is all but unmatched in the modern children’s library.
DePaola’s clean, strong lines coupled with bright, bold colors render his work immediately appealing to children. In his drawings, the direct simplicity of the medieval, the vibrancy of the Renaissance, the authenticity of folk art, and the Byzantine energy of the spiritual dimension all come together to make his picture-books beautiful and engaging. “I think my style of illustration has been refined over the years,” he said. “Style has to do with the kinds of things you are drawn to personally, and I’m drawn to Romanesque and folk art. I think that my style is very close to those—very simple and direct. I simplify.” And that simplification speaks to the young imagination in volumes. DePaola’s pleasing forms are both whimsical and recognizable, and children can see two worlds existing together harmoniously in his paintings.
The truth of sanctity is, in many ways, accessible to young readers through the wild and wonderful tales that dePaola told and illustrated. The stories of saints that he retold—such as St. Christopher, St. Francis, and St. Patrick—offer a heightened element to the lives of the saints, allowing them to appear clearly as citizens of two worlds. Tomie dePaola’s art reflects and reveres just that.
But the action of those immortal stories under dePaola’s hard lines and soft brushes and his straightforward writing style rendered the invisible aspects of sainthood and sanctity more visible, tangible, and attractive. Catholics are called to look beyond the images of this world, to believe in miracles, and to be optimists when pessimism reigns. Tomie dePaola’s images are doorways to that vision, to that belief, and to that happiness.
Again, when I heard of Tomie dePaola’s death, I felt I had lost a friend, and in that moment, discovered that I had a small memento of that friend in my home. Though he is gone, his heart remains. Catholics should remember this merry little man who may have left the Church, but who brought children to God through his storytelling and painting. Like Giovanni, the juggler in his story The Clown of God, Tomie dePaola plied his craft to give glory to God, in his way. “Our founder, Brother Francis, says that everything sings the glory of God,” a friar tells Giovanni. “Why even your juggling… If you give happiness to people, you give glory to God as well.” When Giovanni fell as he juggled in a church and “his old heart stopped,” his soul was caught up like a ball by the Christ Child. We pray that Tomie may be caught up, too. The stories he told in his life gave happiness to so many people; may his soul rest in peace and may his heart beat on in the pages of his books.
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