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Lost Tomie dePaola art enlivens beautiful new lives of the saints

Through the Year with Tomie dePaola, co-published by Magnificat and Ignatius Press, is an elegant hardcover that combines dePaola’s previously unreleased “art mail”–colorful drawings he sent to family and friends on Catholic feast days and holidays.


A new “lives of the saints” book has resurrected the late Tomie dePaola’s unpublished illustrations for one last adventure.

A lifelong New Englander, DePaola was the rare Catholic children’s artist who also achieved mainstream fame, writing and illustrating over 260 picture books before dying at age 85 on March 30, 2020.

His fans ranged from homeschooling parents hungry for Catholic children’s materials rivaling the quality of evangelical and secular works to the American Library Association and the U.S. Post Office.

The new Through the Year with Tomie dePaola, co-published by Magnificat and Ignatius Press, is an elegant hardcover with ribbon marker that retails at $18.99, that is suitable for all ages.

The unique volume combines dePaola’s previously unreleased “art mail”–colorful drawings he sent to family and friends on Roman Catholic feast days and holidays–with texts by Ignatius Press editors and writers Catherine Harmon and John Herreid.

“In collecting these wonderful little illustrations together, we composed short passages about the saints and feast days they represent, telling stories about the people and the traditions being celebrated,” Harmon and Herreid write in an author’s note.

They point to several delights and surprises in the book, reflecting dePaola’s Italian and Irish heritage and the time he spent as a Benedictine monk in his younger years.

Far from sticking to the U.S. Catholic liturgical calendar, as most “Lives of the Saints” books do, dePaolo illustrated his favorite celebrations, ranging from the well-known to the obscure. (For purists, the book includes an appendix at the end of each month noting the saints and feasts not pictured, such as the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28.)

The book includes popular celebrations including Christmas Day, Palm Sunday and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Harmon and Herreid also note the book’s inclusion of the obscure St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners, and the little-known St. Hunna, the patron saint of laundry workers.

“Fiacre was a seventh-century priest from Ireland,” they write in the Sept. 1 entry on p. 88. “As a boy, he had grown up in a monastery, where he learned a great deal about growing herbs, making medicines, and identifying which plants are good to eat.” At the bottom of the page, dePaola’s drawing depicts a bearded young man with a scythe over his right shoulder and an herb in his left hand.

Those new to dePaolo’s drawings will notice the sensitivity and warmth of the images, which have captivated small children for generations.

In an October 2018 video interview with America Media, dePaola described his illustrations as a vocation, showing how he prayed to the saints before starting each work. He shared his belief that “only the very best is good enough for children.”

He explained how he employed the deceptively simple method of line drawings in his work, sketching each image by hand and coloring inside the lines “like a coloring book” as he imagined three dimensions.

DePaola, who won the Children’s Literature Legacy Award from the American Library Association in 2011, also wrote picture books on Italian folklore that captivated secular readers.

In May, the United States Postal Service unveiled a Forever Stamp honoring the bestselling “Strega Nona” series he started in 1975.

“He could communicate with—and without—words, and touch readers across cultures and generations,” said Steve Monteith, USPS chief customer and marketing officer. “At the Postal Service, we feel great kinship in this idea. We help Americans of all backgrounds and generations stay connected, no matter where they are.”

In his religious works on Jesus and the saints, dePaola’s joyful images enthralled and captivated small children.

For those familiar with dePaola’s works, Through the Year with Tomie dePaola should resonate as a loving tribute to that legacy.

Parents of small children will want to read the book together as a family to explain words like “dormition” and “liturgical,” which fill every page.

In an email, an Ignatius Press representative suggested a reading age of 7 and older for children who wish to read it on their own.

She said the book is ideal for family reading, noting that small children enjoy looking at the pictures while siblings and older parents read the stories aloud.

The book’s only weakness is that dePaola’s death forces it to omit some familiar celebrations and to rely heavily on static portrait images rather than on fresh, page-length art.

The book also misses dePaola’s unique voice in the pairing of words to images, although Harmon and Herreid have done a beautiful job of filling in for him. They clearly know, love and understand both the Catholic faith and the art that they honor in this volume.

Through the Year with Tomie dePaola still feels like the freshest and most accessible lives of the saints that one could buy for a child today. One could easily see it becoming a family tradition in many homes, promoting both literacy and piety.

Whether reading the book aloud to toddlers or giving it to a grade-schooler as a first communion gift, it’s hard to imagine any dePaola fan not being satisfied with this loving tribute.

Ultimately, dePaola’s greatest gift came in his ability to communicate wordlessly to small children in a language of the heart, a skill that the book’s cover image of a child Jesus with open arms, a halo, red cheeks, curly hair, and a red Sacred Heart recalls warmly to mind.

That love remains visible on every page of this book—and the stories explain the imagery with an emphasis on beauty and an eye to favorite stories and episodes.

For example, in the beautiful Sept. 30 feast day image of St. Jerome greeting a lion through his window, the writers do not pass over that whimsical story, as some hard-hearted rationalists might do.

“One of the pious legends told about Saint Jerome is of how he found a lion in the desert suffering from a painful thorn stuck in its paw,” Harmon and Herreid write. “After he healed it, the lion became devoted to him and followed close by, becoming a pet of sorts!”

Through the Year with Tomie dePaola
By Tomie dePaolo, and Catherine Harmon and John Herreid
Ignatius Press and Magnificat, 2023
Hardcover, 136 pages

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About Sean Salai 15 Articles
Dr. Sean M. Salai, D.Min, is a pastoral theologian. He is the culture reporter at The Washington Times.

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