A Nicer Guy You Couldn’t Hope to Meet: Saying Goodbye to Thomas Anthony “Tomie” dePaola
In 2013 I was in a bit of a bind. I was working on a book with two other authors (Jules Danielson and Peter Sieruta) and one of the chapters I had assigned myself was an encapsulation of the truly great GLBTQIA+ creators of children’s books of the past, many of whom had had to keep their sexuality a secret due to the nature of the state of the world at the time. Turns out, I was unable to find any books on this topic and so I had to run around gathering together as many different sources as possible (which is why, to this day, I owe K.T. Horning a debt I will never be able to repay). The trickiest part was in knowing which creators did and did not want to be mentioned. I did not want to “out” someone who didn’t care to have their personal life on display, so I asked all the living folks, and figured the dead were already pretty well known.
One of the authors I needed to ask was Tomie dePaola. I’d met Tomie in 2009 at an event which led to one lovely picture with him . . .
. . . and one where it looked like I was about to clock him with my “Big Anthony” (if you know what I mean):
Over the years I met Tomie at a couple of events and every single time he was everything you would hope for in a legend of children’s literature. Kind, compassionate, with this sense that he’d be a lot of fun to hang out with. And unlike more authors than I should admit to, he was someone I remembered distinctly from my own childhood. In fact, when I had my own kids I cranked up the dePaola content in my household to eleven! His board book version of Mary Had a Little Lamb was canon, and I hold onto it tightly to this day. His collection of nursery rhymes in Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose remains my favorite (sorry, Arnold Lobel). And, of course, there’s Strega Nona. When Tomie learned that when I was young I’d harbored a crush on Big Anthony (don’t judge me), he sent me a copy of Big Anthony: His Story with a note saying that he knew I would probably love it more than most.
Of course Oliver Button Is a Sissy may be his second best-known work. Interestingly, I think the outdated term “sissy”, which made the book so strong when it was first released, means that parents now avoid it since they’d rather not teach their kids the word in the first place. A pity since the story itself, about a kid who’d just rather dance, hasn’t aged a jot. In 2012 the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C. even performed it:
But even then, I wasn’t entirely certain that Tomie would like to be included in my chapter. His was a different generation entirely and maybe he’d feel uncomfortable about it. Yet when I asked if I could include him he was nothing but generous. Absolutely, I could mention him in the roster. He wasn’t the kind of guy to really talk a ton about himself, but he wasn’t afraid to say who he was either.
On Monday, March 30th Tomie died of complications with surgery following a fall last week. He was honestly one of the giants of classic kids’ books living today. His death is a bitter pill to swallow but I know his legacy is secure. Bye, Tomie.
I’m gonna go reread Mary Had a Little Lamb now.
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