Strega Nona author Tomie dePaola made a life of comforting strangers
There are certain characters we meet in the pages of books who stay with us our entire lives. Saying so, though, is a bit of a cliché, the sort of sentimental aphorism you might find painted on the wall of a bookstore. Still, albeit hokey, it's true. And this past week, I was tapped on the shoulder by Strega Nona.
Prior, I hadn't thought about the children's book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola in probably a decade; I'm in the limbo of life between being a child and having my own. That means I (sadly) don't spend much time thinking about picture books, even the ones I deeply loved, like dePaola's tale of the "Grandmother Witch" and her magic pot of spaghetti. Yet randomly, unbidden, Strega Nona — and the third-grade school teacher who introduced me to her all those years ago — have been on my mind.
I do not find it particularly remarkable, however, that I was thinking about dePaola and his creation already when I heard the news on Monday that he had passed away at the age of 85 due to complications from surgery. While it is difficult to generalize about someone who wrote or illustrated more than 270 books in his lifetime, dePaola was, fundamentally, a nurturer. This is reflected in his preoccupation with characters who are caregivers — many of his stories, including the Strega Nona series, center on elderly women and their domestic or family lives — but also in his soft, pale color palettes that invite, but never insist on, your attention. With the world outside so confusing and scary, it seems only natural to turn inward to memories of simple, softer times, and to the characters who once were comforts and teachers.
Born in Meriden, Connecticut, in 1934, dePaola's young life and family informed his stories and illustrations. Oliver Button Is a Sissy, "a book about a young boy who is bullied by his peers for preferring dancing and reading to doing sports, was inspired by his own experiences as a child," The New York Times writes. In 26 Fairmount Avenue, which won a 2000 Newbery Honor, dePaola shares his childhood memories from the year 1938, including mistaking his great-grandmother's chocolate laxative as a treat, and seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in the theater.
But DePaola was an especially beautiful writer on the subject of death. The departed are shown by dePaola as serene and ever-present forces. In The Legend of the Bluebonnet, a retelling of a Comanche Nation legend, a young orphan describes her mother and father and the grandparents "she had never known" as being "all like shadows," with DePaola depicting the family members in a beige-and-pink wisp of memory. Perhaps his best known work on death, though, is Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, in which he illustrates losing both his great-grandmother and his grandmother. "She will come back in your memory whenever you think about her," the protagonist Tommy's mother says, and both women later visit him in the form of shooting stars.
DePaola's deep respect for matriarchs, both biographical and fictional, is what he will be most remembered for, though. In an oft-quoted interview with The Associated Press in 2013, dePaola said of Strega Nona's popularity, "I think it's because she's like everybody's grandmother. She's cute, she's not pretty, she's kind of funny-looking, but she's sweet, she's understanding. And she's a little saucy, she gets a little irritated every once in a while." It's hard to say it better than he does himself — while poor Big Anthony is the one who gets up to hijinks, it is the forgiving Strega Nona who sticks in the memory (and who flashed into my head this week, with her potato-nose, hunched back, and pot of endless spaghetti). Pancakes for Breakfast is a tender, textless book about another matronly woman, who lives alone with just her cat, dog, and farm animals (and amusingly mooches all her neighbors' pancakes away from them). But perhaps most emblematic of DePaola's love of matriarchs is when Tommy's brother, in Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, sees his great-grandmother with her hair down and runs from the room claiming she looks like a witch. To that, Tommy — really, Tomie — fumes: "She does not! She's beautiful."
Even his quirkiest tales are as intensely earnest. "It's not fun," is what DePaola insisted to America Magazine of his career in 2018. "It's very, very hard work and I take it very seriously." He added, as he had maintained all his life, that "only the very best is good enough for children." A Catholic, DePaola didn't often explicitly put religion into his work (although he did write several books about the Bible and saints). Still, his self-described "great reverence for life" glows through every page and every illustration, from the enormous animals that populate backgrounds to his auxiliary characters, like neighbors and townspeople, who you imagine he could have written entire books about, too.
I found myself thinking of DePaola the past few days, both because it's easy to retreat into memories right now, but also because there's a soothing rhythm to his stories that is still there as an adult. In the books, Tommy will always eat his grandmother's laxative, there will always be pancakes for breakfast, and my beloved Strega Nona will always forgive Big Anthony. DePaola understood that existence is made up of our foibles, follies, and imperfections, and his legacy will be the comfort he extends to each of us with his stories, the reassurance that however messily, things work out. "With the computer, it's so easy to fix your mistakes," DePaola once said. "I don't want that, at least not in this lifetime."
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