One of the first picture books I can recall with true clarity is about a young boy, a magic pasta pot and three kisses. For the longest time I remembered nothing more than the beautiful illustrations and the warm feeling I always got whenever my grandmother read it to me. Then one day the title suddenly came to me: “Strega Nona,” by Tomie dePaola. I have been pulling his books off the library shelves ever since.
For over 40 years, Tomie dePaola has been writing and illustrating heartwarming books for children. He is best known for his clean, simple line illustrations, filled with bright, bursting colors. His human characters are immediately recognizable with their round faces and puffy-looking clothes. Collections such as “Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose” and “Tomie dePaola’s Book of Poems” are rich with diverse characters, animal and people alike. One of his newer series, about the Barkers family, introduces Spanish vocabulary and blended, adoptive families.
The classic “Strega Nona,” a Caldecott Medal honor recipient, has blossomed into over half a dozen stories about magical Nona and her adventures with Big Anthony. Capturing the essence of a quiet Italian village, dePaola creates big, bold characters to match the striking colors typical of his work. A treasury, to be published in October of 2015, will contain six of these tales as well as some additional elements to enhance the already well-loved stories.
“Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs,” dePaola’s first and favorite work, is a fictionalized account of his childhood visits to his grandmother, Nana Downstairs, and great-grandmother, Nana Upstairs. Simple text pulls readers into Tommy’s loving family, gently exploring topics like old age and death. These themes and characters appear again in “26 Fairmount Avenue,” a Newbery Medal honor title, the first in a chapter book series of memoirs. dePaola’s classic illustrations accompany the chapters, though these are black and white. Readers meet young Tomie in 1938, as his family is building a new house and the first animated feature film is about to hit theaters.
Aside from his popular series books, dePaola also has a number of holiday titles, many of which tell various tales of Christmas. “The Birds of Bethlehem,” completely void of white space, recounts the Nativity story from the point of view of the birds. He also illustrated the Clement Clarke Moore classic “The Night Before Christmas,” as well as Valentine Davies’ “Miracle on 34th Street.” Including these titles, dePaola has a collection of work that has now reached over 200 titles. In 2011, dePaola was awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his contribution to children’s literature, and in the years since he has continued his work. I have fond memories of sitting with my grandmother and flipping through the pages of “Strega Nona,” now a timeless classic that I look forward to sharing with my children and grandchildren.