Tomie dePaola, beloved children’s author and illustrator of ‘Strega Nona,’ dies at 85

Tomie dePaola poses with his artwork in his studio in New London, N.H. The widely-loved children's author and illustrator died March 30 in New Hampshire. He was 85.
(Jim Cole / Associated Press)

Tomie dePaola, the prolific children’s writer and illustration whose beloved, witchy series “Strega Nona” stole the hearts of generations of young readers, has died. He was 85.

DePaola died Monday at a medical center in Lebanon, N.H., from complications from a surgery after a fall, his literary agent Doug Whiteman told the Associated Press.

Throughout his career, dePaola authored or illustrated more than 270 children’s books, sold nearly 25 million copies worldwide and had his books translated into more than 20 languages.


His books were deeply inspired by folklore and his Italian and Irish heritage. Titles to his credit include “26 Fairmount Avenue,” which won him a Newbery Honor; “Oliver Button is a Sissy;” “Pancakes for Breakfast;” “An Early American Christmas”; and most recently illustrated Cheryl B. Klein’s “Wings,” published last year.

But among his best known and most beloved characters were inspired by his own family members.

“Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs,” published in 1973, is about his grandmother and great-grandmother, who he said was his “best friend” as a 4-year-old. Nana Upstairs dies when the book’s character, Tommy, is a child, and Nana Downstairs dies when he’s older.

Tomie dePaola was a prolific author and illustrator who worked on more than 270 books and sold nearly 25 million copies worldwide.
(Jim Cole / Associated Press)

Strega Nona, another elderly character, inspired many of the doodles and tales in dePaola’s books. The first story in the series tells the story of “Grandma Witch” and her helper, Big Anthony. Despite the woman’s orders, he touches her magic pasta pot, creating so much of the noodly stuff that it nearly floods the town. “Strega Nona: An Original Tale,” was published in 1975 and received a Caldecott Honor the following year.

DePaola was born Sept. 15, 1934, in Meriden, Conn. to an Italian father and Irish mother. He earned his MFA from the California College of Arts in Oakland. He also studied fine arts at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco and later landed teaching jobs in college art and theater departments in California, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

DePaola often said he knew that he wanted to be an artist when he was just 4. “When I told my parents I wanted to be an artist, they really believed me, and made sure I had paper and paints and all the art supplies I needed,” he told the Times-Picayune in 1998.


Throughout his career, dePaola received many accolades, including the Smithson Medal from the Smithsonian Institution, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the the Society of Illustrators and the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota. He also won a Children’s Literature Legacy Award (formerly known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award) for “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.”

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu paid tribute to the children’s writer on Twitter Monday. He called the New Hampshire resident who lived in a 200-year-old barn “a man who brought a smile to thousands of Granite State children who read his books, cherishing them for their brilliant illustrations.’

In a 1998 interview, dePaola told the National Public Radio that with his stories, he aspired to acknowledge the abilities of children.

“As a grownup, I want to give children the credit for everything I can: their courage, their humor, their love, their creative abilities, their abilities to be fair, their abilities to be unfair,” he said. “But I do wish that we grownups would give children lots of credit for these ephemeral kind of qualities that they have.”

A list of survivors was not available.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.