Tomie dePaola, RIP

Beloved children’s author dies at 85

Writer and illustrator Tomie dePaola died yesterday at the age of 85, after surgery related to injuries he sustained in a fall last week. Best known for such books as Strega Nona and its many sequels, he lived his life in dedication to his art. Despite his complicated relationship with the Catholic Church in which he was brought up, it’s not hard to see in his art a sense that he considered it not just as a calling, but as a divinely ordained vocation.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Reading Rockets literacy group in 2012, dePaola spoke of his knowing as early as age four that he would be an artist: “I’m going to write stories and draw pictures for books and I’m going to sing and tap dance on the stage.” Though it seems he left the singing and tap-dancing behind, the writing and drawing stayed with him. He graduated from the Pratt Institute in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, and shortly thereafter entered a Benedictine monastery in Vermont, where he made liturgical art.

His stint in contemplative life lasted just six months, though he continued to design fabrics and Christmas cards for the monks. In a 2009 interview, dePaola said that he considered himself “a good Benedictine in my soul.” And indeed, he went on to make frescos for another Benedictine abbey, and for a church in New London, New Hampshire, the town he had lived in since the 1970s.

DePaola left the Catholic Church in the 1960s. While he credited his departure to the growing power of conservative political forces within Catholicism, it seems likely that his identifying as gay (despite a brief early marriage to a woman) had something to do with it. Yet in book after book, he explored the tradition he was brought up in: Parables of Jesus, The Lady of Guadalupe, Francis Poor Man of Assisi, and many more. Of these books, he said, “not a one of them has any proselytization in it. I did it because they were good stories.”

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One book, perhaps more than any other, ties his religious and his artistic sensibilities together. Published in 1978, The Clown of God is a retelling of a Medieval legend that dePaola learned from a version by Anatole France. “I have lovingly retold this ancient legend,” wrote dePaola in a brief note introducing the book, “shaping it to my own life and experience.” It tells the story of Giovanni, a beggar child in Renaissance Sorrento, Italy, who joins a troupe of traveling players. He goes on to be a famous juggler, but years pass, and he grows old and loses his skill, until one day he drops the golden “Sun in the Heavens” ball with which he had always crowned his act.

Reduced once more to poverty, he returns to Sorrento, and takes shelter in a church on a dark, windy night. He awakes to the pageantry and singing of a midnight procession of gifts, throngs of people bringing their gifts to a statue of Mary and the child Jesus in celebration of His birth. Yet after the crowds have gone, “the Child in the Lady’s arms seemed so serious, so stern.” Giovanni has no gifts to offer: “But wait,” he says, “I used to make people smile.” He dons his juggling costume, puts on his clown makeup, and begins to juggle.

One of the church’s religious brothers comes upon his show, and runs to the priest in charge: “A sacrilege. Come quickly!” Yet Giovanni has eyes only for the child: “For You, sweet Child, for You!” he cries as the Sun in the Heavens flies “up and around and around, higher and higher.” Then he drops dead to the floor. The priest and brother race in to find him there. And the brother sees something amazing, and points at the statue. The books closes on these words: “The Child was smiling, and in His hand He held the golden ball.”

“The poor clown is dead. May his soul rest in peace,” says the priest on finding Giovanni’s body. So, too, Tomie dePaola, whose art was his life, and whose life was a gift, made to bring others joy.

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G.L. Ford

G. L. Ford lives and works in Victoria, Texas. He is the author of Sans, a book of poems (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017). He edited the 6x6 poetry periodical from 2000 to 2017, and formerly wrote a column for the free paper New York Nights.

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