Author Study – Tomie dePaola

Tomie dePaola is a picture book legend whose many works spans four decades. Many people have grown up reading his stories and now share his books with their own children. DePaola often illustrates his own work, though he occasionally illustrates someone else’s words as well.

Many of dePaola’s books are now classics, but we can find take-aways for writers who are still learning the craft. In our Tomie dePaola author study, we focus on the following:

  • Don’t shy away from tough topics or showing emotion.
  • It’s possible to navigate multiple genres.
  • Tell the stories only you can tell.


Tough Topics and Emotions

Tomie dePaola image

DePaola has quite a few books that tackle difficult topics. If you hear that some topics aren’t appropriate for picture books, dePaola challenges that idea with books that talk about aging, death, recovering from a major illness, and breaking gender norms.

Often tough topics bring out strong emotions. DePaola’s work ranges from the laugh-out-loud silly, to the fear when a grandparent is ill, to the grief of losing someone you love, to the rejection that comes when dealing with teasing. His work reflects the true emotions we experience in this life.


Writing [and rocking] Multiple Genres

Many writers are hesitant to write in multiple genres. However, Tomie dePaola mastered three different genres (and mash-ups between them).

  • Family and personal stories—Some of these stories are based on his real life, others are family stories that many people can relate to.

Tomie dePaola life lessons

  • Faith-based stories—Some of the books in this category are simply books of celebration. Others tell the story of a holiday, a person of great faith, or how a story came to be. Books in this category include: The Night of Las Posadas, An Early American Christmas, and Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise.

Tomie dePaola

  • Folktales—Many of dePaola’s folk tales are retellings. However, a few of his folktale stories are original ones he created using the folktale structure.

Tomie dePaola folktales

Even with dePaola’s folktales, he pulled character ideas from people he knew in his life. For example, Strega Nona, as a character, is based on a family member, while the story structure itself is a folktale.

Tell the stories that only you can tell

DePaola’s work is full of stories that reflect his own family and faith. He also retells stories that touched him or that others asked him to tell.

Can you mine your own childhood, cultural background, faith or traditions to create a unique story? In dePaola’s Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs and Now One Foot, Now the Other he takes a common experience–a relationship with an aging grandparent and tells it in his own unique way. But we relate to it because we can connect to the universal emotions.

The Birds of Bethlehem and The Song of Francis are stories that reflect his faith and brings stories to young readers that are different from traditional Bible storybooks.

When we are true to our own stories, emotions, and interests, those are the stories that we can best bring to life.


Learning more from Tomie dePaola

Spend some time diving into the dePaola classics. Even those published decades ago will continue to help you hone your writing craft.

Want to learn directly from Tomie dePaola? Come listen to his LIVE presentation at Picture Book Summit! Not only will you be able to listen to him directly, but all attendees have the opportunity to ask questions at the event.

Learn more about Picture Book Summit {here}.

Or register for our premier conference {here}.

Article Author: Marcie Flinchum Atkins
Picture Book Support Team Member
Marcie holds an M.A. and M.F.A. in Children’s Literature from Hollins University, is an elementary librarian, children’s book writer, and writes about mentor texts at

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