When children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola died at 85, he left behind a legacy of love and scores of devoted fans raised on his gentle and wondrous works. Perhaps most famous for the magic cooking pot of Strega Nona, dePaola created more than 250 stories, including dozens on the lives of the saints and various Catholic holidays. He’s also well known for Oliver Button is A Sissy, a semi-autobiographical tale based on bullying he endured as a child.
In 2019, The New York Times published a feature on “The Gay History of America’s Classic Children’s Picture Books,” and noted that Oliver Button was the first picture book to use the word ‘gay’ when it was published in 1979. In the article, dePaola acknowledges the stigma that would have surrounded him if he had come out as gay earlier in life:
“If it became known you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your chest, and schools wouldn’t buy your books anymore.”
As it was, even Oliver Button was banned in some schools for being “anti-sport,” reports Smithsonian Magazine. In this short tale, a young boy who loves to read and dance, like dePaola himself, is targeted with harassment and graffiti. The children’s author said the character brought him the peace he’d sought in his own childhood, according to The New York Times’ obituary:
“Echoing Mr. dePaola’s experience, Oliver Button was rescued by an unknown helper who crossed out the word ‘sissy,’ scribbled on a wall, and replaced it with another S-word, ‘star.’
“‘I was called sissy in my young life,’ Mr. dePaola said in 1999, ‘but instead of internalizing these painful experiences, I externalize them in my work.’”
Still, dePaola’s work does not gloss over the real and ongoing struggles that young people face when they are made to feel different. Barbara Bader of the Horn Book reports that in a follow up story, dePaola digs deeper:
“But all is not hunky-dory. In the last book of the series, For the Duration (2009), dePaola revisits Oliver Button is a Sissy, with a less sanguine, more realistic outcome. A group of older boys, his brother Buddy’s friends, call him a sissy and seize his beloved tap shoes—and Buddy does nothing to help him. It may even be Buddy, Tommy/Tomie comes to realize, who has egged them on. (Resentment? Envy?) The sympathetic principal will tackle the problem (discreetly), but, she suggests to Tommy, it would be better if he brought the tap shoes to school ‘in a paper bag or something…’
“Complexity: addressed by dePaola with tenderness, wit, and imagination.”
As so many LGBTQ+ Catholic young people need adults to stand up for their joys and interests, Tomie dePaola stands as a shining example of one who lived with boundless compassion. Indeed, many young adults may have grown up loving dePaola’s stories, but without knowing the story of the man himself. A 2018 article in America recounts the many Catholic tales that dePaola brought to life, while noting the inclusionary nature of his art:
“His distinctive style channels folk art traditions and is filled with blocks of color and clean lines, often evoking stained glass windows that might hang in the sort of church that would make everyone feel welcome.”
In an interview with Reading Rockets, DePaola said he knew at four years old, exactly what he wanted from his life. He told his family: “Yes, I’m going to be an artist, and I’m going to write stories and draw pictures for books, and I’m going to sing and tap dance on the stage.” He did all of the above.
There is a final layer of pain in the loss of dePaola. While his death was due to complications from a fall, he passed away in isolation in a hospital locked down by COVID-19. A moment from his 1973 book Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs provides an image of loss that will resonate with children young and old. Bader describes how dePaola illustrated the death of his great-grandmother for readers:
“For Tommy, at four, Nana Upstairs, largely confined to her bed, is a fine companion, even a playmate and a co-conspirator. On his visits they share candy mints from her sewing box and talk away…How then, will he cope with her death? In a still, echoing picture, Tommy, who’s been told, rushes upstairs to Nana Upstairs’ room: ‘The bed was empty.’ You may cry, too.”
DePaola’s earthly bed is empty, but the shelves of children and former children remain full of the stories he painted so well. May his work continue to tap-dance through our hearts.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, April 28, 2020