A Tribute to Tomie dePaola

by Cecilia Yung

kate_preftakes_Crowd in the Winter Garden.jpg

On a balmy September evening, we arrived at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, NH to celebrate Tomie dePaola, the iconic author-illustrator who died in 2020 in the first days of the pandemic.

The Currier was a fitting location for his memorial, a striking modernist exterior that reveals surprising juxtapositions like classical columns, a wall of mosaics, and bold abstract paintings. Much like Tomie’s art, I noted. Bob Hechtel was at the entrance greeting the crowd as they arrived. Bob, who bills himself “Assistant to Tomie dePaola” was really Tomie’s chief-of-staff for 40 years, and he had planned this private, invitation-only event to honor Tomie and “the people who brought him joy”.

Tomie would have marked his 89th birthday that weekend, and he would have thrown himself a big party at his home in New London, NH. He was known for his knack for making deep and lasting friendships. When you met Tomie, you became his friend, and that included every-day people as well as the luminaries he encountered over his lifetime. So here we were, 400 of his closest friends gathering over four nights to celebrate him. There were the extended family and childhood friends from Meriden, CT, the neighbors in New London, the nurses who adored him, the illustrators and authors he championed, and the book-loving community who treated him like the rock star that he was. People came from as far as Melbourne, Australia, and Anchorage, Alaska, and we all knew to wear a scarf, to honor Tomie’s fondness for them. 


Some of the people who worked on Tomie’s books at Penguin Young Readers over the years

Back Left to Right: Donna Mark, Sarah Baker, Marikka Tamura, David Shanks, Ev Taylor, Shauna Rosner, Susan Kochan, Katrina Damkoehler, Alex Genis Front Left to Right: Cecilia Yung, Bob Hetchel, Nancy Paulsen, Martha Rago, Nanette Stevenson. Credit: Kate Preftakes.


Tomie dePaola's Memorial

Saturday, September 16, 2023 at the Currier Museum, Manchester, New Hampshire. Credit: Kate Preftakes.


In Attendance: Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple

Credit: Kate Preftakes.


In Attendance: Anita Lobel and Bob Hetchel

Credit: Kate Preftakes.

Whether we were strangers or long-lost friends, Tomie had brought us together one more time. Some of the people I finally met that evening were completely familiar because I had met them in his stories. In the soaring Winter Garden, we hugged, laughed, and exchanged Tomie anecdotes. We visited the exhibit of his artwork to be in the presence of his vibrant palette, shimmering lines and luminous faces, one more time. The 40-minute video extended our story time, with interviews of people from disparate parts of his life and different stages of his extensive career, talking about Tomie and his work. The photos of Tomie and the clips of him reading his books, interacting with kids, talking about his artwork, and singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” brought him right into the room with all of us, one more time. His presence was palpable. We laughed till we cried.

The evening concluded with Jill Pennington at the piano, leading the crowd in an enthusiastic singing of show tunes. If Tomie were there, we knew that he would have been the first to step up and let loose. As we filed out into the night, we also knew that he would still be at the piano, with an entourage, belting out Ethel Merman even as they dimmed the light and locked the doors. What a vivid reminder that Tomie and his laughter brought all of us so much joy, and we know that his art and his stories will continue to do so anytime we open his books.

Cecilia Yung,

Tome dePaola’s art director, 1994 to 2020