Growing Reader

An Introduction to Tomie dePaola: Folktales and Fun for Young Readers

by Melissa Taylor

Tomie dePaola is one of the world’s most beloved children’s authors and illustrators with over 260 books to his name. A storyteller since he was young, he knew at age four that he wanted to write and draw stories for a living. DePaola’s books have won many awards including a Newbery Honor, Caledcott Honor, and Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, selling over 25 million copies. His stories frequently draw from his faith, love of folktales, and Italian-Irish heritage.

Readers of dePaola’s picture books know he often writes folktales, some of his own invention and others that are retellings. Strega Nona is dePaola’s most popular folktale; in fact, it’s picture book canon for most children. DePaola says he is drawn to folktales because they are about people. He likes that they teach a life lesson and that the characters succeed by hard work.

You’ll also notice that dePaola’s work is influenced by his spiritual values. Many of his books retell Christian stories or are about Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter.

Of course, you can’t talk about dePaola without mentioning his incredible artwork. His distinctive, colorful illustrations reflect a folk-art influence with bold lines, strong shapes, and evocative simplicity.

Here are just some of our favorite Tomie dePaola stories.

  • Christmas and Religious Stories

  • The Legend of the Poinsettia

    retold by Tomie dePaola

    In this traditional Mexican folktale, Lucinda’s mother is too sick to finish the woven blanket for Baby Jesus. When Lucinda tries to finish the blanket, she tangles the yarn so much the blanket is ruined. An old woman tells Lucinda that any gift Lucinda gives will be beautiful to Jesus. So, Lucinda brings Baby Jesus weeds. The weeds transform into beautiful red flowers, the first poinsettias, representing the beauty of gifts given from the heart.

  • The Night of Las Posadas

    by Tomie dePaola

    In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the village is celebrating Las Posadas, the journey of Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve, with a procession. Unfortunately, the organizer, Sister Angie, gets the flu and Lupe and Roberto, who are playing Mary and Joseph, get stuck in a snowstorm. In a Christmas miracle, a man and woman arrive to take the place of Lupe and Roberto so the pageant can go on.

  • The Legend of Old Befana: An Italian Christmas Story

    retold by Tomie dePaola

    In dePaola’s retelling of this traditional story, cranky Old Befana is always sweeping. She’s so committed to house cleaning that even when the three kings invite her to join them as they travel to Bethlehem, she declines. But on the twelfth night, Old Befana regrets her decision and flies on her broom to search for the Christ Child, laden with treats and candies for the children she encounters.

  • Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland

    by Tomie dePaola

    Patrick is kidnapped from his home and taken to Ireland where he’s forced to work as a shepherd. Eventually, he escapes back to Britain only to receive a vision from God to return to Ireland and spread the Christian faith. The book ends with popular legends about St. Patrick including the stories of the shamrock and the snakes.

What are your must-read Tomie dePaola books?