Tomie dePaola, the prolific children's author and illustrator who delighted generations with tales of Strega Nona, the kindly and helpful old witch in Italy, died Monday at age 85 at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH, according to his literary agent. He was badly injured in a fall last week and died of complications following surgery, per the AP. The author worked on upward of 270 books over more than a half-century, and nearly 25 million copies have been sold worldwide. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. Strega Nona, his most endearing character, originated as a doodle at a dull faculty meeting at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, NH, where dePaola was a member of the theater department. The first tale was based on one of his favorite stories as a child, about a pot that keeps producing porridge.
Strega Nona: An Original Tale, which came out in 1975, was a Caldecott finalist for best illustrated work. Other books in the series include Strega Nona's Magic Lessons and Strega Nona Meets Her Match. Reflecting on her popularity, dePaola told the AP in 2013, "I think it's because she's like everybody's grandmother. She's cute, she's not pretty, she's kind of funny looking, but she's sweet, she's understanding. And she's a little saucy—she gets a little irritated every once in a while." DePaola, who said he knew at age 4 he'd be an author and artist, received a lifetime achievement award from the American Library Association. "Tomie dePaola is masterful at creating seemingly simple stories that have surprising depth and reflect tremendous emotional honesty," the committee chair said at the time. "They have resonated with children for over 40 years." (Read more obituary stories.)