The American illustrator and author Tomie dePaola, who has died aged 85, was best known for his book Strega Nona (1975), which tells the story of a wise old woman who can do magic, and her assistant, Big Anthony. Big Anthony secretly learns half the trick to controlling Strega Nona’s magic pasta pot, but then everything goes wrong. DePaola wrote 10 further picture books about Strega Nona and Big Anthony, including some in which Big Anthony has the starring role. The books and the characters have remained hugely popular in any number of formats.

While the Strega Nona books were DePaola’s best loved titles, his massive output included books of all kinds: picture books such as Oliver Button is a Sissy (1979); folk tales such as The Legend of the Bluebonnet (1983), from Texas; Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato (1992), from Ireland; and biblical stories including Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland (1992) and Tomie dePaola’s Book of Bible Stories (1990).

His picture book Giorgio’s Village (1982) won the Golden Kite award, What the Mailman Brought (1987) was runner up for the Golden Kite and Christopher, the Holy Giant (1994) won the Aesop prize of the American Folklore Society. DePaola’s fiction for young readers included a series of autobiographical novels, of which four focus particularly on growing up in the second world war. The first title in the series, 26 Fairmount Avenue (1999), was a runner up for the 2000 Newbery medal.

With their strong outlines and stylised images, imbued with warmth and wit, DePaola’s illustrations have an immediacy and simplicity which appeals readily to children. Drawing from the work of Renaissance artists and from folk art from around the world, which DePaola collected throughout his life, they had a timeless quality that ensured his books were passed down from one generation of readers to another.

DePaola’s traditional illustrations were mostly matched by traditional stories. His tales are optimistic; they inspire children to think that the world is full of possibilities and that they can make things happen. He drew throughout his career on folk stories from his Italian and Irish heritage, and credited his mother reading old fairy tales and legends to him in his childhood as the inspiration for his career.

The son of Florence (nee Downey) and Joseph dePaola, he was born in Meriden, Connecticut, where his father worked as a barber. His grandparents came from Calabria in southern Italy, which provided the inspiration for the setting for Stega Nona. From high school, Tomie won a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, graduating in 1956 with a degree in fine arts. He spent almost 20 years teaching art in Boston, San Francisco and New London, New Hampshire, where he also worked as a writer, and set and costume designer, for the local Children’s Theatre Project.

DePaola’s first picture book, The Wonderful Dragon of Timlin, was published in 1966. Last year, Quiet, a contemplative and totally modern story reflecting the value of mindfulness, was on the New York Times bestseller list and DePaola celebrated its publication with a sellout tour of the US. At the time of his death he had at least a dozen projects still on the go.

Despite his great success and universal popularity, it was not until 2019 that DePaola came out as gay. Explaining why he had taken so long to do so, he told the New York Times magazine that, for much of his career: “If it became known you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your chest … and schools wouldn’t buy your books any more.”

In 2011, for his overall contribution to children’s books DePaola was awarded the biennial Children’s Literature Legacy award. Selected by children’s librarians from across the US, the award honours a writer or illustrator who has made “a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children”. The committee praised DePaola’s “innate understanding of childhood, a distinctive visual style, and a remarkable ability to adapt his voice to perfectly suit the story”.

He is survived by his sisters, Maureen and Judie.

Tomie (Thomas Anthony) dePaola, children’s author and illustrator, born 15 September 1934; died 30 March 2020

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