Born in Yonkers, New York, on August 10, 1917, Tomes briefly enjoyed a pleasant, loving childhood surrounded by books and family. Her parents, grandparents, and cousins all moved to Long Island when she was two years old, and she didn't start school until she turned seven. Unfortunately for Tomes, her childhood then turned lonely, unhappy, and filled with anxiety. The passing away of family members, illnesses, relatives moving away, and her parents unrealistic expectations for her caused Tomes much grief. She found solace in reading and in drawing occasionally.
Having told her English teacher that she wanted to someday illustrate children's books, Tomes enrolled in Pratt Institute after graduating from high school. The idealistic vision of art school Tomes had imagined was dispelled soon after she arrived. Not staying long, Tomes turned to working in the children's department of a store designing paintings for their walls. This led her into wallpaper and fabric design, which became her profession for many years. Her career as a children's book illustrator happened more by chance than by intent.
One day a friend asked if Tomes could illustrate a book for her. She did it then returned to her fabrics. Another illustrating opportunity came around, taking so much time that Tomes had to borrow money because she wasn't working her job while she illustrated the book. As more books came along needing illustrations, Tomes found that she could quit her fabric work which she didn't truly enjoy and focus solely on children's books. Hard for her and not fun, illustrating and painting became Tomes' full-time profession. Earning honors and awards for illustrating books such as Wanda Gag's The Sorcerer's Apprentice
, Tomes produced illustrations for over 60 works yet consistently seemed surprise by her own success. Pancreatic cancer took her life on June 25, 1991.
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