STREGA NONA: Written and Illustrated by Tomie dePaola
DePaola, T. (1975). Strega Nona. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Strega Nona is billed as 'an original tale', probably because it is told and reads as if it were an old Italian fable.
In Calabria, everyone goes to Strega Nona (or Grandma Witch) to cure what ails them. Even the priests and nuns from the convent go to her, and she can fix anything from warts to love potions. However, she's getting on in years, so she goes to the town square to put up a Help Wanted ad. Answering it is Big Anthony, who doesn't pay attention. He is a good worker, but one day he spies Strega Nona using her magic pasta pot, which cooks by itself at her command and stops at her command. Unfortunately for him, he didn't see Strega Nona blow three kisses that complete the part of the spell where she stops the pasta cooking.
Big Anthony goes to town, tells everyone about the pot (despite being told not to use the pot) and cooks for the whole town. He can't stop it though because he doesn't blow the kisses. Soon the town is coming under attack by pasta. Fortunately, Strega Nona arrives from her journey to see all this and blows the three kisses to stop the pasta. The town is grateful to Strega Nona for saving them, but she has a problem. There is all this extra pasta and her house is completely drowned in it. She wants to sleep in her own bed tonight, so there's only one thing for it: Big Anthony has to eat ALL THE PASTA.
Strega Nona, after reading it, reminded me a bit of The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence from Fantasia. In both tales we have essentially a servant who uses magic that he has seen his master/mistress use; it starts out well, then gets out of control. The servant can't stop it and then the master/mistress sees things in total chaos. The wizard/witch saves the day, and the servant is punished...mildly. "The punishment must fit the crime," Strega Nona tells the town that wants to hang up Big Anthony for putting them all in danger of death by pasta (what a way to go).
Above all else, I think dePaola's illustrations are immensely beautiful. They are simple and simultaneously elaborate. You can see the richness of the drawings by the way dePaola has the characters dress. Interestingly, dePaola tends to have most if not all his characters see in profile and in formation, as if they were one group facing one direction. He does illustrate characters to face us, but on the whole this is rare.
The illustrations also help emphasize the story. In the opening, we are told that the town talks about Strega Nona, but they still go to her, even the religious who might be told to stay away from a witch. The drawings show people whispering on the upper part of the illustration, but the lower part shows that the group of people are there, including the priest and nuns from the convent.
This is a great way to show early readers how words tie in to actions and how the drawings match what is written down.
The story itself is quite simple and direct: don't mess about with things you don't understand. Strega Nona had made it very clear that Big Anthony was not to touch the pot, but he did so anyway. I think Strega Nona shows that Big Anthony wasn't bad. It does say more than once that his flaw was that 'he didn't pay attention'. Also, he used the pot to show that he wasn't a liar since the town laughed at him for making such a ridiculous claim that a pot could cook itself. In short, he wasn't a bad figure, and the ending shows that he got his just desserts (no pun intended).
There are only two real characters: Strega Nona and Big Anthony. Everyone else is a mere townsperson save the Mayor, who is angry at Big Anthony for the chaos he created. However, Strega Nona is more about Big Anthony, as he is the one who sets everything into motion. We really see the story from his perspective. Strega Nona is the starting point, but the story isn't about her. It really is about Big Anthony trying to show he can do something he shouldn't (and something he can't control). Strega Nona herself is just the catalyst for the situation. You could have created any story around Strega Nona (the man who was cured of his warts, the girl who found a husband, the lady cured of her headache), but alone Strega Nona in Strega Nona needed someone to act opposite. Therefore, I'd say the story is about Big Anthony and not Strega Nona herself.
Strega Nona is a very sweet little tale, though perhaps a bit text-heavy for really early readers to tackle. It is best to read this to children barely learning to read, as the illustrations will help children understand the concepts of the text. Children will enjoy the beautiful drawings and the positive story of being true to your word. It has humor, sweetness, and again simply beautiful illustrations.
BRIEF REVIEW DISCUSSION
The concept of Strega Nona mirroring The Sorcerer's Apprentice is noted by Field Norma Malina's review, who called the story a 'variation' on Sorcerer's Apprentice. Malina also noted that the illustrations, with their 'muted colors', captured a Mediterranean style. I think both statements are entirely accurate, and I also think dePaola had that in mind. He wanted to create a story that was simple, sweet, with a good moral. He's also talked about how Disney films influenced him as a child, so I don't think it's surprising that The Sorcerer's Apprentice seeped its way into the story. DePaola also was intelligent in working his illustrations to mirror the style of Italy, which lends it an air of authenticity, as if it really was an old legend rather than dePaola's original creation.
The library would be best served to have a program where the public is invited to a big Italian dinner. It would be a positive to invite any Italian or Italian-American groups to use Strega Nona as an entry for the community at large. Strega Nona could also be used to create a costume contest as the characters of the series. It might even be a way to introduce an Italian-language course or programs on Mediterranean cultures.
Norma Malina, F. (2003). Review of Strega Nona. In S. Peacock (Ed.), Children's Literature Review (Vol. 81). Detroit: Gale. (Reprinted from New York Times Book Review, 1975, August, 8).
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