Top 100 Picture Books #34: Strega Nona by Tomie de Paola
#34 Strega Nona by Tomie de Paola (1975)
I must have a thing for bowls that duplicate stuff. Strega Nona in many ways mirrors the 4th title on this list, The Full Belly Bowl. But unlike Aylesworth’s book, Strega Nona focuses on humor to get its point across. dePaola’s 1979 classic takes an original tale and makes it feel timeless – no small feat. – Travis Jonker
I was working the Reference Desk one day when a small blond boy knee-high to a butterfly came up to me. He wanted me to find a book for him and I said I’d try. What was it about? “There’s a woman with a white hat but she’s NOT a Pilgrim,” he told me thoroughly. Apparently he had encountered the pilgrim problem before. “And there’s baby Jesus and a donkey and a baker’s son.” Uh-oh. This was not sounding too familiar. A Befana story, maybe? But where does the baker’s son come in? “Uh.. is there anything else you remember?” I asked, not hoping for much. He screwed up his little face then said, “There’s a pot and it has magic spaghetti in it . . . .” Say no more! I made a jackrabbit-like leap to the shelves and pulled off Strega Nona as fast as I could. Baby Jesus and donkey aside, it was exactly the book he was looking for. And why not? Strega Nona is my own personal favorite of the Tomie de Paola oeuvre. The telling, the pictures, the way it all comes together . . . it comes as close to being a perfect picture book as anyone could hope to find.
From my old review: “Strega Nona lives by her lonesome in a small cottage in Calabria, Italy. A witch by trade, she cures the townspeople of their ailments, warts, and headaches. When Big Anthony is hired on as Strega Nona’s servant she gives him very strict instructions on what he is required to do, and what is forbidden. Quoth Strega Nona, ‘The one thing you must never do is touch the pasta pot’. You see where this is going. After watching the witch conjure delicious cooked pasta fully formed from the pot, Anthony is eager to show this miracle himself to the people of the town. When Strega Nona leaves on a trip, Anthony speaks her spell and feeds everyone in the vicinity delicious, piping hot pasta. Unfortunately, Anthony didn’t quite catch the trick to making the pasta stop flowing. As the villagers attempt to prevent the growing threat from destroying their town, Strega Nona arrives just in time to put everything right again. Anthony receives a just comeuppance and all is well in the world.”
Apropos of nothing, I always thought that Big Anthony was kinda cute. This is why I’ve been careful to avoid marrying any picture book characters. I have terrible taste in their men.
I highly recommend reading the Bottom Shelf Books look at this book, particularly the discussion of Streganomics. And that reminds me… are you brave enough to discover the secrets lurking within . . . The DePaola Code?
The New York Times Book Review said of it, “De Paola’s illustrations aptly capture the whimsy of this ancient tale… simple line drawings clearly reveal the agony and ecstasy of pasta power, the muted colors create just the right ambiance for a Medieval village.”
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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