Study Guide

Strega Nona

By Tomie dePaola

Strega Nona Introduction

We don't recommend calling your nana "Grandma Witch," but we have to say: the nickname fits Tomie dePaola's famous folktale heroine perfectly.

Strega Nona is one-part shaman (a.k.a. witch, or in Italian, "strega") and one-part nurturing, old woman (a.k.a. grandma, or in Italian, "nonna"). And it's precisely because she's one-part witch and one-part grandmother that the people in her village both whisper about her and seek her out when they have problems. From page one, it's pretty easy to see why her dual qualities of mysticism and maternalism are such a winning combination—as a village elder and as a picture book character.

In Strega Nona, we learn about Strega Nona's magic pasta pot and witness the hilarious catastrophe that occurs when her assistant, Big Anthony (who doesn't pay attention), messes with it. This story, a retelling of "Sweet Porridge," by the Brothers Grimm, was supposed to be a one-off: Strega Nona's singular shot at fame. But it seems that the character's mystical powers extend beyond the pages of a single book. In fact, her origin story is a little bit magical itself.

The idea for the character Strega Nona came to Tomie dePaola spontaneously. He created her almost by accident when he was doodling images of Pulcinella during a faculty meeting. (Psst! Mr. dePaola freely admits he always sat in the back row at these meetings so he could draw.) What started out as Pulcinella with his big nose and big chin, was transformed into an old woman when dePaola added a headscarf, a chubby body, and a skirt with an apron. Just like that, Strega Nona was born, and dePaola was delighted with what he had almost unconsciously created.

And after the first book—which was supposed to be her only book—was done, Strega Nona stuck around. Tomie dePaola has often said that Strega Nona whispers to him when she has a new story to share, and apparently, she's had many over the years. There are now more than fifteen Strega Nona books, and dePaola and his plucky character may not be done yet.

Of course, another reason Strega Nona has inspired so many sequels is that the character's first appearance was so well received. Strega Nona earned a Caldecott Honor Award in 1976, and dePaola's books have been translated into about 25 languages (source) since then.

So…what are you waiting for? Open the book and let your magical Strega Nona journey begin.

What is Strega Nona About and Why Should I Care?

This book confuses a lot of people. Yes, really.

Why? Because it was published in 1975.

Don't get us wrong—1975 was a fine year, even if people did dress like this back then. The thing about Strega Nona is that people tend to think it's much, much older than the pet rock trend of the 1970s. But it isn't.

Tomie dePaola set out to write Strega Nona when his editor suggested he should think about retelling and illustrating a folktale. Instead of simply rewriting an old tale, however, dePaola decided to take the bones of one of his favorites ("The Porridge Pot," a.k.a. "Sweet Porridge," by the Brothers Grimm) and recreate it with his own characters and in his own setting. The main character, Strega Nona, who went on to star in several more books by dePaola, was a completely original creation. In 1975. And yet people tend to believe she is a character from the folk tales of old, right up there with Brer Rabbit and Coyote.

As dePaola wrote in The Magical World of Strega Nona: A Treasury, he's been told by multiple people how happy they are that someone has finally put "the Strega Nona stories" in a book (source). As if "the Strega Nona stories" are a collection that predates Tomie dePaola. Oops.

That tells us two things: (1) that dePaola did a great job creating a character who, despite her 1975 roots, fits seamlessly into the context of historical folklore; and (2) that Strega Nona herself deserves every last sequel that followed her debut book.

So go ahead: read the book, and feel free to care. Just don't be confused.

Strega Nona Resources

Websites

Tomie's Official Website
Books, news, a timeline of the author's accomplishments, his favorite food (popcorn)—you'll find it all here at dePaola's website.

Tomie's Blog
Tomie's blog blogger—the person responsible for his posts—is prolific. And that's an understatement. Daily posts (sometimes more than one per day) feature artwork by dePaola and highlight events and celebrations associated with each day. Who knew November 20th was National Absurdity Day? (Tomie's blog blogger. That's who.)

The Strega Nona Books
This section of dePaola's website is all about Strega.

Movie or TV Productions

The Animated Strega
This 1977 animated version of Strega Nona is based on the illustrations in the book by Tomie dePaola. It's narrated by the Czechoslovakian actor Eduard Cupák.

Don't Just Read About It
You can watch the 1977 animated Strega, too!

You Know What Would Make a Great Musical?
Of course you do: Strega Nona! Check out this thirty-second clip to get a feel for the production. Psst! Maybe it will be coming soon to a theater near you.

Puppets!
In this Jim Henson production, Strega Nona tells Tomie dePaola a story about her birthday and the power of pictures.

Articles and Interviews

Library of Congress Interview
In this quick, eleven-question interview with the LOC, dePaola shares his favorite children's books, gives advice to young artists, and reveals the career he thinks he'd be in if he weren't writing and illustrating children's literature. Hint: it could involve a magic pasta pot.

Publishers Weekly
Judith Rosen's interview with Tomie dePaola reveals that when the author first wrote Strega Nona, he intended it to be a one-off, not a series.

In-depth? They're Not Kidding!
This interview with dePaola from TeachingBooks covers everything from dePaola's Catholic upbringing and his artistic style to his favorite illustration in Strega Nona. Can you guess which picture he likes best?

Five Questions for Tomie dePaola
The Horn Book asks dePaola about writing for young readers, tackling sensitive topics, and what's changed in the world of children's literature during his fifty years in the business.

Video

One-Hour Interview for Reading Rockets
Get a full hour of insight into Tomie dePaola straight from the author himself. In this 2012 interview, dePaola, just shy of eighty years old, talks about his Irish and Italian roots, his love of folklore, the future of print, and more.

Tomie dePaola Makes an Egg Sandwich
The author of Strega Nona explains why he loves stories about food and shares the story behind one of his favorite recipes, the "Popeye."

The Wisdom of a Four-Year-Old
In this 2:27 video, dePaola explains that he knew at age four what he was destined to do.

Inspiring Imaginations and Self-Discovery
Tomie dePaola discusses the power of children's literature and art to help people discover who they are and unlock their imaginations.

Time for a Read-Aloud!
Enjoy the full color illustrations of Strega Nona in this YouTube video with a voiceover of Tomie dePaola reading Strega Nona aloud.

Audio

Tomie dePaola Talks About "Then"
In 2013, Tomie dePaola spends some time talking about an exhibit of his work at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire entitled, "Tomie dePaola: Then."

Learn to Pronounce dePaola…from Tomie dePaola!
Always wondered how to say his name? Get the skinny from dePaola himself in this quick audio clip.

The Birth of Strega Nona
In this two-minute clip, dePaola explains how he first doodled—and created—Strega Nona.

Images

The Classic Book Cover
Strega, the peacock, the pasta pot, and the Caldecott Honor stamp. It's all here.

What's a Guy to Do?
In this picture that dePaola cites as his favorite from the book, Big Anthony sits helplessly atop the pot overflowing with pasta.

The Artist at Work
Here's a great picture of Tomie dePaola at his drawing table in 2015.