In 1975, Tomie dePaola published the wonderful Strega Nona, a story of a kindly strega, or witch, from Calabria who helps the townspeople with their troubles; after all, as dePaola says, “Strega Nona did have a magic touch.” The story centers around her magic pasta pot and her young helper, Big Anthony, who gets into some trouble when he tries to do magic, himself.
Strega Nona is the first in a series of pictures books featuring Nona and Big Anthony; however, none reached the acclaim of the original. In 1976, it was awarded the Caldecott Honor and it was voted one of the “Top 100 Picture Books” of all time in a 2012 poll sponsored by the School Library Journal. It is not hard to see why this book is so beloved. The story is a timeless lesson in following the rules or risk punishment, and the illustrations are beautifully graphic and delightfully charming.
However, despite these honors, Strega Nona also has the distinction of being a challenged and banned book. It was banned from a number of children’s libraries in the United States for depicting magic, witches, and witchcraft in a positive light. It takes its place with other challenged and banned books whose plots focus on supernatural or magical worlds, and whose characters are often witches and warlocks. According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Ronald Dahl’s The Witches, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, have all been challenged or banned for the same reasons as Strega Nona.
So what’s all the fuss about? Strega Nona, or Grandma Witch, is an old, wise woman who uses her magic to help the townspeople get rid of headaches, find love, and get rid of warts. She has a magic pasta pot that boils up a good, hot meal for dinner. One day, Big Anthony sneaks a peak while she says her pasta incantation:
Bubble, bubble, pasta pot,
Boil me some pasta, nice and hot,
I’m hungry and it’s time to sup,
Boil enough pasta to fill me up.
And watches as she ends the spell with:
Enough, enough, pasta pot,
I have my pasta, nice and hot,
So simmer down my pot of clay,
Until I’m hungry another day.
Of course Big Anthony misses Nona blowing three kisses to the pot to end the spell. The next day, he goes to town to tell everyone about the magical pasta pot. No one believes him and tells him to confess to the priest for lying.
When Strega Nona leaves to visit a friend, she tells Big Anthony to continue his chores and not to touch her magic pot. He doesn’t listen and proceeds to conjure a pot of pasta to show the townspeople that he was telling the truth. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know how to make the pot stop because he didn’t see Nona blow three kisses to it at the end of her spell. The town is overcome by pasta until Strega Nona returns and stops the pot from cooking. The townspeople are ready to “string him up,” but wise, old Nona replies, “The punishment must fit the crime,” and gives Big Anthony his punishment in the form of a fork. He has to eat all of the pasta!
DePaola depicts Strega Nona as a good witch who is more concerned with helping people than devouring children and doing harm. At the end of the story, she is the hero and teaches Big Anthony, and the children who are reading the book, a valuable lesson. Yet, her good magic and grandmotherly ways have been challenged. Granted, there is a line in the book that states, “Even the priest and the sisters of the convent went [to Strega for cures], because Strega Nona did have a magic touch.” This one line and the images that accompany it could very well offend the Catholic Church. But enough to challenge or ban the book? As Amy L. Campbell from the blog “A Librarian’s Life in Books” said in a September 30, 2010 post:
… if you’re against the magic of Strega Nona, are you still telling them about the magic of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, babies coming from the stork? … Do you still take them to see Disney movies and allow them to play pretend?
As she points out, childhood is a magical time filled with wonder. And let’s be honest, what Mom or Dad wouldn’t want a magical pasta pot on those busy school nights filled with soccer practice, piano lessons, and homework? I sure would.