Banned Book Week 2019: Strega Nona

DePaola, Tomie, Strega Nona: An Original Version of an Old Tale. 1st Little Simon board book ed. New York: Little Simon, 1997. Cotsen Collection, Moveables 37931

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.

DePaola, Tomie, Strega Nona: An Original Version of an Old Tale. 1st Little Simon board book ed. New York: Little Simon, 1997. Cotsen Collection, Moveables 37931

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.

DePaola, Tomie, Strega Nona: An Original Version of an Old Tale. 1st Little Simon board book ed. New York: Little Simon, 1997. Cotsen Collection, Moveables 37931

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.

DePaola, Tomie, Strega Nona: An Original Version of an Old Tale. 1st Little Simon board book ed. New York: Little Simon, 1997. Cotsen Collection, Moveables 37931

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, Tomie, Strega Nona: An Original Version of an Old Tale. 1st Little Simon board book ed. New York: Little Simon, 1997. Cotsen Collection, Moveables 37931

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.

Banned Book Week 2019: The Story of Ferdinand


Ferdinand sits on a bee

Ferdinand reacts to sitting on a bee. Leaf, Munro. Die Geschichte vom Ferdinand, 1938. Here we see Ferdinand’s reaction to being stung by a bee, which causes the men from Madrid to think he’s especially fierce.

By Alexis Antracoli, Interim Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections

When I was a little girl, around 4 or 5 years old, my favorite book was Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand. I would request it most nights as my bedtime story, and have memorized most of the book. I knew exactly when to exclaim “But not Ferdinand!” As I grew out of bedtime stories and children’s books, Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand, continued to hold a special place in my heart because I associated it with warm memories of bedtime stories with my dad and because I cherished what I saw as it’s central message: Be yourself, even when it’s hard. 

“But not Ferdinand”  Leaf, Munro, Die Geschichte Vom Ferdinand, 1938. My favorite line from the book here in German.  Ferdinand was not like the other bulls.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Ferdinand is a peaceful bull who doesn’t like fighting with the other bulls his age. When a group of men come to select the fiercest young bull for a bullfight in Madrid, Ferdinand sits on a bee, and his reaction is so intense that the matadors think he is the fiercest bull. However, when he arrives at the bullfight, no one is able provoke him and when he sees all the flowers in the ladies’ hair, he just sits and smells. Ferdinand is sent home to sit under his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers.

The Men from Madrid.  Leaf, Munro, Die Geschichte Vom Ferdinand, 1938. A color version of the book’s depiction of the men from Madrid who came to find the fiercest bull for the bullfight.

What I didn’t know about The Story of Ferdinand until a couple of weeks ago was that Ferdinand was once a banned book. Published in 1936, Ferdinand, gained both acclaim and condemnation from prominent world leaders. The Roosevelts loved it, but Hitler considered it “degenerate democratic propaganda.” While it reached number one on the best-seller list in the United States within a year of its publication and inspired a Disney short film, critics of the book called it subversive and viewed it as propaganda. Fascists in both Spain and Germany interpreted the book as pro-pacifist critique of fascism leading to it’s bans in both countries. In Nazi Germany, Hitler demanded the book be burned, but when World War II ended, 30,000 copies of the printed book were distributed throughout the Germany.

The Cotsen Children’s Library holds six copies of The Story of Ferdinand, two in English, two in German, one in Latin, and one in Polish. The earliest copy is a 1937 English edition; but perhaps the most fascinating copy is a German manuscript version probably created in 1938 to subvert the Nazi ban, Die Geschichte vom Ferdinand. This copy is spiral-bound, hand-colored, and hand-written. The illustrations copy those from the original, but add color throughout.  

Ferdinand smells the flowers. Leaf, Munro, Die Geschichte Vom Ferdinand, 1938. When Ferdinand gets to the arena in Spain, he’s back to his old self and sits down to smell the flowers in the ladies’ hair.

While it’s impossible to know exactly who created and read this particular version, it’s a potent reminder of the power of Leaf’s story, of its meaning in multiple contexts, and of  the way the materials we have here in special collections have the power to connect us across time to people not so different from us. In this case, what for me was a story that reminded me of the courage it took to be myself when being myself meant being different, may have been a story of the value of peace during a time of impending war, resistance to Nazi ideology, or simply an entertaining story beloved by a child.  Perhaps the creator and readers of this book valued it for very different reasons that I did, but, for a brief moment, I felt connected to others who loved the very same book I did in very different circumstances.