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Literature / Strega Nona

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Strega Nona is a series of storybooks by Tomie dePaola.

In the southern Italian province of Calabria, a long time ago, there lives an old woman known to all as Strega Nona ("Grandma Witch"). She is a traditional healer and wise woman, who helps all the local people with their troubles. Helping her are the well-meaning (but impulsive and easily distracted) farm boy Big Anthony, and the earnest and outspoken Bambolona (the baker's daughter).

No matter what problems may arise, Strega Nona always pulls through, with her gentle wisdom, level head, and sharp wit.

Titles in the series:

  1. Strega Nona (1975): Inspired by the German folktale "The Porridge Pot." Big Anthony discovers that Strega Nona's pasta pot is magic, and tries to show it off to the local people. Unfortunately, he misses a key step in getting the pot to stop cooking, and the village is inundated with pasta.
  2. Big Anthony and the Magic Ring (1979): Big Anthony comes down with "spring fever," and Strega Nona advises him that what he needs is "a little Night Life." After watching Strega Nona utilize a magical ring to make herself young and beautiful again, Anthony is inspired to use it to make himself attractive, too, and go out on the town. It works a little too well... (Republished in 2018 as Strega Nona's Magic Ring.)
  3. Strega Nona's Magic Lessons (1982): Bambolona, the baker's daughter, is frustrated with the grueling task of helping in her father's bakery. She consults Strega Nona, who takes her under her wing and begins instructing her in magic and healing. Big Anthony wants to learn magic, too, but there are a couple of problems: (1) His short attention span results in him messing up royally; and (2) traditional medicine has historically been women's work. (Republished in 2017.)
  4. Merry Christmas, Strega Nona (1986): Strega Nona needs to prepare her annual Yuletide feast for the village, but the only person available to help is the bumbling Big Anthony. Will the annual tradition be ruined?
  5. Strega Nona Meets Her Match (1993): Strega Nona's childhood friend and schoolmate, Strega Amelia, comes to town, equipped with more "modern" methods of magic. Soon, she has nearly put dear Strega Nona out of business. Fortunately, Big Anthony manages to (inadvertently) save the day, in his usual manner.
  6. Strega Nona: Her Story (1996): This book covers Strega Nona's early life, from her birth through her tutelage under Grandma Concetta to the day she met Big Anthony.
  7. Big Anthony: His Story (1998): Following Big Anthony from birth, we see how his Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny! tendencies caused trouble for him, both at home while growing up, and when searching for work as an adult, concluding with his meeting Strega Nona.
  8. Strega Nona Takes a Vacation (2000): One night, Strega Nona has a dream about her late mentor, Grandma Concetta. The next day, Strega Nona is uncharacteristically distracted, leading everyone — even Big Anthony — to suggest that she take a vacation. So, she decides to go to the seashore for a week, leaving Anthony and Bambolona to look after business for her. What could possibly go wrong?
  9. Strega Nona's Harvest (2009): As she does every year, Strega Nona carefully plans the layout of her garden before planting. With a little loving magic, her garden grows beautifully. Big Anthony tries to grow a garden of his own, but he's not so careful. Soon, he has more produce than he can handle.
  10. Strega Nona's Gift (2011): It's the holiday season, and everyone in Strega Nona's village is preparing for all the feast days, including the Feasts of San Nicola and Epiphany. Even the animals get to join in the festivities, as one feast involves cooking special foods just for them. But when Big Anthony smells the treats that Strega Nona is preparing for her animals, his stomach gets the better of him. Will Big Anthony be able to make up for his mistake?
  11. Strega Nona Does it Again (2013): Strega Nona's young cousin, Angelina, comes to stay for a short while. Unfortunately, Angelina is a vain, spoiled brat, who orders around Bambolona and Big Anthony nonstop. As it turns out, she's hopelessly in love with a young man who is too self-absorbed to notice her. Strega Nona devises a plan to bring the two youngsters together, and thus make life easier for all concerned.
  12. Strega Nona and Her Tomatoes (2017): A book for beginning readers. Strega Nona has harvested her tomatoes and is counting them out before donating them to the convent. However, when she turns her back for just a moment, Big Anthony, wanting to be helpful, puts the tomatoes back in the basket, thus making Strega Nona lose count.
  13. Strega Nona and the Twins (2017): A book for beginning readers. Strega Nona is looking after twins for the day, with Bambolona and Big Anthony pitching in. The twins, of course, are very rambunctious, but Strega Nona knows how to handle them.

The Strega Nona series provides examples of:

  • Aesop Amnesia: From his very first appearance, Big Anthony keeps getting into trouble when he tries to use Strega Nona's magic and learns that it should only be used by someone who knows how to use it — yet it never seems to stick.
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: Big Anthony's defining trait is his poor attention span. Big Anthony: His Story reveals how he struggled with this growing up. The first sign of this flaw appeared when he was a toddler, learning to drink from a cup; he wound up spilling all over himself when he looked up at a singing bird.
  • Balloon Belly: In the first book, Strega Nona punishes Big Anthony for flooding the town with pasta by making him eat all of it. On the final pages of the book, he sports a visible potbelly.
  • Black Bead Eyes: As per Tomie dePaola's usual style, the characters all have black dots for eyes.
  • Characterization Marches On: Bambolona first appeared as a minor character in Big Anthony and the Magic Ring as an Abhorrent Admirer to Big Anthony. In Strega Nona's Magic Lessons, she became Strega Nona's apprentice, and for the rest of the series, she was a competent assistant, in contrast to Big Anthony's irresponsibility. Her crush on him also disappeared.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: At the end of the first book, Strega Nona finds out Big Anthony disobeyed her and misused her pasta pot, so she reverses the spell and forces him to eat all of the pasta it created as punishment.
  • Cool Old Lady:
    • Strega Nona is kind, wise, calm under pressure, and well-versed in magic and traditional herbal medicine.
    • Grandma Concetta counts as one, too; after all, she taught Strega Nona everything she knows.
  • Dumb Blonde: Downplayed with Big Anthony. He's not stupid so much as easily distracted, but his Aesop Amnesia and impulsivity tend to cloud his judgment.
  • Early Personality Signs: In his backstory, Big Anthony knocks over the cake at his first birthday party, and later gets distracted by a singing bird when learning to drink on his own, hinting at how he unintentionally makes a problem worse because of his difficulty paying attention.
  • Eyes Always Shut: Downplayed. Strega Nona is frequently drawn with her eyes closed, though not always (especially when surprised).
  • Food End: The first book ends with Big Anthony having to eat all the pasta by himself as punishment for misusing the magic pot.
  • Force Feeding: Big Anthony defies Strega Nona's orders not to touch her magic pasta pot and serves up a meal for the townspeople. However, he does not completely know how to make the pot stop, and he unwittingly fills up Strega Nona's house and nearly destroys the town with pasta before Strega Nona can intervene. Afterward, she orders Big Anthony to eat the enormous amount of pasta he conjured up by nightfall, so she can sleep in her bed, in lieu of punishment from the townspeople. He does so, becoming bloated and likely getting a severe case of indigestion.
  • Gentle Giant: Big Anthony, as his name suggests, is quite tall, and while he may have trouble paying attention, he means well.
  • Gone Horribly Right:
    • In Big Anthony and the Magic Ring, when the lovable oaf uses Strega Nona's ring to make himself handsome and goes out dancing in the village square, the ladies start hounding him to dance with each of them, not even giving him a moment to catch his breath. To make matters worse, the ring gets stuck on his finger, preventing him from undoing the spell.
    • In Strega Nona's Harvest, Big Anthony listens to the spell that Strega Nona recites to make her garden grow, and recites it perfectly, including blowing the three kissesnote  — though he blows three extra, just to make sure. Partly due to this, and partly due to his planting seeds willy-nilly instead of in carefully arranged rows, his garden grows haphazardly, and with more vegetables than he can handle. Things turn out OK in the end, though; Strega Nona (who remains none the wiser as to where the extra veggies came fromnote ) donates many of them to the local convent, and then uses the rest to create a harvest feast for the entire village.
  • Gratuitous Italian: The characters sometimes pepper their sentences with Italian words (e.g., "Grazie," "Sì," "Santo cielo," etc.).
  • Incoming Ham: In Strega Nona: Her Story, Giuseppe (Strega Nona's father) and Zianote  Rosa are waiting for her to be born. Grandma Concetta has helped deliver all of Giuseppe's children in the past, but due to the stormy weather that night, he worries that she won't make it. Zia Rosa suggests that the unborn child is waiting for something or someone; right on cue, Grandma Concetta comes in through the door with a theatrical flourish, announcing, "No grandchild of mine can be born without me!" With that, she rolls up her sleeves, calls Zia Rosa to help her, and in no time at all, the future Strega Nona is born.
  • Magic Cauldron: Strega Nona has a magic pasta pot, shaped like a large iron cauldron, that can produce infinite amounts of pasta.
  • Never Bareheaded: Strega Nona is almost never seen with her bandanna off.
  • No Antagonist: By and large, the conflict of each story comes about from the characters' own actions. Strega Nona Meets Her Match might be considered an exception, though no actual malice is shown on Strega Amelia's part.
  • Our Witches Are Different: As her name suggests, Strega Nona is a witch (or, at the very least, has magical powers), but she's a very kind old woman who uses her magic and knowledge of traditional medicine to help people around her.
  • Radish Cure: The first book features a Sorcerer's Apprentice Plot starring the titular grandmotherly witch and her magic pot that produces pasta on command. The apprentice in question, Big Anthony, wants to show the townsfolk that it's magic, so while Strega Nona is out, he says the magic words to produce the pasta. However, he doesn't know that he has to blow three kisses to make the pasta pot stop cooking. His punishment for having flooded the entire village with pasta is to eat all of it.
  • Sobriquet Sex Switch: In Strega Nona's Magic Lessons, Big Anthony is jealous when he sees Strega Nona teaching magic to Bambolona but refuses to teach him because of the disastrous consequences of his use of magic in the past. To learn magic from her, he dresses up as a girl and calls himself "Antonia".
  • Sorcerer's Apprentice Plot: In the first book, when Big Anthony sees that Strega Nona can magically produce pasta from her cooking pot, but doesn't pay attention to how she gets it to stop. When he tries to show it off to the townsfolk while she's gone, the village is drowning in pasta by the time she gets back.
  • Tilting Tower of Pisa: In his backstory, Big Anthony arrives in Pisa and is so tired that he falls asleep against a tower, and wakes up to find that he's leaned so hard against it that he's tilted the tower. He actually hasn't, but it was so dark when he arrived that he didn't notice. His idea to fix it is to use ropes to raise it perfectly upright again, much to the consternation of the townsfolk.