Tomie dePaola’s tale of a benevolent old witch and her magic pasta pot has charmed generations of readers since its publication in 1975. From the inspiration for the story to its fleeting link to satanic panic, here are seven fascinating facts about Strega Nona.
1. Strega Nona is a loose retelling of a classic folktale.
In the early 1970s, Tomie dePaola’s editor, Ellen Roberts, encouraged him to write and illustrate his own take on a favorite childhood folktale. The author knew just the one: the porridge pot story, which the Grimm brothers published as Sweet Porridge and is also often called The Magic Porridge Pot. In the tale, an old woman presents a poor girl with a magic pot that produces endless porridge when it hears a specific phrase and stops when you utter another one. But the girl’s mother doesn’t know the second phrase, and she ends up flooding the whole town with porridge—forcing everyone to eat their way into (or out of) their houses. Thinking kids in the ’70s might not even know what porridge was, dePaola opted to change the pot’s output to pasta.
2. Strega Nona’s appearance was based on a commedia dell’arte character.
Strega Nona had sprung into existence during a faculty meeting at New Hampshire’s Colby-Sawyer College, where dePaola was teaching at the time. “I always sat in the back row with a legal pad and doodled. The administration thought I was taking notes,” he wrote on his website. One of his recurring doodles was Punchinello, a classic buffoonish character from the Italian commedia dell’arte. (Punchinello, or Pulcinella in Italian, also became the template for the puppet Punch of “Punch and Judy.”) When dePaola whimsically finished one iteration of Punchinello with a headscarf, apron, and skirt, he realized he’d created a charming new character. He didn’t use her right away, but she later proved perfect for the part of the old woman when dePaola decided to rewrite the porridge pot story.
3. Big Anthony was originally a girl.
In dePaola’s first draft of Strega Nona, now kept in the Kerlan Children's Literature Research Collection at the University of Minnesota, Big Anthony doesn’t exist. Instead, the character who misuses the pasta pot is a female servant named Concetta. “I felt that the world did not need one more not-too-bright servant girl in folklore,” dePaola explained, “so I crossed out ‘Concetta’ and wrote instead ‘Big Anthony, who did not pay attention.’”
4. Strega Nona’s name is actually Nona.
Since strega is Italian for witch and nonna is Italian for grandmother, people often assume that Strega Nona is really just a nickname. (As for why Nona is spelled with only one n, dePaola’s family originally hails from Calabria, Italy—also the setting for the books—and his relatives told him that Nona was a less formal term, like Granny.)
But we find out in Strega Nona: Her Story, a prequel all about Strega Nona’s childhood, that Nona was actually her birth name. She’s born on a dark and stormy night with the help of a beloved witch known as Grandma Concetta. “She shall be called Nona,” Grandma Concetta declares. “And she will become a strega.”
5. Strega Nona is a great example of poetic justice.
The villagers turn on Big Anthony after he almost destroys their village in a cascade of carbohydrates, but Strega Nona quells their calls to “String him up!” by handing him a fork and commanding him to eat the pasta. “The punishment must fit the crime,” she explains. Unbeknownst to most young readers, they’ve just witnessed a prime example of poetic justice—the idea that the consequences of bad behavior (or the reward for good behavior) should have a logical relation to the behavior itself. (Though being strung up in the town square with spaghetti, which at least one angry villager appears to be brandishing, probably would have counted as poetic justice, too.)
6. Strega Nona wasn’t totally without controversy.
Considering that Strega Nona won the Caldecott Medal in 1976 and proliferated a whole series of successful Strega Nona stories, it’s safe to say the book was a hit. But some people took issue with its positive depiction of magic and witchcraft—an especially contentious subject as satanic panic persisted throughout the late 1980s.
“It is teaching the occult to our children in a way that they think is harmless and fun to do, when in fact many children are coming up missing each year because they are stolen to be used in the satanic rituals performed ... by various groups of witches,” one parent claimed in an editorial to The Desert Sun newspaper of Palm Springs, California, in 1990.
Days later, The Desert Sun printed a rebuttal from one Dennis W. Doty. He pointed out that Strega Nona had roots in an old folktale, much like Cinderella and Snow White, and also that witchcraft and satanism weren’t the same thing, anyway. “In the future, let’s try to get away from the ‘Ugly American’ attitude of assuming that if something is foreign or unfamiliar then it must be inferior,” Doty wrote. “Our children stand to learn quite a lot from the folklore of cultures other than our own. Give them a chance.”
7. There’s a Strega Nona musical.
The musical adaptation of Strega Nona combines storylines from three books in the series: Strega Nona, Strega Nona’s Magic Lessons, and Big Anthony and the Magic Ring. Thomas Olson and Roberta Carlson first created it for Minneapolis’s Children’s Theatre Company in the mid-1980s, and Aron Accurso added to it for a production in 2006. “For children too young for the darker doings in the Harry Potter books, this light witch's brew casts just the right spell,” The New York Times wrote. There’s also allegedly a movie in the works: In December 2019, Deadline reported that Lionsgate purchased a pitch from the team behind 2005’s Hoodwinked!