STREGA NONA
an original tale written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola
Simon & Schuster, New York, 1975
0-671-66283-X (hardcover picture book)

Notes on Strega Nona by Tomie...

Everyone always wants to know just how Strega Nona came about. There's always a lot of confusion about good old Strega Nona.

Many people think that she is a character in Italian folklore and I even have people telling me that they are "so happy to see the Strega Nona stories out in print."

In fact, years ago, right after STREGA NONA was first published in 1975, I was at a conference and I was on my way to the room where I would be speaking and this rather impressive woman with jet black hair wearing a black dress with a red flower pinned to her shoulder saw me. She looked like an Italian opera star - a Diva.

 

"Tomie dePaola!" she bellowed (pronouncing my name correctly!) She ran to me, grabbed me, pressed me to her bosom (she was taller than me) and said, "Thank God, someone is doing the Strega Nona stories again!"

That took me by surprise. Had my Italian collective unconscious "channeled" Strega Nona or was she a part of my imagination? I thought I had "INVENTED" her. So, I delved through as much Italian folk tale as I could and lo and behold - NO STREGA NONA - ANYWHERE.

So, here's the real scoop on how Strega Nona came about...

In the early 1970s, I was teaching in the theater department at what is now Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire (where I live). My books were beginning to get noticed, so my editor at Prentice-Hall (now Simon & Schuster), Ellen Roberts, suggested that I look into re-telling a folk tale. Of course, I would also illustrate it.

Well, some months before at a required weekly college faculty meeting (I always sat in the back row with a legal pad and doodled. The administration thought I was taking notes.), I was, as usual, doodling. I was "obsessed" with the Italian commedia dell'arte character Punchinello. So many of my doodles were of him - big nose, big chin.

On my pad, I drew the profile, but suddenly I found I had drawn a headscarf. I put in the eye and the smiling mouth and continued to draw a little chubby body complete with long skirt and apron. And I scribbled the words "Strega Nona" next to the drawing.

I was tickled pink. She was so cute, so Italian, I thought I might be able to use her in a book someday. I pinned the doodle up on my studio wall.

Back to Ellen Roberts and her suggestion that I re-tell a folk tale.

"What was one of your favorite folk tales when you were a child?" she asked.

"The Porridge Pot story," I answered immediately.

 

"Why don't you re-read it in a version that's in the Public Domain and see if you're interested enough in it to re-tell it," Ellen said.

 

So, I re-read the story. But, I didn't really like it. Suddenly, LIGHT BULB TIME!

Maybe I could change PORRIDGE to PASTA and I could use my little Strega Nona (who was already "telling" me who she was").

I called Ellen to ask if it was "legal" to re-tell a story.

"Of course," she said, "as long as the story is in the Public Domain." (A story in the Public Domain is a story for which the copyright has expired or lapsed. Public Domain stories are usually very old.)

So, I started working on the text for STREGA NONA.

The original manuscript written by hand on a yellow legal pad is at the Kerlan Children's Literature Research Collection at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. (Children's book writers and illustrators give their book manuscript materials and illustration materials to the Kerlan to safely preserve forever. Similar repositories are at the University of Connecticut and at the University of Southern Mississippi.) If you ever get a chance to see the original manuscript, you'll notice that Big Anthony was originally a GIRL named Concetta! But, I felt that the world did not need one more not-too-bright servant girl in folklore, so I crossed out "Concetta" and wrote instead "Big Anthony, who did not pay attention."

 

One more controversy.

"Why," many Italians and Italian-Americans ask me, "is NONA spelled with one N instead of two?" (The Italian word for GRANDMOTHER is NONNA.)

Strega Nona is Calabrese, like my ancestors. Calabria is in the toe of the boot of Italy. As far as my relatives told me, NONA is a slang spelling for "Granny" or "Grandma" which after all is spelled differently than "Grandmother."

And, on top of it all, NONA is her NAME. I settled that in STREGA NONA, HER STORY. I hope.

But, the truth of the matter is that Strega Nona IS bigger than life and she certainly changed mine.

After all, I tell audiences "Strega Nona built my swimming pool."

Some notes that you might find interesting...
According to infoplease.com, Punchinello is "a grotesque or absurd chief character in a puppet show of Italian origin." Commedia dell'arte is "Italian popular comedy, developed chiefly during the 16th-18th centuries, in which masked entertainers improvised from a plot outline based on themes associated with stock characters and situations."

Infoplease.com is a good resource if you want to learn more about commedia dell'arte and many many other things.

 

 

 
 
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