In today’s “YA Girl,” I’ll be focusing more on the “young” and less on the “adult.” Like, super super young. Picture book young. But it can be fun to take a look back at the stories that cultivated our love of books and reading, so please humor me. As you probably know by now, our theme for this month is “crones,” so you might be wondering why I’m writing about picture books. They’re not the likeliest combination, but when I remembered these books sitting on my bookcase’s bottom shelf, I knew I had the perfect series to present to you all. It is Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona series, starting with the first book, Strega Nona, published in 1975. If you’re not familiar with these wonderful books, I highly encourage you to see if your local library has any of them available to go along with your reading of Issue 036.
So, who is Strega Nona, and why is she so great? First off, she has a magic pasta pot that makes her as much pasta as she wants when she sings the magic words. Who wouldn’t want one of those? Limitless pasta aside, let’s get into her actual character. The name “Strega Nona” literally means “grandmother witch” in Italian, and while she does have magical powers, she mainly serves as a wise woman figure to her hillside village in Calabria. She is a practical old woman, but also very kind and patient. While her friend Amelia went to the city to learn modern magic, Nona stayed in the village and learned the old ways from her own grandmother, including the ingrediente segreto to be a great strega. Can you guess what that secret ingredient is? Yep, it’s love! All the love she gives to the villagers is given right back, even from the priest and the nuns. Unlike many old witches in fairy tales, she isn’t feared or scorned. The villagers respect and depend upon Nona, and when her old friend Amelia sets up shop in Strega Nona Meets Her Match, the villagers actually kick her out, preferring Nona’s traditional methods.
For children, the books are fun, short stories that teach the values of hard work and good manners. The illustrations are also extremely comforting to look at. Strega Nona is depicted as a little old lady who always has a smile on her face, surrounded by cute animals. They’re like a warm, fuzzy blanket wrapped around you, with a heaping plate of delicious pasta on the side. Reading these books as an adult, however, brings an entirely different perspective. Even when her bumbling assistant Big Anthony floods the town with pasta, or causes other kinds of trouble with his carelessness, Strega Nona never turns to anger, but instead deals with the situations using her sense of humor. Although one of Strega Nona’s specialties is helping the village women find husbands, she herself isn’t married. Despite this, she’s never portrayed as a stereotypical old, bitter spinster. She has her assistants, Big Anthony and Bambolona, so she’s never lonely. She has her magic pasta pot, so she’s never in want. She has the village’s adoration, so she’s never ostracized. Dare I say that Strega Nona is the perfect example of an older woman having it all? Truly, she’s the perfect role model.