Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book #344: Strega Nona by Tomie de Paola

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Long ago in Calabria in a small town lived a woman everyone called Strega Nona, “Grandma Witch.” Although the townspeople were wary of her, they still came to see her for potions and cures because they worked every time. But Strega Nona was growing old and she needed some help around the house, so she hired Big Anthony, who didn’t pay attention. She gave him a list of chores and finished with the warning to never touch the pasta pot. One evening when Big Anthony was milking the goats he heard Strega Nona singing to the pasta pot. “Bubble, bubble, pasta pot / Boil me up some pasta, nice and hot.” And when the pot was full of steaming hot pasta, Strega Nona sang to it again and it stopped. Big Anthony heard all the singing, but he didn’t see Strega Nona blow three kisses to the pot to make it stop. What happened when Strega Nona went away to visit a friend and left Big Anthony alone with the pasta pot? Was Big Anthony able to stop the pasta before the entire town was covered in pasta? And most importantly, what did Strega Nona say when she returned?

The illustrations, in de Paola's signature style, are divided into panels that move the story forward quickly. The color palate is soft and blended and the houses and clothing bring to mind old world Italy. Night is differentiated from day with large stars and a moon in the sky. Plants and animals are an integral part of Strega Nona's world and can be seen in nearly every illustration. The length of the humorous text makes this a good book for upper elementary and above. The text is deftly balanced between narrative and dialogue and de Paola is careful to emphasize important information, but doesn't talk down to his readers. 

The cover calls this book, “an old tale retold” or “an original tale” (depending on the edition/cover). According to de Paola he based his book on the folktale of the magic porridge/cooking pot, but changed it to a pasta pot. Strega Nona and Big Anthony were the original creations of the author. Read more about the inspiration and creation of Strega Nona on de Paola’s website.

Read other versions of the magic porridge/cooking pot folktale. Try Paul Galdone’s The Magic Porridge Pot, the version included in the collection, The Story Tree: Tales to Read Aloud by Hugh Lupton or the version featured in Jane Yolen’s Fairy Tale Breakfasts: A Cookbook for Young Readers and Eaters (which includes a recipe for porridge). Compare the characters, locations, and structure of each story. Who does the pot obey or disobey? What words/actions make up the magic spell that makes the pot work? Have kids work in groups to write their own magic pot stories. Would your pot cook porridge, pasta, or another food?

A story featuring pasta is a great excuse to do some pasta crafts. When in doubt (and short on time), there’s always the classic pasta necklaceKids Activities has several suggestions, my favorites are painting with cooked noodles (caution: messy craft!!) and using pasta as stamps. Provide glue and thick paper or cardboard and let kids make their own pasta collages. If you only have one kind of pasta or you want to add some pizzazz, you can add some variety by coloring the pasta.

Calabria is a real region of Italy, so bring in a map or globe and point out the location. Bring in non-fiction books about Italy. Good online resources include wonderful photographs on National Geographic Kids: Italy Facts and Pictures and the Day in the Life section of Time for Kids.

If you want to follow the further adventures of this unlikely pair, there are currently 11 Strega Nona books (scroll to the bottom of the page).


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