The Price of Disobedience: A Review of ‘Strega Nona’

“Never bother about people’s opinions.  Be obedient to truth.  For with humble obedience, you will never be disturbed.”–Blessed  Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Suggested Grade Levels:

Grades 2-3

Review and Thoughts:

The story of Strega Nona may sound familiar because it is a retelling of a familiar folktale.  It can be compared to such stories as “The Porridge Pot”, a German folktale, or even The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  In this version Tomie dePaola retells the story with an Italian setting and flavor.

The people of Calabria frequently visit Strega Nona , Grandma Witch, because she helps them with problems using her very special potions.  She conjures remedies for their difficulties , and  everyone is happy and satisfied with the results of their visits to her.

At this time in her life however, Strega Nona feels she is getting old and needs help with household chores.   A citizen of Calabria named Big Anthony applies for and gets the job even though he is known as someone who doesn’t pay attention.  Strega Nona explains the list of chores he will have to do.  She also tells him that the one thing he must not touch is her pasta pot.

Soon after beginning his work, Big Anthony hears Strega Nona singing to her pasta pot.  He sees the pot suddenly fill with delicious pasta.  She then sings another rhyming song and blows three kisses to stop the pot from cooking.  Big Anthony fails to see the three kisses however and this is the beginning of his troubles.

Big Anthony eventually  tells everyone about the magic pot, but no one believes him and even calls him a liar.  This makes him very angry.

When Strega Nona has to go out of town, Big Anthony is so excited because now he has the opportunity to prove to everyone that he isn’t lying about the magic pot.  As soon as Strega Nona leaves town he sings to the pasta pot and invites everyone in the town to come to the feast.  At this point in the story, he is a hero to the people of the town.  When everyone has their fill he sings to the pot in order to stop the pasta but doesn’t blow the three kisses so the cooking continues.  He tries everything to stop the pasta but is unsuccessful.  The pasta begins to overflow the pot and soon threatens the town.

Strega Nona comes home during the turmoil and assesses the situation immediately.  She stops the pot with her song and three kisses.  The people are very grateful to her, but then they turn on Big Anthony.  They want him punished severely for what he has done.  Strega Nona explains to them that the punishment should fit the crime.  So, Big Anthony has to eat all the pasta to make amends for what he has done.

Big Anthony is an interesting character. There are several contradictions to his inattentiveness.  First, he is said to be someone who doesn’t pay attention, but when he is given a list of chores to do he remembers them all and completes his chores.  He is practicing the virtue of obedience and there is no problem. Then, he remembers exactly what Strega Nona says after hearing her sing to the pot only one time.  Personally, if I was the one listening I would have to record her words because I would never remember what she said! Finally, when he goes to town he has no trouble hearing the comments the townspeople make about him.  He even lets the opinions of others prod him into something he knows is wrong.

Big Anthony eventually has to take responsibility for his actions.  His disobedience causes problems for not only himself but for the people of the town. While children find Big Anthony’s problem with the pasta pot silly and amusing, they seem to be more serious and concerned when he is made to eat all the pasta.  They question how he could possible eat all the pasta and find the consequence rather severe.

Children enjoy reading fantasy stories.  They like to read about characters that have special powers to solve problems. These stories can provide a fresh perspective on the real world and open up possibilities.  They can also reveal important lessons and form a basis of decision making (example: the theme of right VS wrong).  Some parents may be concerned about magic being part of a story.  This is why parental guidance is always important when choosing reading material.  A choice of material should be based on knowing the content of a book or story and then making a decision that is best for each individual child.

There is another issue that may come up when reading a story that includes magic for children at this level or even children who are a bit older.  At the same time children are reading literature that includes magic, they are also learning about Jesus’ life – His miracles, death, and Resurrection.  Children see magic as something beyond the normal – even supernatural.  It is important for us as parents, our children’s first teachers, to make the distinction between magic and the miracles of God.

Magic (n) 1. the art of producing illusion as entertainment by the use of sleight of hand, deception devices, etc.; conjuring   2. the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assures human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of matter

Miracle (expressed clearly in a Greek text): wonders performed by supernatural power as signs of some special mission or gift and explicitly ascribed to God

Possible Issues:

  • The main character in this story is named “Grandma Witch.”
  • “All the people, even the priests and sisters of the convent, went to see her because Strega Nona had a magic touch.” This sentence is a serious matter of concern.
  • The people of the town wanted to “string up” Big Antony after the pasta almost covered the town. Some children find this consequence disturbing.

Further Discussion:

  • The fact that priests and nuns are going to a witch is problematic and could confuse a child as to what is true. Yes, this is a fantasy story, but every fantasy has an element of truth.  What is the truth about a priest or a nun going to a witch for help?  Going to a witch for help is against the First Commandment.  It is “gravely contrary to the virtue of religion”.  In the sacrament of Holy Orders a man makes a vow of fidelity to God.  A woman also makes a vow promising fidelity to God when becoming a nun.  Going to a witch “contradicts the honor, respect, and loving fear we owe to God alone.” Having a clear understanding about this reality helps children begin to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church.
  • How would obedience have changed the outcome for Big Anthony?
  • Tomie dePaola tells how Strega Nona came about here.

Catholic Resources: