Strega Nona’s Gift

Strega Nona’s Gift, by Tomie de Paola
Reviewed by Susan Fry


Teaching children about family traditions – especially around the holidays – isn’t as easy as it seems. My boys could care less about my great-grandmother’s stollen recipe, for example. They don’t want to spend hours unwrapping each ornament for the Christmas tree. And as for watching Handel’s Messiah? Ha.

That’s why Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona’s Gift is so wonderful: it manages to make the holiday traditions of a small Italian village interesting to children, by scattering the feasts and foods throughout a slyly clever story.

At first, the book seems simply like a description of holiday events for Strega Nona, the grandmotherly witch familiar to readers of dePaola’s earlier books, and Big Anthony, her not-so-bright servant.

But their relationship is a caring one from the first. Strega Nona diplomatically dodges Big Anthony’s potentially catastrophic offer to help in the kitchen. Instead, she produces a Christmas feast on her own, accompanied by singing shepherds and children dancing under the stars. For New Year’s Eve, she persuades Big Anthony to eat lentils and rice pudding to ensure his prosperity. When he wants to watch the annual bonfire, she warns him to duck out of the way when people throw the things they don’t want out the windows. Oh, and she reminds him that he has to wear red underwear for good luck.

But then Big Anthony breaks a tradition. On January 5th, the Feast of the Three Kings, the villagers cook scrumptious feasts for their animals: according to legend, the animals can talk that night, and no one wants to be called cheap! But Big Anthony eats the goat’s turnips and replaces them with hay. In revenge, the goat eats Anthony’s blanket. After a sleepless night, Anthony has learned his lesson. When he finds the fava bean in the epiphany cake (see how those traditions are slipped in?) and becomes king for a day, he asks Strega Nona for more turnips.

“Let’s have a truce,” he says, handing the dish to the goat.

“And presto. The holiday season was over for another year.”

dePaola’s illustrations are straightforward and folksy, cartoons outlined in black ink and filled in with warm colors that evoke a long-ago Italy. Kids and grownups will leave the book hungry for the food dePaola so lovingly describes. I’m even tempted to add some of Strega Nona’s traditions to my own family’s holiday. Especially the red underwear.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.


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