Tomie dePaola dies at 85: Fans remember author of the controversial yet much-loved 'Strega Nona'

With a career spanning half a century in publishing and with 25 million copied sold worldwide, DePaola has been one of the most prolific authors of children's literature


                            Tomie dePaola dies at 85: Fans remember author of the controversial yet much-loved 'Strega Nona'
Tomie dePaola (Getty Images)

Monday, March 29, 2020, marked the demise of the beloved children's author and illustrator Tomie dePaola at the age of 85. According to his literary agent Doug Whiteman, the author died of complications from an injury last week. 

With a career spanning half a century in publishing and 25 million copied sold worldwide, DePaola has been one of the most prolific authors of children's literature. 

For decades, dePaola enraptured the old and young with the magical tales of 'Strega Nona', a granny witch. Set by the picturesque blues skies and waters of Calabria in Southern Italy, the books follow the adorable Strega Nona, a witch doctor who is known throughout her village for her successful home remedies and helping the townspeople with their troubles.

But Strega Nona was most notably known for her magic pasta pot that produced large amounts of pasta when Nona sang a magic spell to it. With a trusting companion in Big Anthony, the kind and helpful old witch brought stories and illustrations that touched the heart of millions of children. 

The book was first published in 1975 and is perhaps dePaola's most popular work to date, winning a Caldecott Honour in 1976. 

'Strega Nona' (Amazon)

Almost as if by magic, the character appeared out of thin air - a product of idle doodling at a faculty meeting, where dePaola was a member of the theatre department. "She's like everybody's grandmother. She's cute, she's not pretty, she's kind of funny-looking, but she's sweet, she's understanding. And she's a little saucy, she gets a little irritated every once in a while," he had reflected on the popular character in a 2013 interview with Associated Press. 

And fans concur as they said after dePaola's demise, "Strega Nona was everyone’s grandma."

Strega Nona's fans from across the world are grief-stricken over the passing away of the author. "#RIPTomiedePaola Thank you for creating such magical books for generations of kids. The book world may have lost a kind-hearted soul, but Strega Nona and Big Anthony will continue to carry your legacy to future generations of readers, writers, and illustrators," tweeted a fan. 

Homage to the character are already in order for some readers. "Oh you know just sobbing in my bed in the dark at 3 am over the passing of Tomie DePaola. Definitely moved my Strega Nona tattoo up the to-do list." Such is Strega Nona's influence on readers that she inspired them to explore the unknown. "I grew up on DePaola's stories, and can probably recite most of them from memory. Strega Nona was the first play I was ever in (age 7), and it was that story that got me interested in theater. RIP Tomie DePaola".

The character, as beloved as it was, was also controversial in its own way. In the US, 'Strega Nona' from the series were banned from children's libraries because it depicted magic, witches and witchcraft in a positive light. 

The banning of the book was a perplexing move for many because it is known that the books are based in Italy where the medicinal knowledge passed on from generation to generation was revered alongside the Catholic Church. Which raised important questions about children and the influence of magic on their lives. 

"If you're against the magic of Strega Nona, are you still telling them about the magic of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, babies coming from the stork?  If Jesus and God are the only ones allowed to perform miracles, what about all the magic they see in the cartoons?  Do you still take them to see Disney movies and allow them to play pretend?"

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