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Originally published Friday, November 13, 2009 at 10:41 AM

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Kids books: A conversation with 'Strega Nona' author Tomie dePaola

Tomie dePaola, author of "Strega Nona's Harvest," talks about the grandmotherly Italian witch/folk healer and her magic pasta pot.

Scripps Howard News Service

She's not much to look at, but she's got loads of character. Most important, she's got a magical touch when it comes to attracting young readers.

Her name is Strega Nona, and she's the creation of children's-book author/illustrator Tomie dePaola. Since 1975, dePaola (pronounced da-POW-la) has been chronicling the life of Strega Nona, the grandmotherly Italian witch/folk healer and her magic pasta pot.

Now, Strega Nona is back in her ninth adventure, "Strega Nona's Harvest" (Putnam, $16.99). In this story, Strega Nona takes readers through the cycle of planting a vegetable garden, helped by her assistants, Bambolona and lovable bumbler Big Anthony.

Strega Nona's carefully planted and well-tended garden — aided by a bit of magic — grows beautifully. Meanwhile, Big Anthony has secretly decided to grow his own garden to show off to Strega Nona and Bambolona.

Of course, things don't work out for Big Anthony, who ends up with a jungle of vegetables that he surreptitiously dumps outside Strega Nona's house each night. Strega Nona is puzzled by the piles of vegetables she finds each morning at her front door, but she ultimately finds the perfect way to use the unexpected harvest.

In "Strega Nona's Harvest," dePaola matches an entertaining text with colorful illustrations done in his trademark style of brown-lined watercolors. While there's definitely a message here about the value of organization and hard work — and the goodness of fresh vegetables — it's never heavy-handed. Best of all, there's lots of humor. Kids will laugh at dePaola's illustrations showing side-by-side aerial views of Strega Nona's neat rows of vegetables and Big Anthony's chaotic garden plot.

In a recent telephone interview from his New Hampshire home, dePaola said he actually got the idea for the aerial views from a Martha Stewart magazine.

"I was working on a completely different story about Thanksgiving and I was having a terrible time with it," dePaola said. But dePaola also had a book due in the next couple of months and had to come up with something. The next day, he saw a photo in Martha Stewart magazine and inspiration hit.

"There was a double-page spread showing a helicopter view of her vegetable garden. And I thought, 'Aha!' ... And the story came to me, full-blown."

DePaola, who has just celebrated his 75th birthday, published the first book about the Italian witch in 1975. Titled "Strega Nona," the book won a 1976 Caldecott Honor and launched dePaola's career as a children's-book author and artist. Since then, he has written eight other books about Strega Nona, as well as "Brava Strega Nona," a pop-up book spotlighting her six secrets of wisdom for a good life.

Over his career, dePaola has written and/or illustrated more than 200 books, including "26 Fairmount Ave.," the first volume in his multivolume chapter-book autobiography for kids. "26 Fairmount Ave." won a Newbery Honor in 2000.

But Strega Nona may be dePaola's most beloved character. Asked why she strikes such a chord with readers, dePaola replies: "She's a great good anima — a strong female spirit.

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"I also think it's the combination of Strega Nona and Big Anthony. They're two sides of the coin. She is all about perfection and goodness, and he is all about not paying attention and goodness. I think all of us have been in the Big Anthony camp, once or twice!"

DePaola says people often tell him that their parents or grandparents told them stories about Strega Nona, as if she were part of Italian folklore. In fact, dePaola invented her and said it was the publisher's idea to call it an "old tale."

In 1996, dePaola published Strega Nona's back story in "Strega Nona: Her Story," which gives readers a look at her birth and childhood, and showing how she became a strega.

"That was so much fun, giving her a life," dePaola said. Two years later, dePaola did the same thing for Big Anthony in a book titled simply "Big Anthony: His Story."

While others might slow down after the kind of career dePaola has enjoyed, he's still going strong. He's working to finish his autobiographical chapter-book series, and he's got a new picture book, "My Mother Is So Smart!," coming out next spring. DePaola also is working on a new cover for "Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose," which celebrates its 25th birthday next year.

Overall, dePaola says he wouldn't trade his life for anything.

"When I'm working, I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing,"he said. "People say to 'follow your bliss,' and that's what I'm doing."

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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