Book Review: La Befana and 'Beyond the Wicked Willow: Chronicles of a Teenage Witchslayer'
Beyond the Wicked Willow: Chronicles of a Teenage Witchslayer by M.J. Rocissono is a YA book about a rag-tag band of misfits. It reminds me of the 1985 movie, The Goonies. It even includes goofy nicknames and fat shaming. Instead of finding a treasure map, however, the kids in Beyond the Wicked Willow are transported to medieval Italy, where they need to save a young gypsy from a wicked witch.
Disclosure time: I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.
Summary of Beyond the Wicked Willow
Frankie doesn’t know he’s the descendent of a witchslayer, but when he enters Mala’s fortunate teller tent at a local carnival, she senses it and sends him and his friends back to medieval Italy to save her sister. Mala’s sister, Tsura, is being held captive by Il Strega Diavolo, who has been sucking Tsura’s life force in an ill-conceived effort to stay young and strong. The group of kids meets up with Ambroggio, a strong, mystical man with an eye patch. They journey through Italy battling mythical creatures and Mithraic pirates in hopes of saving Tsura from the evil Strega.
Rocissono uses Italian folklore and some Italian literature as inspiration for the Beyond the Wicked Willow. Rocissono’s reference to La Befana was my favorite reference though. In the book, the gang pays a visit to Befana. She is a good witch who opens her home and provides respite to the group on their journey. She also bestows parting gifts upon each character, which they eventually use against Strega.
In Italian culture La Befana is also a good, broomstick riding witch who delivers gifts to children while they sleep on Epiphany eve. Like Santa, she gives gifts to the “good” children and coal to the “bad” children.
In Beyond the Wicked Willow, Rocissono tells this version of Benefa’s story:
It was the final days of December when Befana’s nightly chores were interrupted by a loud rap on the door. Befana had not had a visitor since the day when young Lorenzo had meandered into her neck of the woods. When she opened the old plank door, standing before her were three very peculiar men… The men had been traveling more many days and were tired, lost, and hungry, so the Befana brought them into her home and fed them fresh baked bread and a hearty vegetable zuppa. The three men told the Befana they were on a journey to see the birth of a child and invited her along to join them. Busy with her usual sweeping and cleaning, she declined. (p. 155)
The men were the three wise men and the baby was Jesus. Befana regretted her decision and went in search of the three wise men but couldn’t find them and continues her search today, bestowing gifts to children for Epiphany, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. 
Rocissono also references a darker side of La Befana’s lore. In Beyond the Wicked Willow, Befana’s son dies from mal’aria, which means bad air in medieval Italian. According to Culture Trip, “Another Christian story that takes a darker turn says Befana was an ordinary mother who was suffering from the loss of her child. She went crazy with grief and when she heard about the birth of Jesus, she went to find him in the delusion that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented gifts to make him happy. He was overcome with joy and gave her a gift in return, to be the mother of every child in Italy.” 
Either way, I think La Bafana is a fun alternative to Santa Claus. It’s also an older tradition than Santa Claus, and it’s a tradition I never heard of before reading Beyond the Wicked Willow. Culture Trip also says that Italians leave her wine on Epiphany Eve. I think Santa’s getting a Bellini with his cookies this year.
My Thoughts on Beyond the Wicked Willow
Overall, I enjoyed Beyond the Wicked Willow. It’s a cute, fun book. I think the book is intended for teenagers, but I would have enjoyed this book more as a 10-year-old than as a teen. That being said, some of the cruder jokes would have been lost on me as a 10-year-old. I also desperately wanted an author’s note at the end of the book. I know almost nothing about Italian history and would have liked some more specifics and further reading about the Italian folklore that inspired Beyond the Wicked Willow. My last nitpicky critique of the book is that the relentless fat shaming of the character known as Beef made me cringe. His friends should have been nicer to him.
On the plus side, Beyond the Wicked Willow showcases two strong girls as major characters of the book, Sam and Capricia. Both girls take the lead in both love and battle while still being authentic and human. Along the same lines, Frankie, the hero of the story, is a great character for kids because his story line teaches courage. Finally, I appreciate that Beyond the Wicked Willow is not your typical overdramatic YA novel, and I loved its spirit of adventure. It will definitely appeal to any Rick Riordan and Steven Spielberg fans out there.
Beyond the Wicked Willow: Chronicles of a Teenage Witchslayer
By M.J. Rocissono
M.J. Rocissono. 342 pp.