As a child, Donna Jo Napoli loved climbing trees and reading books with her legs dangling in the air. Walter Farley’s The Black Stallionwas a special favorite because of the love between boy and horse, and the story’s pure, clean adventure in a world neither pure nor clean. Reading was Napoli’s escape from the misery of her family. “A lot of the joy of my childhood came from reading,” she says. “My family was poor and we didn’t travel and I didn’t have all that many experiences; my world was pretty small. But books gave me so many different places and times and adventures.” Now, when she begins a new project she considers the young girl she used to be and tries to give her readers “a place and a time they can go to for the first time.”
Napoli is the author of more than 50 picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels and young adult novels, but admits to a 14-year apprenticeship before her first book was published. A personal tragedy lured her to write at the age of 28, but now she writes because she has to. Life is her inspiration, although she says, “I don’t like the word ‘inspiration’ with respect to art. I think it gives the impression that art just comes out of your head, full blown and polished, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Writing is hard work.” Hard work made harder by the fact that Napoli has five children (now grown) and is a full professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. “My writing has to fit into the cracks of [my life],” she says.
Her tales are crafted in the laundry room of her home. “When my children were small it made a lot of sense,” she quips. Napoli learned storytelling from her grandmother, sitting at her feet and listening. “So when I write stories, I do it out loud.” She says that winning the Anne Izard’s Storyteller’s Choice Award for Mama Miti “made me feel like my grandmother was sharing it.”
Generally, Napoli begins a story with a character, such as Mary Magdalene. “My daughter Eva went to see the musical Jesus Christ Superstar when she was ten. She fell in love with Mary Magdalene and asked me who she really was. I was off and away immediately—and two years later I sent my manuscript to a publisher. It came out as Song of the Magdalene.”
Several of Napoli’s books take root in fairy tales. The Prince of the Pond is a hilarious take-off on “The Frog Prince” with a speech impediment, hence the subtitle De Fawg Pin. The Magic Circle focuses on the witch from Hansel and Gretel, perhaps the most evil of all fairy tale villains because she eats children. This young adult novel is a perfect example of Napoli’s academic background informing her work. Research into folklore, psychology, and a rich description of the natural world combine to develop a sympathetic back story for one of childhood’s scariest baddies. “I love The Magic Circle,” says Napoli, “but the writing of it nearly killed me in terms of giving me nightmares. Being so involved in a book is a gift—it’s one of the best gifts of writing.”
Research brings Napoli closer to her characters. “I write about places and/or times that I need to learn a lot about. Doing research is one of the best parts of the job” She either haunts libraries or visits the places she is writing about “to try to walk the paths my characters would have walked.” In Beast, she retells “Beauty and the Beast” from the beast’s point of view. One of the earliest retellings claimed the beast was a prince from Persia, so Napoli plunged into the food, music, language, literature, fine arts, politics, and religion of Iran, ultimately visiting the country. Barring an actual trip, Napoli relies on Internet photos and videos to see things she wouldn’t otherwise see. “When I was writingMogo The Third Warthog, I read a lot about African wild dogs. But when I went on the Internet, I actually found a video of them hunting. It was fabulous—and something I probably never would have seen even if I’d lived years in Kenya.”
One of the other joys of writing is the fan mail Napoli receives. Her very best letter said: “My teacher said we had to ask our favorite author a question. So here’s my question. Do you know anyone in Michigan who wants a kitten?” The real story behind that letter is that Napoli and the reader have been corresponding for five years and have become friends.