Napoli, Donna Jo 1948–
Napoli, Donna Jo 1948–
Born February 28, 1948, in Miami, FL; daughter of Vincent Robert and Helen Gloria Napoli; married Barry Ray Furrow (a law professor), December 29, 1968; children: Elena, Michael Enzo, Nicholas Umberto, Eva, Robert Emilio. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1970, Ph.D., 1973.
Office—Linguistics Dept., Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA 19081. Agent—Barry Furrow, Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail—firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author and educator. Smith College, Northampton, MA, lecturer in philosophy and Italian, 1973-74; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, lecturer in mathematics and Italian, 1974-75; Georgetown University, Washington, DC, assistant professor of linguistics, 1975-80; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, professor of linguistics, 1980-87; Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA, professor of linguistics, 1987—.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Linguistic Society of America, Società linguistica italiana.
One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing selection, New York Public Library (NYPL), 1992, Children's Book of the Year, Bank Street Child Study Children's Book Committee, 1993, and New Jersey Reading Association's Jerry Award, 1996, all for The Prince of the Pond; Best Book for Young Adults selection, Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), 1994, for
The Magic Circle; Children's Books of the Year, Bank Street Child Study Children's Book Committee, 1995, for When the Water Closes over My Head, and 1996, for Jimmy, the Pickpocket of the Palace; Leeway Foundation Prize for excellence in fiction, 1995; Pick of the Lists selection, American Booksellers Association (ABA), New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age designation, and YALSA Best of selection, all 1996, all for Zel; ABA Pick of the Lists selection, and ALA Best Books for Young Adults designation, both 1996, both for Song of the Magdalene; Hall of Fame Sports Book for Kids selection, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1996, for Soccer Shock; Keystone State Reading Association Young-Adult Book Award nomination, for Shark Shock; Outstanding Merit designation, Bank Street College of Education/Children's Book Council (CBC), for Jimmy, the Pickpocket of the Palace; Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, National Council for Social Studies/CBC, Carolyn W. Field Honor Book designation, Best Books selection, American Library Association (ALA), Golden Kite Award, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, 1998, Sydney Taylor Book Award, National Association of Jewish Libraries, 1998, and Best Books for the Teen Age selection, NYPL, 1998, all for Stones in Water; Best Books selection, NYPL, for For the Love of Venice; Best Books selection, ALA, and Best Books selection, NYPL, both for Sirena; Best Books for the Teen Age selection, NYPL, for Spinners; Notable Books selection, Smithsonian magazine for Crazy Jack; Carolyn W. Field Honor Book, for Beast; Bank Street College of Education Best Books listee, for Three Days; Pick of the Lists selection, ABA, Children's Book Sense 76 List, and Best Children's Books selection, NYPL, all 2001, and Kentucky Bluegrass Award, all for Albert; Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Best Book designation, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books of the Year designation, both 2002, both for Flamingo Dream; ALA Best Book for Young Adults, 2003, for Breath; Nevada Young Readers Award, for Daughter of Venice; NYPL Books for the Teen Age designation, for The Great God Pan; ALA Best Book for Young Adults designation, 2003, Golden Kite Honor Book designation, and New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age designation, all for Breath; Parents Choice Silver Honor Award, for North; ALA Best Books for Young Adults designation, for Bound; Parent's Choice Silver Honor Award, Sydney Taylor Honor Book, both for The King of Mulberry Street; Bank Street College of Education Best Books of the Year designation, for Sly the Sleuth and the Pet Mysteries and Sly the Sleuth and the Sports Mysteries; Carolyn W. Field Honor Book designation, for Fire in the Hills; NYPL Books for the Teen Age designation, for Hush; Literary Lights for Children Award, Boston Public Library, 2007; grants and fellowships in linguistics from National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Mellon Foundation, and Sloan Foundation.
The Hero of Barletta, illustrated by Dana Gustafson, Carolrhoda Books (Minneapolis, MN), 1988.
Soccer Shock, illustrated by Meredith Johnson, Dutton (New York, NY), 1991.
The Prince of the Pond: Otherwise Known as De Fawg Pin, illustrated by Judith Byron Schachner, Dutton (New York, NY), 1992.
The Magic Circle, Dutton (New York, NY), 1993.
When the Water Closes over My Head, illustrated by Nancy Poydar, Dutton (New York, NY), 1994.
Shark Shock, Dutton (New York, NY), 1994.
Jimmy, the Pickpocket of the Palace, illustrated by Judith Byron Schachner, Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.
The Bravest Thing, Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.
Zel, Dutton (New York, NY), 1996.
Song of the Magdalene, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
Trouble on the Tracks, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
On Guard, Dutton (New York, NY), 1997.
Stones in Water, Dutton (New York, NY), 1997.
Changing Tunes, Dutton (New York, NY), 1998.
For the Love of Venice, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1998.
Sirena, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
Crazy Jack, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1999.
(With Richard Tchen) Spinners, Dutton (New York, NY), 2000.
Beast, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2000.
Shelley Shock, Dutton (New York, NY), 2000.
Albert, illustrated by Jim LaMarche, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2001.
(With Richard Tchen) How Hungry Are You?, illustrated by Amy Walrod, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2001.
Three Days, Dutton (New York, NY), 2001.
Daughter of Venice, Delacorte (New York, NY), 2002.
Flamingo Dream, illustrated by Cathie Felstead, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 2002.
(With Marie Kane) Rocky, the Cat Who Barks, illustrated by Tamara Petrosino, Dutton (New York, NY), 2002.
The Great God Pan, Wendy Lamb Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Breath, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.
North, Greenwillow Books (New York, NY), 2004.
(With Shelagh Johnston) Hotel Jungle, illustrated by Kenneth J. Spengler, Mondo (New York, NY), 2004.
Gracie: The Pixie of the Puddle, Dutton Children's Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Bound, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2004.
Sly the Sleuth and the Pet Mysteries, illustrated by Heather Maione, Dial Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2005.
Pink Magic, illustrated by Chad Cameron, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2005.
The King of Mulberry Street, Wendy Lamb Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Ugly, illustrated by Lita Judge, Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY), 2006.
Sly the Sleuth and the Sports Mysteries, Dial Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2006.
Fire in the Hills (sequel to Stones in Water), Dutton Children's Books (New York, NY), 2006.
(With Eva Furrow) Bobby the Bold, illustrated by Ard Hoyt, Dial Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2006.
The Wishing Club: A Story about Fractions, illustrated by Anna Currey, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2007.
Sly the Sleuth and the Food Mysteries, illustrated by Heather Maione, Dial Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2007.
Hush: An Irish Princess' Tale, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2007.
Mogo, the Third Warthog, illustrated by Lita Judge, Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY), 2008.
Corkscrew Counts: A Story about Multiplication, illustrated by Anna Currey, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2008.
The Smile, Dutton Children's Books (New York, NY), 2008.
"ANGELWINGS" SERIES; FOR CHILDREN
Friends Everywhere, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 1999.
Little Creatures, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 1999.
On Her Own, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 1999.
One Leap Forward, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 1999.
No Fair!, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY, 2000.
Playing Games, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2000.
Lies and Lemons, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2000.
Running Away, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2000.
April Flowers, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2000.
Partners, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2000.
Left Out, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2000.
Give and Take, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2000.
Know-It-All, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2000.
Happy Holidays, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2000.
New Voices, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2000.
Hang in There, illustrated by Lauren Klementz-Harte, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2001.
(Editor) Elements of Tone, Stress, and Intonation, Georgetown University Press (Washington, DC), 1978.
(With Emily Rando) Syntactic Argumentation, Georgetown University Press (Washington, DC), 1979.
(Editor with William Cressey) Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages: 9, Georgetown University Press (Washington, DC), 1981.
Predication Theory: A Case Study for Indexing Theory, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1989.
(Editor with Judy Anne Kegl) Bridges between Psychology and Linguistics: A Swarthmore Festschrift for Lila Gleitman, L. Erlbaum (Mahwah, NJ), 1991.
Syntax: Theory and Problems, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1993.
(With Stuart Davis) Phonological Factors in Historical Change: The Passage of the Latin Second Conjugation into Romance, Rosenberg & Sellier, 1994.
Linguistics: Theory and Problems, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Language Matters: A Guide to Everyday Questions about Language, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Marina Nespor, L'animale parlante: Introduzione allo studio del linguaggio, Carocci (Rome, Italy), 2004.
(Editor) Signs and Voices: Deaf Culture, Identity, Language, and Arts, Gallaudet University Press (Washington, DC), 2008.
(Coeditor) Access: Multiple Avenues for Deaf People, Gallaudet University Press (Washington, DC), 2008.
Contributor to and coeditor of poetry books, including The Linguistic Muse, Meliglossa, Lingua Franca, Tongue's Palatte, and Speaking in Tongues. Author of numerous professional articles on linguistics. Contributor of short fiction to anthologies compiled and illustrated by Diane Goode and published by Dutton in 1992 and 1997. Contributor of poem to On Her Way, Dutton 2004, and of short story to First Kiss (Then Tell), Bloomsbury, 2008.
A professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, Donna Jo Napoli's passion for language can be seen in her novels for young adults and middle-grade readers. Exploring topics ranging from sports to sharks to fairy tales, Napoli employs both humor and skillful prose to craft stories of hope and inspiration. Noting that her books for young readers "can be broadly divided into two types: contemporary realistic novels and fairy-tale retellings," an essayist in the St. James Guide to YoungAdult Writers praised the author's "strong points" as her ability to create "genuine, believable characters" and equally believable plots. As the interpreter of stories culled from myth, legend, and biblical sources, she has "forged a brilliant writing career out of making readers see compellingly different interpretations of mythic figures," as Booklist GraceAnne A. DeCandido noted in a review of Napoli's novel Sirena.
Described as "a gifted author" by a Kirkus Reviews critic, Napoli did not plan on becoming a writer. As she once told SATA, "It just happened to me, when I found that writing helped me through difficult times in my life." The youngest of four children, she was born in Miami, Florida, and by age thirteen she had lived in thirteen different houses that her father, a contractor, built on speculation and subsequently sold. She became a fan of reading in second grade, and blossomed in high school in such subjects as French, Latin, and math. Napoli went on to attend Radcliffe College, where "the world of ideas that I had yearned for in the books I read and gotten a hint of in my high school honors classes opened up to me at last," as she recalled in an essay for Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS).
Napoli took her undergraduate degree in mathematics, but switched to Romance linguistics for her doctorate, which was the perfect blend of her interests both in math and in languages. During her junior year she also married, and graduate studies and teaching positions would make domestic life a challenge for many years. Although she took a course in composition and was encouraged by her instructor to pursue a career in writing, she had no desire "to be a poor writer," as she wrote in SAAS. "I wanted to earn money and never have to make my family move and never have to make my children worry about whether there would be food on the table. I was practical."
Napoli held lecturer and assistant and associate professor positions at several colleges while working toward her professorship in linguistics, achieving that goal in 1984. She published articles in professional publications and eventually began to write poetry and, ultimately, books for children. The Hero of Barletta, an adaptation of a traditional Italian tale, became her first book for young readers and was published in 1988. "I felt happy to sell that first story," she recalled in SAAS, "but I also felt rather strange: the message seemed to be that I could tell traditional stories, but not stories I made up from scratch. It was a mixed message."
Soccer Shock, Napoli's first original tale for young readers, focuses on a sport popular with her own children. Adam, the novel's ten-year-old protagonist, discovers that he has magic freckles that can both see and talk, and he decides to use this secret to help him earn a place on the school soccer team. "The freckles really steal the show here," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic, the reviewer describing Soccer Shock as "a well-
written story with an affectionate, tolerant cast." Denise Krell, writing in School Library Journal, dubbed the freckles "far-fetched," but decided that even with such a "fantastic twist," this "lighthearted novel succeeds with genuine characters in a believable setting."
A sequel to Soccer Shock, Shark Shock finds Adam—a year older and still in communication with his freckles—befriending a blind boy during his summer vacation at the beach. While commenting that Napoli's idea of talking freckles "stretches credibility to the breaking point," Maggie McEwen concluded in School Library Journal that "this light read will appeal to children who have an appreciation for the absurd." Another book in the series, Shelley Shock, focuses on Adam and his talking freckles as they have to contend with a girl who makes the team, and the freckles' advice end up creating more trouble than they solve.
Also for middle-grader readers, The Prince of the Pond: Otherwise Known as De Fawg Pin employs the fairy tale frog-prince motif, but with a unique twist. A prince is turned into a frog by a hag and is then taken under the protective arm of Jade, a female frog who teaches him the ropes in the pond. Blessed with a prodigious number of spawn, the sensitive frog-prince determines to raise some of them personally. Yet when a princess passes by, the frog-prince leaps to the cheek, kisses her, and becomes a prince once again, leaving Jade and their offspring behind. "The frog prince motif has inspired many books," noted Booklist reviewer Carolyn Phelan, "but few as original as this novel." Betsy Hearne, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, commented both on the point of view—the story is told by Jade, the female frog—and the book's willingness to deal with loss, and concluded that The Prince of the Pond is "an animal fantasy that fairy tale readers will relish." A Kirkus Reviews critic felt that the author had done her research well, citing the book for having an "astonishing amount of in-depth natural history cleverly embedded in its endearing, screwball charm." In fact, Napoli spent a great deal of time reading about amphibians and observing pond life. "When I write for children," she explained in SAAS, "I am dead serious. If you sit back and think seriously about the frog prince story even just for a moment, you will realize that without a frog to help this prince through the ordeal, he would have been snake meat fast."
To please her fans, who were curious to know what became of the frog family, Napoli wrote a sequel, Jimmy, the Pickpocket of the Palace. Attempting to save his pond from the miserable hag, young Jimmy, a frog offspring of the prince, is transformed into a human and does not care much for the change. He inevitably ends up working in the palace where he encounters his father. "This successful successor is certain to satisfy old fans and win new friends to the frog prince and his brood," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor. The third book in the series, Gracie: The Pixie of the Puddle, takes a new take on the original story, as Jimmy the frog is befriended by a friendly fellow frog named Gracie. After Princess Sally brings the gag to life and Jimmy once again takes human form during a visit with his regal father, Gracie hops after him, dutifully rescuing her shape-shifting friend when Jimmy is trapped in the palace by those hoping he will lead them to a magic ring. In Booklist, Julie Cummins dubbed Gracie a "convincing, funny and cunning tale," while School Library Journal critic Miriam Lang Budin praised the book as "a lighthearted fantasy" full of "broadly drawn" fairytale characters.
Napoli's young-adult novel The Magic Circle was inspired by an innocent question posed by the author's daughter, Eva, as to the preponderance of wicked witches and stepmothers in fairy tales, and the dearth of equally evil warlocks and stepfathers. "My little feminist heart beat hard," Napoli recalled in SAAS, "and I flipped the pages of my mind through all the fairy tales I knew, looking for the worst woman character I could find. There she was: the witch in Hansel and Gretel." In The Magic Circle Napoli gives a history and motivation to the witch and serves as a prequel to the well-known fairy tale. Her witch is a good-hearted healer whom evil spirits have turned toward evil by giving her a hunger for children. She takes herself off to the woods where she will not be tempted, until one day two succulent children appear on her doorstep. "Napoli flexes her proven talent for unexpected viewpoints, builds strong pace with compressed vigor, and evokes powerful sensory images," noted Betsy Hearne in a review of The Magic Circle for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Lisa Dennis, writing in School Library Journal, cited the novel's "strongly medieval flavor" and concluded that "Napoli's writing and the clarity of her vision make this…. brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed novel … sure to be appreciated by thoughtful readers."
Napoli turns to the Rapunzel story in Zel. Told alternately from the point of view of Zel held in the tower, the count who wants to save her, and Zel's witch mother who put the girl in the tower, the novel plunges into the psychology of the characters. "The genius of the novel lies not just in the details but in its breadth of vision," noted a contributor to Publishers Weekly. "Its shiveringly romantic conclusion will leave readers spellbound." In a Horn Book review of Zel, Roger Sutton commented that the early chapters of the book are a bit of a "wander," but concluded that the novel ultimately "transforms myth without flippancy, honoring the power of its roots."
Crazy Jack envisions a somewhat darker version of the "Jack and the Beanstalk" tale. In Napoli's version, nine-year-old Jack is left orphaned after his father gambles away the family farm and then falls off a cliff to his death while trying to rob a wealthy giant. For the next seven years, Jack is obsessed with climbing the cliff that took his father's life. The boy's strange behavior seems like madness to Jack's widowed mother, especially when he claims to have acquired magic beans that will aid him in reaching the cliff's summit—and the home of the murderous giant. Noting that Jack's ascent of the beanstalk and stealing a hen that lays golden eggs "can be interpreted as hallucination," Kliatt contributor Claire Rosser explained that Napoli enhances the traditional tale with "modern psychological interpretations," including addictive behavior. Readers "with some basic understanding of the subconscious, will marvel at the neatness of Napoli's narrative" and its "subtle twists of interpretation," Rosser added.
Spinners presents the character of Rumpelstiltskin within what Rosser described as "a morality tale of the crippling reality of greed and vengeance." In the story, which Napoli coauthored with Richard Tchen, a young woman named Saskia, who was raised in a troubled home, now finds solace in spinning different types of wool and other fibers into beautiful yarns. Into her life comes an embittered tailor named Rumpelstiltskin. Once passionately in love with Saskia's mother, who died in childbirth, the tailor is in fact the young woman's father. Greedy for family but unable to love his daughter, Rumpelstiltskin places Saskia in a position whereby she will likely lose her own child in the hopes that through that child the old man can gain the family he feels was stolen from him. "The novel's emotional content is a stirring mixture of unwise entanglements, foolish father figures, and broken promises," commented Janice M. Del Negro in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. "Watching how the tale is unraveled and rewoven is half the fun" of reading Napoli's fairy-tale adaptations, according to Booklist contributor Chris Sherman in his review of Spinners.
The Cinderella story shows off its Chinese origins in Napoli's version, titled Bound, while in Breath she imbues the Pied Piper legend with all the mystery of its origins. Set in the fourteenth century, Bound finds a young girl named Xing Xing worried over the pain suffered by stepsister Wei Ping. The older girl is enduring the custom of footbinding, and Xing Xing's journey involves a search for soothing medicine. Breath, set a century earlier in time, centers on the village of Hamlyn and a sickly, twelve-year-old boy named Salz. Raised by a coven of Christian witches, Salz attempts to discover the cause of a mysterious plague that strikes his town even as the healthy children are removed from the village by a caring piper. Bound serves as "both an adventure and a coming-of-age story that will have readers racing to the finish," concluded a Publishers Weekly critic, while in Booklist Gillian Engberg noted that Napoli's "haunting, sometimes violent tale amplifies themes from well-known Western Cinderella stories" and poses provocative questions about the meaning of the traditional "happily ever after" fairy-tale ending. In Kirkus Reviews a reviewer noted of Breathe that Napoli's "compelling mystery … and fully realized characters bring life to the legend," and Horn Book critic Susan P. Bloom observed that the author uses "the immediacy of the present tense, with short, clipped sentences," to accent "the edginess of her gruesome tale." In Booklist, Michael Cart also noted the darkness of Napoli's retelling. However, the critic added, "history buffs … and Napoli fans will find [Breathe] … unarguably artful in its unsparing vision of a pre-Enlightenment Europe.
Another story with traditional roots, Hush: An Irish Princess' Tale is based on Iceland's Laxdaela saga and takes place in the tenth story, and Beast uncovers the Persian roots of the Beauty and the Beast story and recounts the story from princely Beast's point of view. The focus of Hush is on the spoiled fifteen-year-old daughter of an Irish king as she lives in a country constantly under attack by the Vikings. The princess learns that those who toil as slaves can be as strong as kings after she is captured by Russian slavers and she feigns muteness in order to survive her ordeal. In Hush "Napoli's descriptions are saturated with details, which, while slowing the story, make events seem extraordinarily real," in the opinion of Booklist critic Lynn Rutan. Noting that the novel provides a history for the woman who is cast in the Icelandic saga, a Publishers Weekly critic praised Hush as a "powerful survival story" that features the taut plot and high tension of a popular thriller. Based on a poem by nineteenth-century writer Charles Lamb, Beast is "an intriguing and deeply affecting story, and the exotic Persian aspect adds to its flavor," according to Kliatt critic Paula Rohrlick.
In addition to fantasies, Napoli has authored several works of realistic fiction. When the Water Closes over My Head was inspired by her son Michael's fear of drowning. On vacation with grandparents in Iowa, nine-year-old Mikey is continually confronted with his fear of drowning but he eventually surmounts this phobia in what a Kirkus Reviews writer described as "a funny, easily read story that boys and girls should take to like ducks to water." Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, drew attention to Napoli's technique of "tightly structured, cinematic episodes," and her use of dialogue that captures the "daily tangle of close relationships," concluding of When the Water Closes over My Head that "kids will want more stories about this family."
Having overcome his fear of drowning, fourth-grader Mikey returns in On Guard, this time to confront anxieties of another sort. The second of four children, Mikey fears that he will not be special enough in any one way to distinguish himself among his siblings. He discovers the sport of fencing and determines to win the medal his teacher awards weekly to a student who has impressed her with a particular skill, accomplishment, or quality. "Napoli is excellent at depicting Mikey's general tendency towards uncertainty, his frustration at his lack of family stardom, and his passionate attachment to his new field," wrote Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer Deborah Stevenson. "Especially with its lure of an offbeat and glamorous sport, this will please many young readers."
In The Bravest Thing, ten-year-old Laurel has to face the death of her newborn bunnies, an aunt with cancer, and her own diagnosis of scoliosis. "Despite the multitude of hard knocks, this is not a problem novel," noted a Publishers Weekly critic. "Napoli … inspires the reader to believe that obstacles, no matter how daunting, can be made smaller through courage." Another work of nonfiction focusing on modern young people, Changing Tunes finds ten-year-old Eileen dismayed to find that her parents' divorce has disrupted her formerly comfortable home and even her beloved piano is now gone. Ashamed to tell her friends or teachers that her home has been disrupted, she goes in secret to the school's auditorium to practice on the piano there and meets a sympathetic janitor named Mr. Poole who helps Eileen see that "she can't control the family she was born into," according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "Napoli's characterizations are well-rounded," added Del Negro, calling Changing Tunes a "low-key, gently evolving narrative of a young girl's emotional maturation."
Also for preteen readers, North focuses on Alvin, a black preteen who is inspired by his study of the life of African-American Arctic explorer Matthew Henson. When the boy's mother arranges for his trips too and from his Washington, DC, middle school, Alvin decided to follow in his hero's footsteps. Showing amazing resourcefulness, he runs away to the frozen north, where he grows in confidence while facing a range of challenges. Along with its engaging story, North includes "lots of interesting information about Henson and Inuit culture, and important messages about the value of cultural diversity," according to School Library Journal critic Connie Tyrrell. Napoli's novel treats readers to "a journey they won't soon forget," according to Phelan, and Rohrlick predicted that the "bravery" of North's young hero, together with "the exotic setting, … will draw readers into this unusual adventure story."
Napoli has also written historical fiction for young people. Song of the Magdalene, set in ancient Israel, constructs an account of the life of biblical figure Mary Magdalene from a troubled youth as the daughter of a wealthy Jewish widower in the town of Magdala to her experiences as a helper of Jesus. A Publishers Weekly reviewer faulted the work as uneven in many respects, noting, for instance, that "the pacing seems clotted around climactic moments," but nevertheless concluded that "readers may come away with new thoughts about a different era." Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Libby Bergstrom asserted that "the power of Napoli's investigation into the human psyche will draw YA readers into this book; … [Mary] is a character they will not soon forget." In Booklist, Ilene Cooper commented that Napoli's "lyrical writing and layered characterizations" make Song of the Magdalene an enjoyable read for a "sophisticated audience."
Moving forward in time, Stones in Water takes place in Italy during the early twentieth century and focuses on children living in Nazi concentration camps. Inspired by true events, the novel finds thirteen-year-old Roberto, as well as his brother and Jewish friend, taken by German soldiers in a surprise roundup of slave laborers. The boys are unable to tell their distraught parents what has happened to them. Ultimately, Roberto escapes from his Munich work camp, flees through the Soviet Union, and joins a partisan group. In what Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Janet Mura called a "harrowing tale of inhumanity, strength, and friendship," Napoli recounts the hardships the boys face as some live while others perish. "The honest, understated tone of the narrative … makes Napoli's message of the strength which hope and friendship and compassion can impart all the more impressive," maintained an essayist in the St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers. Calling Stones in Water "an affecting coming-of-age novel with a vivid and undeniable message about the human costs of war," Horn Book reviewer Kitty Flynn added that "Napoli's
detailed and gripping descriptions bring the incomprehensible tragedy to life for readers."
Roberto's adventures continue in Fire in the Hills, which takes place a year after the first novel. Returning to Italy in the company of the U.S. soldiers invading Sicily, the young teen takes two years to cross the war-torn country to reach his Venice home. Doing what he has to in order to survive—including working as a translator for a German soldier—Roberto eventually joins the resistance to fight Italy's German occupation, and finds romance amid the chaos of wartime. Noting that little is written of the role of Italian partisans, Claire Rosser maintained in Kliatt that Fire in the Hills "makes the actual history vividly real to modern-day readers." "Roberto's humanity and strength of character overshadow the brutality" of war, according to School Library Journal critic Rita Soltan, the critic dubbing Fire in the Hills "powerful World War II literature."
Other stories that take place in the author's beloved Italy include For the Love of Venice, Daughter of Venice, and Three Days. The first finds an American teen spending the summer in Venice while his father works on a civil-engineering project. Romance soon enters the picture in the form of a pretty Italian teen, but the relationship becomes complicated when her radical politics are revealed. Citing as the novel's strongest attribute the author's ability to portray "Venice with loving detail," School Library Journal contributor Jennifer A. Fakolt added that For the Love of Venice "offers a unique slant on contemporary politics and perspectives couched in an exotic romance."
Drawing readers back in time to the sixteenth century, Daughter of Venice focuses on fourteen-year-old Donata Mocenigo, who desires to break free of the future typical for a younger daughter born to a family of her wealth and station: an adulthood spent in a convent or spent caring for elderly relatives. Disguising herself as a boy, she escapes from her home and ultimately finds romance with a Jewish teen who teaches her to read but whose faith makes him an unsuitable suitor, according to her family. Praising Napoli for avoiding "the easy anachronism," a Kirkus Reviews critic explained that the novel's heroine abides by the dictums of her family and polite society and searches for "a solution to her unhappiness that … remains essentially true to her culture and its restrictions." Praising Daughter of Venice as "engrossing and exotic," Lisa Prolman observed in School Library Journal that, "while a current trend in historical fiction presents a girl with modern sensibilities chafing under the strict rules of a [former] time, nothing about Donata seems forced."
The immigrant experience of Italian Jews such as Napoli's own grandfather is the focus of The King of Mulberry Street, which takes place in the 1890s and finds nine-year-old Beniamino smuggled onto a ship traveling from Napoli, Italy, to Manhattan. Praised by a Kirkus Reviews writer as a "powerfully vivid story" fueled by "the immediacy of Napoli's always-immaculate prose," the novel follows the boy's adventures as he makes the ocean voyage alone and lands at Ellis Island to start a new life as a street urchin in New York City's Five Points neighborhood. With its focus on the challenges faced by young immigrants, The King of Mulberry Street "may well offer readers insight into how their own families found their way here—or send them in search of those stories," maintained a Publishers Weekly critic. "Napoli is an expert at gripping readers' emotions," observed School Library Journal contributor Barbara Scotto, and in The King of Mulberry Street "she does [so] with consummate skill."
The picture-book audience is treated to Napoli's talent for storytelling in books such as Flamingo Dream, Pink Magic, The Wishing Club: A Story about Fractions, and Bobby the Bold, the last coauthored with Eva Furrow. Based on a tragedy in Napoli's own family, Flamingo Dream relays a poignant story about a girl's experiences before and after the death of her fun-loving father to cancer. Their mutual love of all things flamingo is a strong bond between father and daughter, and in Napoli's story the bright pink images reflects the love between the two. In Horn Book Kitty Flynn called Flamingo Dream "touching" and "unembellished," and a Kirkus Reviews critic wrote that the "wonderful collage" pictures by Cathie Felstead "echo the honesty and realism" of Napoli's "wrenching, powerful" story.
In Ugly, Napoli collaborates with artist Lita Judge to present a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling." Transporting the story to Tasmania, she introduces a little creature that hatches out differently than his all-black siblings. Eventually driven from the duck colony, Ugly searches for true friends, meeting a variety of unusual animals in the process. Finally, he discovers his true identity as an Australian black swan, in a story featuring "lush … details of the natural world … and an elegant use of language," according to School Library Journal contributor Susan Hepler. "Trust Napoli to work her usual alchemy and make a fabulous coming-of-age story from the bare outline of the reassuring ugly-duckling trope," announced a Kirkus Reviews writer in a laudatory review of Ugly. Another transported tale, Mogo the Third Warthog, presents Napoli's retelling of the "Three Little Pigs," which the author sets on the vast grasslands of Africa. As the little warthog tells his story, "Mogo's first-person narration will keep young readers … on edge," according to a Kirkus Reviews writer.
Often asked where the ideas for her stories come from, Napoli once noted in SAAS: "If you keep your eyes and ears and mind and heart open, you will find plenty to write about—more than anyone could ever write in a lifetime." "When I write for children," the author added, "I do not hesitate to present them with the sadness of mortality and the horrors of wickedness—but I always try to leave them with a sense that whether or not they can change the problems in life, they can find a way to live decently and joyfully. Hope is an internal matter. I strive to cultivate it in my readers."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Contemporary Literature Review, Volume 51, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 152-168.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 23, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997, pp. 161-178.
St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Booklist, January 15, 1993, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Prince of the Pond: Otherwise Known as De Fawg Pin, p. 909; July, 1993, Sally Estes, review of The Magic Circle, p. 1957; January 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of When the Water Closes over My Head, p. 827; October 15, 1994, Frances Bradburn, review of Shark Shock, p. 427; March 15, 1995, Ilene Cooper, review of Jimmy, the Pickpocket of the Palace, p. 1331; October 1, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of Stones in Water, p. 333; May 1, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of For the Love of Venice, p. 1512; May 15, 1998, John Peters, review of Changing Tunes, p. 1627; September 15, 1998, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Sirena, p. 221; October 1, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Song of the Magdalene, p. 341; September 1, 1999, Chris Sherman, review of Spinners, p. 124; October 1, 1999, Kay Weisman, review of Crazy Jack, p. 355; September 15, 2000, Sally Estes, review of Beast, p. 233, and Ellen Mandel, review of Shelley Shock, p. 242; September 15, 2001, Michael Cart, review of How Hungry Are You?, p. 233; October 1, 2001, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Three Days, p. 312; January 1, 2002, Whitney Scott, review of Beast, p. 876; March 1, 2002, Lauren Peterson, review of Rocky, the Cat Who Barks, p. 1143; April 15, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Flamingo Dream, p. 1498; April 15, 2003, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Great God Pan, p. 1464; September 15, 2003, Michael Cart, review of Breathing, p. 232; March 1, 2004, Carolyn Phelan, review of North, p. 1190; April 15, 2004, Julie Cummins, review of Gracie: The Pixie of the Puddle, p. 1457; December 1, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of Bound, p. 652; August, 2005, Hazel Rochman, review of The King of Mulberry Street, p. 1966; September 15, 2005, Carolyn Phelan, review of Pink Magic, p. 74; April 1, 2006, Michael Cart, review of Bobby the Bold, p. 49; June 1, 2007, Hazel Rochman, review of The Wishing Club: A Story about Fractions, p. 87; November 1, 2007, Lynn Rutan, review of Hush: An Irish Princess' Tale, p. 40.
Book Report, March, 2001, Suzanne Manczuk, review of Beast, p. 59.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1993, Betsy Hearne, review of The Prince of the Pond, p. 153; April, 1993, Betsy Hearne, review of The Magic Circle, p. 260; February, 1997, Deborah Stevenson, review of On Guard, p. 217; February, 1998, Betsy Hearne, review of Stones in Water, p. 214; September, 1998, Janice M. Del Negro, review of Changing Tunes, pp. 24-25; December, 1998, Janice M. Del Negro, review of Sirena, p. 140; September, 1999, Janice M. Del Negro, review of Spinners, pp. 25-26; December, 1999, Janice M. Del Negro, review of Crazy Jack, pp. 119-120; July, 2002, review of Daughter of Venice, p. 413; July, 2003, review of The Great God Pan, p. 456; October, 2003, Janice Del Negro, review of Breath, p. 72; June, 2004, Deborah Stevenson, review of North, p. 430; July-August, 2004, Janice Del Negro, review of Gracie, p. 2004; January, 2005, Timnah Card, review of Bound, p. 222.
Horn Book, September-October, 1996, Roger Sutton, review of Zel, p. 603; January-February, 1998, Kitty Flynn, review of Stones in Water, p. 77; January, 2000, review of Crazy Jack, p. 80; September, 2000, review of Beast, p. 577; January, 2001, Donna Jo Napoli, "What's Math Got to Do with It?, p. 61; March, 2001, Christine Heppermann, "Angel Wings and Hard Knocks," p. 239; September, 2001, review of Three Days, p. 590; March-April, 2002, Anita L. Burkam, review of Daughter of Venice, p. 216; July-August, 2002, Kitty Flynn, review of Flamingo Dreams, p. 450; January-February, 2004, Susan P. Bloom, review of Breath, p. 85; November-December, 2005, Kathleen Isaacs, review of The King of Mulberry Street, p. 721.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1991, review of Soccer Shock, p. 1225; October 1, 1992, review of The Prince of the Pond, p. 1259; January 1, 1994, review of When the Water Closes over My Head, p. 72; May 1, 1995, review of Jimmy, the Pickpocket of the Palace; May 15, 1998, review of Changing Tunes, p. 741; September 15, 1998, review of Sirena, p. 1386; February 15, 2001, review of Albert, p. 263; December 15, 2001, review of Rocky, the Cat Who Barks, p. 1761, and review of Daughter of Venice, p. 1761; March 15, 2002, review of Flamingo Dream, p. 421; May 1, 2003, review of The Great God Pan, p. 681; October 15, 2003, review of Breath, p. 1274; May 1, 2004, review of North, p. 446; May 15, 2004, review of Gracie, p. 495; November 1, 2004, review of Bound, p. 1046; August 15, 2005, review of Pink Magic, p. 1085; October 1, 2005, review of The King of Mulberrry Street, p. 1085; December 15, 2005, review of Ugly, p. 1326; April 15, 2006, review of Bobby the Bold, p. 412; July 15, 2006, review of Fire in the Hills, p. 727; June 15, 2007, review of The Wishing Club; October 1, 2007, review of Hush; June 1, 2008, review of Mogo the Third Warthog.
Kliatt, May, 1998, review of For the Love of Venice, p. 7; September, 1999, review of Crazy Jack, p. 12; November, 1999, review of Spinners, p. 12; May, 2002, Claire Rosser, review of Daughter of Venice, p. 12; July, 2003, review of The Great God Pan, p. 15; November, 2003, Paula Rorhlick, review of Breath, p. 8; July, 2004, Claire Rosser, review of Song of the Magdalene, p. 22; July, 2004, Paula Rohrlick, review of North, p. 10; November, 2004, Janice Flint-Ferguson, review of Bound, p. 10; September, 2005, Paula Rohrlick, review of Breath, p. 22; July, 2006, Claire Rosser, review of Fire in the Hills, p. 10; September, 2006, Janice Flint Ferguson, review of Bound, p. 26.
Library Journal, September 1, 1994, Nancy Dice, review of The Magic Circle, p. 244.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 8, 2001, review of Albert, p. 6.
New York Times Book Review, February 11, 2001, review of Beast, p. 26.
Publishers Weekly, November 16, 1992, review of The Prince of the Pond, p. 64; June 14, 1993, review of The Magic Circle, p. 73; February 21, 1994, review of When the Water Closes over My Head, p. 255; October 30, 1995, review of The Bravest Thing, p. 62; June 17, 1996, review of Zel, p. 66; November 4, 1996, review of Song of the Magdalene, p. 77; March 23, 1998, review of For the Love of Venice, p. 101; June 15, 1998, review of Changing Tunes, p. 60; November 2, 1998, review of Sirena, p. 84; July 19, 1999, review of Spinners, p. 196; November 1, 1999, review of Friends Everywhere, p. 84, and Crazy Jack, p. 85; November 8, 1999, review of Stones in Water, p. 71; November 6, 2000, review of Beast, p. 92; March 5, 2001, review of Albert, p. 78; August 20, 2001, review of How Hungry Are You?, p. 80; February 18, 2002, review of Daughter of Venice, p. 97; March 11, 2002, review of Flamingo Dream, p. 72; May 26, 2003, review of The Great God Pan, p. 71; April 5, 2004, review of North, p. 62; November 8, 2004, review of Bound, p. 57; December 19, 2005, review of The King of Mulberry Street, p. 65; February 6, 2006, review of Ugly, p. 70; October 1, 2007, review of Hush, p. 85.
School Library Journal, August, 1988, Nancy A. Gifford, review of The Hero of Barletta, p. 84; April, 1992, Denise Krell, review of Soccer Shock, p. 118; October, 1992, John Peters, review of The Prince of the Pond, p. 118; August, 1993, Lisa Dennis, review of The Magic Circle, p. 186; March, 1994, Carol Schene, review of When the Water Closes over My Head, p. 223; January, 1995, Maggie McEwen, review of Shark Shock, p. 109; November, 1997, Marilyn Payne Phillips, review of Stones in Water, p. 122; June, 1998, Jennifer A. Fakolt, review of For the Love of Venice, p. 148; July, 2000, Sheila Brown, review of Crazy Jack, p. 56; October, 2000, Sharon Grover, review of Beast, p. 168; November, 2000, Elaine E. Knight, review of Shelley Shock, p. 160; May, 2001, Wendy Lukehart, review of Albert, p. 130; August, 2001, B. Allison Gray, review of Three Days, p. 186; September, 2001, Barbara Wysocki, review of Beast, p. 76; October, 2001, Piper L. Nyman, review of How Hungry Are You?, p. 126; March, 2002, Lisa Prolman, review of Daughter of Venice, p. 236, and review of Rocky, the Cat Who Barks, p. 198; May, 2002, Wendy Lukehart, review of Flamingo Dream, p. 124; May, 2004, Connie Tyrrell, review of North, p. 156; June, 2004, Miriam Lang Budin, review of Gracie, p. 116; November, 2004, Barbara Scotto, review of Bound, p. 150; September, 2005, Rachel G. Payne, review of Pink Magic, p. 183; October, 2005, Barbara Scotto, review of The King of Mulberry Street, p. 168; March, 2006, Susan Hepler, review of Ugly, p. 199; May, 2006, Diane Eddington, review of Sly the Sleuth and the Sports Mysteries, p. 96; September, 2006, Rita Soltan, review of Fire in the Hills, p. 214; September, 2007, Mary Jean Smith, review of The Wishing Club, p. 172; December, 2007, Cheri Dobbs, review of Hush, p. 138.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1997, Libby Bergstrom, review of Song of the Magdalene, p. 331; February, 1998, Janet Mura, review of Stones in Water, pp. 387-388.
Donna Jo Napoli Home Page,http://www.donnajonapoli.com (June 5, 2008).
"Napoli, Donna Jo 1948–." Something About the Author. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/scholarly-magazines/napoli-donna-jo-1948
"Napoli, Donna Jo 1948–." Something About the Author. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/scholarly-magazines/napoli-donna-jo-1948
Napoli, Donna Jo
Napoli, Donna Jo
Donna Jo Napoli moonlights from her job as a professor of linguistics at a Pennsylvania college to write books for children and young adults. Her stories range from magical retellings of ancient or medieval folktales, like Zel and The Magic Circle, to realistic, emotionally wrenching tales of kids confronting divorce and death in their family, such as The Bravest Thing. An essay on her career in the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers commended Napoli's "belief in the ability of ordinary people to overcome and to survive."
Lost home more than once
Napoli never planned to become a writer. Born in 1948, she grew up in an Italian American family in Miami, Florida, the youngest of four children. She suffered from an eye problem that was not diagnosed until she was ten, but once it was corrected, she became an avid reader. But there were still other challenges in her early life. "We had no books in the house," she recalled in an interview published on the DownHomeBooks.com Web site. "My father bought the paper—but only to read the betting sheets and any news that might affect his chances to win bets." In an article she wrote for Horn Book she revealed that her father was a compulsive gambler: "When he'd make money at work, he'd gamble it—sometimes completely away. Then we'd get kicked out of where we were living and my parents would fight and I'd go sit in a tree and read a book and live in the world I created inside my head."
Napoli was a talented student in her teens, and was accepted at Harvard University. During her first year there she took a required composition class, which had one fiction assignment. After her professor read the assignment, she suggested that Napoli could pursue a career as a novelist. "I decided then and there never to take another English course," she wrote in the Horn Book article. "I simply was not going to be lured into a vocation that was so financially unstable."
After earning an undergraduate degree in mathematics, Napoli decided to study Romance languages in graduate school. These are Italian, French, Spanish, and other languages descended from Latin. She went on to earn a doctorate from Harvard in 1973. She also spent a year studying linguistics, which is the scientific study of languages and their structure, sounds, meanings, and relation to human culture. During her college years she married and began a family that would eventually number five children.
"I try hard to give my readers other places—to let them experience via my stories cultures and lands that they might not be able to experience otherwise—to give them what I sought in books."
Math trained her to write
Napoli spent the next dozen years living and working in a number of college towns, from Northampton, Massachusetts, to Ann Arbor, Michigan. She became a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1987, and also served as chair of its linguistics department. She is the author of five books in her professional field. Her first book for children, The Hero of Barletta, was published in 1988. Its story is based on an Italian folktale about a giant who works to save the village where he lives from an invading army. But Napoli's second career as a writer did not come about quickly. "I spent fourteen long years gathering letters of rejection before an editor finally bought one of my stories," she noted in the Horn Book article. Her early training in mathematics had served her well, she believed. "To do math problems, you have to focus and work and work.... So mathematics teaches persistence. And there may be no more important quality for a writer than persistence."
Napoli only turned to writing fiction as a second job after she experienced a personal loss. For months afterward she exchanged letters with a friend, who came to her a year later, letters in hand, and suggested they would make a terrific novel. "That's when I realized I really love to write," Napoli told an audience of young readers, according to Winston-Salem Journal reporter Kim Underwood. Not surprisingly, many of her books deal with a loss or challenge, and often feature characters who are coming to terms with a change or disruption in their lives. Soccer Shock was one of Napoli's more fantastical early works. It was also her first children's story that was not a folktale retold. Its hero is Adam, a ten-year-old who is jolted by an electric shock. As a result, his freckles now talk to him, and Adam tries to use his newfound power to become the winning athlete on his soccer team. Napoli wrote two other novels in which Adam confronts various challenges, Shark Shock and Shelley Shock.
Napoli's Major Works for Young Adults
The Magic Circle, Dutton, 1993.
Zel, Dutton/Penguin, 1996.
Song of the Magdalene, Scholastic, 1996.
Stones in Water, Dutton/Penguin, 1997.
Sirena, Scholastic, 1998.
Crazy Jack, Delacorte, 1999.
Beast, Simon and Schuster/Atheneum, 2000.
Three Days, Dutton, 2001.
Daughter of Venice, Random/Wendy Lamb Books, 2002.
Breath, Simon and Schuster/Atheneum, 2003.
The Great God Pan, Random/Wendy Lamb Books, 2003.
Overcoming phobias was the theme of Napoli's 1994 book When the Water Closes Over My Head. Mikey, age nine, is terrified of taking swimming lessons, and his older sister teases him about it, but he eventually learns to overcome his fear. Booklist 's Hazel Rochman liked the fact that Napoli's characters debunked gender stereotypes—Mikey cooks better than his sister, and his little brother likes to play dress-up. When their grandmother disapproves, Mikey defends his brother. Rochman also noted the way Napoli had the characters interact at several levels, where they "bicker about breakfast cereal and also confront elemental issues of grief and rivalry and love."
Napoli also wrote about a young man with agoraphobia, or the fear of leaving one's home. The title character in Albert struggles to leave the house day after day, but is unable to do so. One day he sticks his hand out of the window to check the weather, and a bird begins building a nest for her eggs in it. Now he has to remain at the window day after day, but in the process he begins to observe the world outside. When the eggs hatch and the birds leave their nest, Albert realizes he, too, is ready to leave and explore the world.
Her favorite book
Napoli has said that The Bravest Thing, one of her books for readers age eight to eleven, is her favorite among the works she has authored. The story deals with multiple sorrows: ten-year-old Laurel has a pet rabbit named Bun Bun who has a litter, but Bun Bun refuses to nurse her babies and they die. Laurel decides to mate her again, and the same thing happens. In the meantime, Laurel also learns her beloved aunt has cancer, and that she herself has scoliosis, or a curvature of the spine that will require her to wear a brace. Napoli's handling of the difficult subject matter, noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, "inspires the reader to believe that obstacles, no matter how daunting, can be made smaller through courage."
Napoli's five children often provided story ideas in an indirect way. One of her daughters, Eva, once asked her mother during a readaloud moment why there were so many mean women in fairy tales. The question prompted Napoli to write The Magic Circle, a twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. It is also the first of her books directed at young adult readers. In the original tale, two children are abandoned in the forest on the orders of their stepmother during a time of starvation in the land. They become lost but discover a delightful house made of candy. An elderly woman lures them in and feeds them lavishly, but then plans to bake them in an oven and eat them. In Napoli's story, the dreadful witch had once been a respected midwife and healer, but was condemned as a witch by her community during a wave of religious fervor in late 1600s Germany. She made a deal with the dark forces in order to save her daughter, but was tricked by them and now must live a solitary forest life. The Magic Circle was named Best Book of the Year in a 1993 Publisher's Weekly round-up, and won several other awards as well.
Besieged medieval village
A summer spent working on a farm when her children were very young inspired some of the plot of Breath, Napoli's 2003 novel for young adults. The story's kernel, however, is another reworking of a classic fairy tale. In this case, the fairy tale was based on a real event: in 1284, bothered by a rat infestation, the town of Hameln, Germany, paid a musician to lead the vermin away. When the city then refused to pay the piper the money he was due, he led the town's children away, too. Napoli read about Hameln and was intrigued by the idea that the town may have experienced a bout of ergot poisoning at the time. Ergot infests stores of rye and other grains, and causes stillborn children, hallucinations, bouts of twitching, and livestock deaths. Modern historians believe the ergot poisonings brought on the odd behavior that incited witch hunts in many places throughout the ages.
Breath is narrated by Salz, a twelve-year-old boy who has cystic fibrosis. This is a genetic disorder that causes the lungs to fill with mucus; it has no cure and only in modern times did its sufferers live to reach adulthood. Napoli based her character on an old version of the tale, in which one boy does not go with the other children to their deaths, and hints he was left behind because he is disabled. In Napoli's story, the townspeople come to believe that Salz, who coughs incessantly, is a witch, since he has not succumbed to the strange disease that has overtaken many. This is because he has not drunk any of the beer made from the ergot-infested rye. Susan P. Bloom, reviewing Breath for Horn Book, called it an "intriguing tale" that could have stood on its own without the Pied Piper story, "so compelling are the portraits of its protagonist and family and the horrific events that beset them."
Re-imagines fairy tales
Many of Napoli's books are retellings of classic folktales or myths. These include Zel, the story of Rapunzel, and Sirena, a romantic twist on the Sirens who were said to have lured Greek sailors to their deaths in the ancient world. Beast reworks the classic Beauty and the Beast story, and adds a language lesson. It begins in Persia in the 1500s, and features a prince who is turned into a lion as punishment. He makes his way to France, where he knows there is a woman, Belle, and a rose garden that will save him. "On this grueling trip the reader feels the prince's loss of humanity," noted Bloom in a Horn Book review. The critic also noted that the story turns compelling when Belle finds him in the abandoned castle where he is hiding. The Beast leaves it only to hunt his own food, which repulses him. "Getting past her initial fear, the courageous Belle cleans the Beast's muzzle of blood," notes Bloom, and the two read together from The Aeneid, an epic Latin masterpiece from the first century b.c.e. Persian, Arabic, and French words appear elsewhere in the story, and Napoli provides a glossary at the end for readers.
Napoli still teaches at Swarthmore, but also likes to visit schools and meet her young readers in person. She has written books with others, including How Hungry Are You? with mathematician Richard Tchen. With her son, Robert Furrow, she wrote Sly and the Pet Mysteries, which was published in 2004. She has also collaborated with her daughter, Eva, on Bobby the Bonobo, a book about a pet monkey that is scheduled for publication in 2006.
For More Information
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers. Second edition. Farmington Hills, MI: St. James Press, 1999.
Bloom, Susan P. "Beast. " Horn Book (September 2000): p. 577.
Bloom, Susan P. "Donna Jo Napoli: Breath. " Horn Book (January-February 2004): p. 85.
"The Bravest Thing. " Publishers Weekly (October 30, 1995): p. 62.
DeCandido, GraceAnne A. "The Great God Pan. " Booklist (April 15, 2003): p. 1464.
Napoli, Donna Jo. " What's Math Got to Do with It?" Horn Book (January 2001): p. 61.
Rochman, Hazel. "When the Water Closes over My Head. " Booklist (January 1, 1994): p. 827.
Underwood, Kim. " Just Watch; Author Recommends Close Observation Followed Up with a Fertile Imagination." Winston-Salem Journal (November 12, 2001): p. D1.
"Author interviews: September 2003: Donna Jo Napoli." DownHomeBooks.com. http://www.downhomebooks.com/napoli.htm (accessed on July 15, 2004).
"Biography." Donna Jo Napoli.com. http://www.donnajonapoli.com/biography.html (accessed on July 15, 2004).
"Napoli, Donna Jo." UXL Newsmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/general/culture-magazines/napoli-donna-jo
"Napoli, Donna Jo." UXL Newsmakers. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/general/culture-magazines/napoli-donna-jo