(first published in Historical Novels Review, Feb. 2007)
It’s a skillful author who can take a snippet of a tale and craft it into something wonderful that flows as smooth as a wide, old river yet twists and turns like a wild mountain stream. Donna Jo Napoli does just that. She writes for all ages, from picture books through young adult books and in a variety of genres, covering contemporary, fantasy, and historical fiction. Many of Donna Jo Napoli’s books for older readers are retellings of fairytales with strong historical, and sometimes uncomfortable, settings. Even though these tales are written for teens, they have a strong adult following.
Like most authors, Donna Jo Napoli’s path to becoming a writer was not a straight line. She grew up in a family that was not education oriented and she dreamed of being a mother, not a writer. She entered Harvard University on a scholarship and decided on a math major. While taking Italian senior year, her teacher suggested she study literature. She found math more interesting, but when introduced to linguistics, she discovered that it combined her interests of language and math. Napoli ended up with two degrees in linguistics and currently teaches the subject at Swarthmore College.
Napoli eventually found her talent for writing. The settings of her novels run seamlessly with the tales she crafts, but surprisingly, Napoli finds it difficult to select her settings for these titles. When Napoli worked on The Magic Circle (Dutton 1993), a retelling of "Hansel and Gretel", she researched cannibalism. “I didn’t trust the Grimm Brothers,” says Napoli. She found that the practice of cannibalism is rare as a food source and is predominantly used as ritual. “Eating the strength of your enemies brought me to religion, then witches and sorcery, then Christian witches (consorts of evil) in Africa.” She discovered that it was the Christians that hung and tortured their witches. This brought her to the realization that Hansel and Gretel was a European tale and this was a witch that was squirreled away in the woods. This brought Napoli back to Germany and she conceded that the Grimms Brothers were right. She finally decided on setting the book in Germany during a time of turmoil.
When Napoli wrote Bound (Atheneum, 2004), a Cinderella tale, she researched all the tales set in very ancient times. She came across an Emperor of the Ming dynasty who had grown up in poverty giving him a great sympathy for the poor. In fact, according to Napoli’s reseach, he started the civil service exam. Anybody could take the exam based on merit. This planted the seed of her Cinderella retelling. A person of no means could elevate themselves and a prince could fall in love with an ordinary subject. “It’s very complex,” says Napoli. “The tale comes first then the research and the setting.”
Napoli finds joy in that first draft and her research. The second draft is her least favorite. “It’s so intellectual. The first is filled with passion.” During the semesters she’s teaching she works on revisions. “Zel (Dutton, 1996) was thirteen drafts. North (Greenwillow, 2006) took me seven years of putting it away and pulling it out. I threw out the second half of the book many times before it was completed. Research is always going on.” Napoli doesn’t go more than about two days without writing.
Napoli's tales are often told from a unique point of view, such as from the point of view of the witch in Hansel and Gretel or a young boy whom the Pied Piper doesn’t reach. “It depends on which character draws me. In Zel (paper 1998) I do three points of view. I needed a third voice. It depends on which character interests me. It also allows me more freedom in telling the tale. If the reader is put in the mind of a different character that’s good.”
Breath (Atheneum, 2003), a retelling of the Pied Piper, is Napoli’s favorite of her books. “I’m very attached to that little boy,” she says speaking of the main character, Salz. She knew she wanted to write from the point of view of the child left behind. Her research led her to the German version of the tale that included a lame boy left behind. Napoli was free to give him any ailment she wanted. A summer years ago she had worked on a farm that was a day camp for children. One counselor in training was a rosy-cheeked beautiful little girl who had cystic fibrosis. “She had the ability to say the cruelest things to people and really undo them. She didn’t expect to live to 20. She was so pink because she had a low-grade fever. She said something so awful to another kid and I lost it. I told her it’s the quality of her life. I always regretted what I said, although she needed it said. So I wanted to depict this child as an apology to Jennifer long after.” This little boy, Salz, is not like Jennifer, but he suffers like her.
She set the book in the medieval town of Hamelin. “That period was so difficult. If you were a rational person who wanted to make some sense and religiously oriented it would be such a difficult period to live.”
The Tale of"The Pied Piper" is so slight, just a mere poem, but Napoli manages to weave the themes of cystic fibrosis and poisoning in to create a complex retelling. “Most of the fairy tales are about a page to a page and a half. Those older tales are plot lines with no character development. I’ve always been interested in why people do what they do. So starting with a poem is not much different for me.”Stones in Water (paper, 1998) and Fire in the Hills (Dutton, 2006) are two of Napoli’s pure historical fiction novels, both set during WW II in Italy. They are different from her retellings, yet offer the same rich historical setting that make her books such wonderful reads. Unlike her retellings Napoli is not given a plot with these historical novels. With Stones In Water, however, she was sort of handed a plot by a friend in Venice who was taken prisoner by the Nazi’s as a boy. Like the character in her book, Napoli’s friend was taken from a movie theater “He was captured by the Americans when he was in Russia, which saved him. He wasn’t sent home because Northern Italy was still occupied. He was away for 5 years.” The incidents were different but knowing what happened to him gave Napoli an experience she wanted to share with kids. She had more freedom with the historical novel than with a retelling.
Unlike many authors of historical fiction, Napoli doesn’t focus on one period. She likes doing different things. “When I was growing up we didn’t have books in the house. When I met a new culture it was interesting. I was every kid in every book I’d ever read. That’s what I strive to give my readers. I want to give them those experiences, something not familiar. It’s sort of a mission. Books gave me so much. If I weren’t a voracious reader I wouldn’t interesting.”
Napoli’s tales, full of psychological insights, rich settings, and original viewpoints, will inspire all her readers. Whether her readers are enjoying Beast, set in ancient Persia, Song of the Magdalene, a powerful story of Mary Magdalene, or any of her other award-winning titles, they are sure to discover new cultures and amazing adventures.