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Donna Jo Napoli: A Hunger for Words

It's true: hunger impels an author to write. The hunger can take the form of putting food on the table, yes; or, the hunger comes from an author wanting to read a book about a topic and that book doesn't exist. Then there is the hunger for words: their similarities, their differences, and their power. These are the reasons why Donna Jo Napoli started writing.

Donna Jo was the last of four children in her family, so by the time she was born, her mother was tired and did not have the energy to devote as much time as she would have liked to her youngest child. Then there were the inevitable problems that crop up with families, money being just one of them. Her father read only the horse racing sheets, to "help" with his betting; he would often spend his whole paycheck on the nags. Donna Jo's family moved thirteen times in thirteen years, so it was hard to make and keep friends. A vision problem, undiagnosed until she got to school, hampered her as well. Children are resilient and, like so many kids, she overcame these everyday problems. At home, her family spoke English; at church, Latin was used. When her grandmother talked with Donna Jo's mother, they spoke Calabrese; when her parents argued, they spoke Napoletano: no wonder her hunger for words deepened. She discovered the library, and school became a haven, where there were many books and no one was shouting. Donna Jo did very well at school: so well, in fact, she was accepted at Harvard.

Every freshman is required to take a composition class, and, after an assignment to write a piece of fiction, Donna Jo's professor suggested she was good enough to be a novelist. "No way", she said, that was not a steady income. She earned a degree in mathematics. Math, according to Donna Jo, teaches persistence; a handy trait that is also important for writers. Napoli decided to pursue a graduate degree in Romance languages, earning a doctorate at Harvard in 1973. More linguistic studies followed; she also married and began her family. Donna suffered a personal loss, and had sent letters to a friend; her friend came to her with the bundle of letters and told her she should write a novel. Donna realized, looking at that bundle of letters, that she loved to write. She needed more money for her growing family, so she started writing her first novel. It was a children's book, published in 1988. She wrote two more children's titles; then, one night, her daughter Eva asked her a question: "Why are there so many wicked stepmothers and witches in fairy tales, but no wicked stepfathers?" Donna started thinking, who is the nastiest of all the women in traditional fairy tales? The witch, in the Hansel and Gretel story: she eats kids. That got her writing the book that became The Magic Circle. The woman in it is not a witch, but a healer, an herbalist, who, in trying to save her daughter, turned to sorcery. The deal went bad, and she has isolated herself in the forest to resist temptation. Then those juicy kids come along…

Napoli has published several more retellings of fairy tales and myths. Zel, a version of the Rapunzel story, is told from the viewpoint of Zel, her mother, and the prince. Bound is the Cinderella story, from China. Beast is set in Persia, and later, France. It is based on the Beauty and the Beast story, and answers the question, who was Beast, before Beauty found him? Even though you may have heard them before, she freshens them up with new locales, changes some viewpoints, yet the tales keep their power. Donna Jo has found ideas for other stories closer to home. Her grandfather's story of how he came to America inspired The King of Mulberry Street. Dom, a young boy from Napoli, Naples to us, stows away on a ship bound for America. The only thing of value he owns is a new pair of shoes, a gift from his mother. He lands in New York, and must learn to survive on the streets. Roberto in Stones in Water sneaks into the movies in his Italian village. Big mistake, as he realizes when German troops raid the theater and drag all the boys off to a nasty work camp, with little food and much brutality. Can Roberto and his friend Samuele survive, especially if the Germans discover Samuele's secret?

These are just a handful of titles from Donna Jo Napoli. Whichever title you choose to start with, you will see the effect of an author feeding her hunger well. Enjoy.


Donna Jo Napoli in the Library:
We own many of Donna Jo Napoli's works. You can place a hold on any title and pick them up at any branch.