Beautiful Words to Nestle in their Heads: Donna Jo Napoli and the Voices of Story

Donna Jo Napoli is an Italian-American writer and academic whose impressive body of work includes historical children’s fiction, retellings of myth and fairy tale, deaf studies, and linguistics. Zoë Jellicoe met with this award-winning author to discuss her creative method, her passion for historical literature, and her wide-ranging interests in communication and storytelling.

Napoli began composing fiction at 28, writing absolutely everything she could whenever she could. When her children were little the washing machine was going just about every day, so the laundry room became a good spot to work, since she had to be there anyway. Now she just works there because she is used to it: ‘It’s comforting – maybe at this point it’s like Pavlov with his dogs. It took 14 years to get my first fiction book published. Any sane person would have quit.’ Her first book was an Italian joke she heard while visiting Barletta. She gave it a folktale flavour and wrote it up as a picturebook, after which she wrote novels for a long time. Though she loves doing picturebooks, she finds they’re much harder than writing a novel. ‘In about a thousand words, you have to tell a story in a rich way that is delightful for the child. Every word must count – it’s like creating a painting with only twelve strokes.’

Her approach to fiction is like walking into a house to find rooms you didn’t know existed, she says. As a lover of languages (gained a PhD in Romance Languages, taught Japanese syntactical structure, and even published on Chinese phonology), I ask her how her approach to fiction differs from her academic writing: ‘It probably isn’t different enough. In fiction, I let things happen, whereas in linguistics I will have a particular question that I want to answer. I write in a linear fashion in linguistics that is unlike my fiction writing, but I am constantly revising, because when I’m writing I can see the gaps in my arguments.’

One of the things she tries to do in her books is to enrich the ways a child might think about language. Daughter of Venice, for example, is set in Italy, so she wanted to remind children of where they are and that, even though the words are English, the people are really speaking Italian. ‘If there’s a beautiful word that I can throw in that will nestle in their heads somewhere, then I do.’

Napoli uses her retellings of myth and fairy tale as a base from which to explore the emotional depths of figures more often seen as cultural symbols than characters occupying immediately familiar human scenarios. In Sirena, a tale set against the backdrop of Ancient Greece and the Trojan War, the mermaid protagonist takes pity on the sailors lured by the sirens’ song and confines herself to an island, inadvertently meeting someone who loves her not for her voice but for herself. The Magic Circle offers a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel tale, with the ‘witch’ revealed to be a midwife/sorceress who loses her powers of healing and is driven into the forest, while her retelling of Greek myth in Treasury of Greek Mythology features a fascinating description of Uranus’s blood seeping into Gaia.

Greek poems are often extended on something but elsewhere are often brief, and on Gaia they’re quite brief. I wanted her to be lovely and vivid, so I put myself in her place. Mostly in that book, I worked faithfully with the old Greek poems, but now and then I went to Ovid, a Roman, and that is of course hundreds of years later. He has his own very lyrical sense of style, and I adore him, and he influenced me greatly in writing about Chaos.

I ask Napoli what significance she sees in using a first-person narrator rather than an omniscient voice. While she doesn’t always use the first person, she admits that she likes it and tries to take it seriously. ‘If you take these stories and tell them just how they’re told, they seem like the ravings of a crazy person – just one bizarre event after another.’ But she argues that if you take it seriously and ask what could have made somebody do something which led them to do the next bizarre thing, then ‘it’s suddenly very interesting for me how psychologically coherent a fairy tale can be’. She says it’s about asking yourself: ‘What if this really happened?’

Napoli is drawn to how animals offer a narrative freedom that people do not, and told me a story about her friend Caroline Leaf, an artist who works on animated films. ‘If you write a story about anyone other than yourself, you’re going to be wrong.’ By way of explanation, she tells how Caroline flew with an interpreter to an Inuit village on an island north of the Arctic Circle to find a native Canadian story to make into a film. The women there told her a tale about a goose and an owl who fall in love, which ended sadly because geese migrate and owls do not. So the goose leaves with all the babies and the owl is left behind. Caroline drew the opening scene, depicting the lake with trees along one side, the owl sitting in a tree and the goose descending to the lake. After showing it to the women, they laughed, saying: ‘If the trees were here and the moon was there, the goose would never come in from that direction.’ It was something she never thought to ask them, says Napoli, because it just didn’t occur to Caroline, and it was something they wouldn’t have told her, because in their culture ‘who on Earth doesn’t know such a thing?’

Even memoirs are fiction, she says, in that we ‘distort how we think about the reality of our own lives’. She once wrote a story called North about a 12-year-old boy in Washington DC who runs away from home. Though she lived in the same neighbourhood as the boy, she still got criticism that the neighbourhood was not as she had written: ‘My experience is going to be different from someone else’s, and that’s just how it is.’ As she sees it, animals, unlike people, are not going to fight with you: ‘You do all that research on the animals, you do the best you can, and even though you know you’ve missed something about warthogs, no warthog is going to read your story and say you were wrong.’

In her writing, Napoli has demonstrated deep concern for the rights of the child, speaking passionately against censorship and offering literature as an effective means by which empathy might be taught, and ultimately power given to young people, as members of society who rarely have a voice. We discuss the sense of empowerment that books offer to children. By reading about other children, empathising with characters, they have an experience that is entirely their own.

Books are one of the most effective ways of giving a child power, she declares. While she absolutely loves films, she loves the fact that in a book there is a lot of visual information that you are not given: ‘It’s not very often that a child gets to control things.’ She has often seen a child sitting with a toy, and a parent or adult will come by and show them how to use it – ‘children aren’t even necessarily empowered with respect to play, but in the book you can do what you want.’

One thing she really dislikes about literary criticism is the idea that some interpretations of a story are better than others. That whole notion could shake a child’s faith in their own ability, she says, and therefore their pleasure in the experience of reading. ‘I want to let every child read my story however they want to read my story.’ She does believe that we are all a product of our culture and we do all kinds of things grounded in that culture without being aware of it: ‘But I don’t want to give higher value to critics’ interpretation of what’s going on than to the child’s interpretation.’

Because voices in books can often speak more intimately to children about topics which adults may not discuss in front of them, Napoli argues that literature can be a lifeline for the unprotected child as well as a means of experiencing resourcefulness in the face of adversity. Knowing her views on censorship, I ask her if she ever self-censors when writing for children.

Not on a first draft. On a first draft I write my story chaotically – I just try to find it and I’m not worried at all about who might receive it because I have no idea who might care about it yet. Once I know my story and write my second draft, I might shape it – I don’t really think of it as censoring – but if I’m pretty sure that it’s going to matter mostly to the very young child, and if I have something in it that I think the young child’s sensibility wouldn’t get, this is the point that I get rid of it. It’s a tricky issue though.

Over the years she has had a few different censoring experiences. Her story, Beast, is quite erotic, she says, and at one point she uses the word ‘nipple’. Her editor told her that if she kept that word, no book club would pick it up – ‘book clubs matter because they put out cheaper versions’ – so instead she decided to have someone seeing a breast through silk, and looking down to where the skin turns dark.

During the interview I notice that Napoli often takes several moments to compose exactly what she would like to say. In her fiction writing, she puts an immense amount of work into composing and re-composing drafts. Elsewhere, she has said that the greatest number of drafts she had ever written was 13, while she spent seven years writing the second draft for her book, North. I mention that I know she gives her books to her family to read first and is especially attentive to her young readers’ opinions. In reply, she says that she has never published a book without vetting it first. Some writers do not like to share their work with anyone until it’s at a very advanced stage and then they show it to their editor. Not Napoli. ‘I’ve a very good friend who is a wonderful writer for children, and who can access the child that he was. I can’t. I can’t read my story and see it from a child’s point of view – I need their actual response.’ ZJ