November 2007

Donna Jo Napoli

Donna Jo Napoli’s unlikely journey to literary success
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Donna Jo Napoli tried hard to avoid becoming a writer. After growing up in a poor family, she resolved to enter a practical, financially secure profession. So, when she matriculated at Harvard, she majored in math and reluctantly took an English class, thanks to the university's writing requirement.

In an interview from her home outside Philadelphia, Napoli recalls what happened next: I handed in my fiction assignment and got a phone call from the professor, who said I really ought to be a novelist. Rather than savoring such praise, she says, I decided never to take another English course. I wanted nothing to do with that unstable life. Instead, she discovered and pursued linguistics: She has been a professor since 1973, and recently stepped down after 15 years as department chair at Swarthmore, where she teaches today.

Fortunately for readers, Napoli eventually overcame her anti-author sentiments. She has written nearly 30 books for children, from playful picture books to complex young adult novels, several of which offer retellings of folk tales from around the world. Her new YA novel, <b>Hush: An Irish Princess' Tale</b>, re-imagines an Icelandic folk tale about an Irish princess who is kidnapped by Vikings.

In Hush, teenaged Melkorka endures great suffering before she finds peace in a version of her life she never anticipated or desired. For Napoli, too, suffering eventually led to an unexpected form of fulfillment. After she received her doctorate, married and had a baby, she suffered a miscarriage. Her emotional pain compelled her to write letters to a friend, and those letters gradually became stories. I was writing, really, for myself, and then I realized I really like to write. I started writing story-stories, not just my pains and joys, Napoli says.

Skillfully rendered pain and joy certainly are to be found in the pages of Hush. Melkorka and her wealthy, happy, royal family take a trip to Dublin (which counts many fearsome Vikings among its residents). An encounter gone wrong throws the family's village into battle mode, and the king and queen send Melkorka and her sister, eight-year-old Brigid, on a trip to another, safer town. On the way, they are kidnapped by slave-traders, and the girls' privilege and security are replaced with danger and uncertainty.

Hush is a dramatic tale, and the characters' emotions are palpable. Whether the author is conjuring up the smells of the slave ship, conveying the whispered agony of the captives, or eavesdropping on the Viking captors, readers will feel immersed in the story. I so enjoy giving my readers something to taste and hear and feel, Napoli says. I pay a lot of attention to the senses. She's also respectful of the tales that inspire some of her books. I'm very reverential toward the traditions handed to me, she says. The reason these things last through time is that they're good. I don't want to lose the power they have. The Icelandic saga that inspired Hush didn't have a lot of detail about the princess, which makes the many characteristics Napoli incorporates into Melkorka's personality her fondness for her family, her tendency to chatter, her ultimate strength all the more fascinating. So, too, is Melkorka's decision to hush, to stay silent.

Because of my interest in languages, I'm always interested in how we get ourselves understood and understand others, Napoli says. Silence accidentally becomes [Melkorka's] source of power. . . . What binds us to each other is language in general, and her refusal [to speak] is so harsh, and so hard on her. Just as the author doesn't gloss over what life was like on Viking slave ships, she doesn't neatly tie up the ending of Hush, in keeping with the arc of the ancient story from which she drew. One of the jobs of life is learning how to give up on some things and move on, Napoli says. As readers, we should not have to be satisfied, to have every question answered. If a book does that, it's leaving you unprepared, leaving you undefended.

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