Donna Jo Napoli

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Born in Miami, Florida, in 1948, Donna Jo Napoli was the youngest of the four children of a building contractor and a housewife, both of whom were children of Italian immigrants. In many respects Napoli's success is the culmination of the American dream. She recalls, in an autobiographical essay in Something about the Author Autobiography Series, that there were never any books in her home. Yet by second grade she had discovered the school library, where she soon got the librarian to allow her to visit twice a week in order read more than the allowed two books per week, thus beginning a lifelong affair with words. The nature of her father's business—building a house, selling it, then moving to another site nearby—led to Napoli's feeling of not belonging. Always the quiet tomboy, she retreated deeper into the world of imagination as she read.

Napoli had been born and baptized Catholic and made her First Holy Communion, but in an age when it was "cool" to stop going to church at the age of twelve, Napoli remained deeply religious. This love of religion would be manifested in her novel Song of the Magdalene, which also reflects Napoli's own questioning of religious authority as a young woman.

In addition, Napoli's vision deteriorated early on, until hard contact lenses opened the world even more fully to her. She then began to excel in a variety of subjects. She won many awards during her junior high and high school years, culminating in a scholarship to Radcliffe, then the women's college of Harvard University. At Harvard she majored in mathematics, the precision of which would prefigure her love of linguistics, and took many courses in modern dance, a vehicle that allowed her mind and body to soar!

It was while at Harvard that she met and married Barry Furrow, another scholarship recipient, himself a poor boy from South Dakota whom she describes as "radically left-wing, radically anti-clerical and wonderfully sweet." Together they excelled academically and in their roles as parents.

Napoli earned a doctorate in linguistics from Harvard and attained success as a writer and poet. Furrow excelled as a law professor at Weidener University. They have been married for thirty years and have five children.

Napoli's family life inspired some of her books for children, while others developed from the Napoli children's curious questions and her own propensity to take everything seriously, a characteristic she developed over a lifetime of being a worrier— about her family, herself, and the whole world. Her concern led to her involvement in many areas of social justice, including activism on behalf of the poor, women, and minorities. While at Harvard, Napoli discovered the Boston City Missionary Society and worked at its summer camps in New Hampshire with children who were wards of the State of Massachusetts. After college, she worked as a counselor for teens in the Neighborhood Youth Corps.

Upon marrying Barry Furrow, Napoli focussed on her roles as wife and mother. Events in her children's lives and their irrepressible spirits fueled her writing. She and husband Barry worked and parented together while she taught at Smith, Georgetown, and the University of Michigan. Sickened by the sexism she encountered in much of academe, Napoli moved at last to Swarthmore College, where she became the chair of the Linguistics Department.

Napoli began writing for children many years ago, but it was not until 1984 that her first book was accepted, and not until 1988 that it was published—The Hero of Barletta . The acceptance of her retelling of an Italian folktale gave Napoli pause,...

(This entire section contains 1188 words.)

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for she wondered if her original work had any value in the marketplace. Although the field of linguistics is her academic forte, Napoli is compelled to write, not only in her field where she is widely published, but also of her experiences as a parent and her own quest for truth. Many of her novels for elementary and middle-grade children reflect events and dilemmas in the life of her own children. The 1991 title Soccer Shock was named to the Hall of Fame Sports Books for Kids in 1996 by the Free Library of Philadelphia and was nominated for the Nutmeg Children's Book Award by the Connecticut Library Association in 1994 and 1995.When the Water Closes Over My Head received boxed reviews and was named to the Bank Street's 1995 "Books of the Year" list; Shark Shock (1994) received commendations, as did On Guard (1997), a book that reflects one son's interest in fencing. The Bravest Thing (1995) was inspired by a daughter's love of animals.

A fantasy takeoff on the tale of the Frog Prince, The Prince of the Pond (1992), grew out of Napoli's serious reasoning that a prince turned into a frog could never have survived without the help of a real frog knowledgeable in the ways of pond life. The success of that story led young readers to demand a sequel detailing the life of Jimmy, the frog prince's son. Jimmy the Pickpocket of the Palace (1996) is the result of their inquiries. Trouble on the Tracks (1997) is set in Australia, a spot visited by the Napolis in recent years.

Napoli's skills are evident in her 1997 telling of a World War II story about two Italian boys, one Catholic and the other Jewish, who are forcibly taken, along with other Italian boys, to build airstrips for the German army in the Ukraine. Stones in Water is a historical novel that tugs the heartstrings and reveals a side of the war not usually revealed. It has already garnered kudos, including the "Golden Kite Award" for 1997 and, like other of her works, it will be published in Dutch and German, as well as English.

In the mid-1990s, Napoli was inspired to write for young adults. After her daughter questioned the plethora of evil women in folklore, Napoli decided to retell the story of the most wicked woman in fairy tales— the witch in "Hansel and Gretel." The Magic Circle (1993) portrays the witch as a healer cursed with an appetite for children. She hides in the forest to allay all temptation until the fateful day the children happen to come upon her forest cottage.

This new outlook toward female protagonists would prove intriguing fodder for teen readers, as Napoli followed The Magic Circle with Zel (1996), a rendition of the Rapunzel tale in which she cast the mother as the witch. Song of the Magdalene also appeared in 1996. In this novel, Napoli was inspired by her daughter's love of the character in the play Jesus Christ Superstar to portray the adolescent Mary Magdalene. During this time Napoli was awarded grants by the American Association of University Women and the Leeway Foundation to research her work. Napoli has chosen teens as the main characters in a 1998 release, For the Love of Venice, which features an American teenaged tourist and a lovely Italian girl who is alarmed by the damage tourism is doing to her beloved city.

Napoli's amazing versatility and her masterful use of language have propelled her to the forefront of young adult writers. Each new venture is eagerly awaited by librarians, teachers, and an increasing number of young readers.