Tell Me What You Read: Donna-Jo Napoli

Donna-Jo Napoli, linguistics professor and award-winning author of children’s fiction

Tell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?

Donna-JoAs a child, I read voraciously.  My family had all kinds of financial and other problems, so we moved a lot, and I never had friends for very long. Books were my true friends – the ones I could count on.

It was the very act of reading that influenced me enormously – though I have a few things to say about one book and one author.

BrooklynReading picks you up and takes you places.  I never went ‘places’ as a kid.  We’d get in the car perhaps for an hour, but rarely longer than that.  I didn’t know ‘the world.’  But in books I travelled all over, past and present and future.  I could be many people or many animals.  It was thrilling.  And it opened my life.  I’m quite sure I became a good student because I read so much.  And because I was a good student, I got a complete scholarship to college and, of course, that made my life very different from what it otherwise would have been.

There was one book I loved very much, though: Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  The poverty in that book rang true to me, and I delighted in being able to see someone I could identify with in the outline of my real life.  Even though I often write fantasies today, I always ground my stories in historical fact and psychological reality, perhaps because that was so much of what I appreciated about that one book.

FarleyAnd there’s one author I loved very much: Walter Farley.  He wrote a famous series of books about horses.  I loved horses.  My father was a gambler and he often took me on off hours to the race track to walk the track and to go through the stables.  I loved being with my father… so reading Walter Farley was like being with my father.  Walter Farley, however, was a master of one kind of book.  If you loved a book by him and picked up a second book by him, you’d love it too – because they were all ‘the same’ in the sense that they had a unified interest (horses) and a unified tone.  I chose not to become that kind of writer, however.  It would be lovely to be ‘a master’ of something … but it’s also not something I aspire to because, really, I don’t believe in it.  I think we are all pretty much bumblers.  A few of us make some headway in one area or another, but we’re hardly ever true authorities on something.  So I let myself write about all sorts of things, always trying new types of books.  But one thing I admired in Walter Farley’s work is that he always taught me something about horses – something new in every book.  And I want to do that for my readers.  So I always try to learn something with each book, and I offer that something to my readers.

What or who do you read to forget about the world, to escape?

O'BrienI read rather randomly.  If I want to cry, I read Anne Enright – an Irish novelist who writes about the confusions of growing up Catholic – or Laurie Colwin – who wrote about families falling apart.  If I want to be angry, I read Toni Morrison (good god, do I love Beloved) or Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried is among the best books I’ve ever read – right up there beside As They Lay Dying).  If I want to be amazed or horrified I read Margaret Atwood or the noir tradition in Italian novels.  I’ve spent the past seven months in Italy, so I’ve been reading nothing but Italian while I am here.  The Italian novelists get very bloody – they face brutality, especially against women and children – in a way I’m not accustomed to as a writer for young people.  They help me to understand some of the things I’m trying to deal with in my own writing.  I have to aim for truth without either violating the sensibilities of my reader or hiding realities some of them deal with.  It’s tricky.  Sometimes I envy those who write for adults.  They don’t have the same responsibilities toward their readers.

This doesn’t sound like ‘escape’, does it?  It sounds like I’m reading for a purpose.  But we all do that.  Even escape is a purpose.  I lead a very safe life, really – so it’s an escape for me to read about dangerous lives.  And it’s always consoling to read about others who have dealt with the kinds of problems I have dealt with.

And I should say I love books that make me laugh, too.  David Sedaris is always reliable that way.  So is Augusten Burroughs.  I had a crazy childhood – I love to read that stuff.

So I go to books for an emotional ride…. just like everyone else.

What reading do you choose for a long journey?

GulpA lot depends on how long a journey.  If it will be over 5 hours or so, then it’s long enough to ‘work’.  In that case, I’ll bring a nonfiction book about time or place that my next story will be set in.  Or sometimes about animals, since I love to write stories with animal main characters. I’ll take notes on anything I find amazing – because if I find it amazing, maybe some of my readers will.  Little bits of amazement can make a book more engrossing and often allows a scene to become more vivid in your memory.

If it’s a short trip and I’m going to visit people whose tastes in books I know, then I’ll pick a novel that I think they’d like too – and then I can leave it with them when I come back home.  I did that with the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.  And ages ago I did that with the Clan of the Cave Bear series, by Jean Auel.

If it’s a short trip and I know no one there, then I pick a book that’s long enough to last me both ways (or longer).  The last nonfiction book in English I did this with was Gulp.  The last fiction book in English I did this with was Running with Scissors.

So my answers here don’t really tell you about my tastes in reading – they tell you about my penchant for work and for efficiency.  I would hate to carry home a book I’d already read unless I was pretty damn sure I’d want to read it again – or at least flip through it for certain passages again.  And there aren’t that many books that strike me that way.  I enjoy a book for whatever ride it gives me – then I move on to the next book.  There are too many great books out there to ever get around to reading more than the tiniest fraction of them.

Your choice of ‘Oh lord I’m bored’ reading?

I don’t get bored.

That sounds so snotty, I know.  But it’s true.  I’m frenetic.  So I’ve always got things to do, and I try hard to limit the junk in life and work on things I love.  So I garden.  And I dance (modern dance).  And do yoga.  And bake bread.  And cook.  And do ceramics.  I do tons of things …. and it never bothers me that I do them badly.  I’m not doing them for any final ‘product’.  I’m doing them because they interest me.  I love getting my hands dirty and seeing what can come of it.

And, you know, I think perfection is an illusion.  So why not do all the things you love, no matter how badly?

What was your last huge reading disappointment?

I don’t know if this was my ‘last’ huge reading disappointment, but it is a disappointment that stuck with me.

I was reading along, feeling that I believed the world the writer had offered – and I believed the quite nasty situation the main character found herself in – and I believed that such was the way of the world in that time and place – I was really inside that book and clutching it, racing from page to page, wanting to find out how the main character would manage to come to terms with everything and find some sort of inner peace.  Then, BOOM, the whole problem got solved. The nasty situation dissolved.  The main character got to ‘ride off with prince charming’ (if you will).

It was a big disappointment because the writer was doing everything I believed in, then the writer completely buckled, and went for the lowest common denominator – the thing that would make everyone able to smile at the end.  I felt betrayed.  Seduced and abandoned.  I’d have never finished reading the book if it had given me the sense anywhere along the way that it was going to end falsely.  And I vowed never to read another book by that author. When I talked about it with an editor, the editor assured me that book was going to make money because of the happy ending.  She was right: the author won a big prize.  On my next book with that particular editor, she tried to strong arm me into tacking a happy ending onto the book I was doing with her.  I didn’t give in.  The book didn’t sell very well.  And it certainly didn’t win a prize.

For a while I felt shaken.  But not for very long.  I don’t write to win prizes.  I write to win readers.  I want to write the book that someone tucks under their pillow to read over and over because it somehow speaks to their situation or needs.  And every book I write is one I need to write for my own personal reasons.  I don’t need to write a book with a false happy ending.  I love happy endings when they belong.  But I hate them when they don’t.  I would love to write a book that was beloved and actually earned me a pile of money; I have nothing against money.  I just want to earn that money, not steal it.  That author had stolen my money.

Another kind of disappointment I have now and then goes like this.  I’ll pick up a book that everyone has been telling me for months (years?) that I should read and I’ll get engrossed because the plot is so involving, but I’ll get grossed out because the writing is so bad.  Usually I put the book down – which is hard.  Suppressing curiosity hurts – but reading horrible prose hurts worse.  My husband says I should just read faster – skim the overwritten descriptive passages, ignore the bleeding heart prose.  But I am a slow reader, and somehow I don’t have the self-discipline to skim or ignore anything.  I allow things to bother me.  It’s an annoying way to be, but it’s how I am.  And, like I said earlier, there are so many fantastic books out there to read, I can’t justify spending my time on ones I don’t think are fantastic.

And finally, what was your last happy reading surprise?

CollinsIf I answer you honestly, I really am going to sound like a snob.  But I will try.

You have to understand, I want people to read – whatever they read doesn’t matter so much as just that they are reading.  Reading uses your brain in a different way – nothing else can do to the brain what reading does – and reading can give you vicarious experiences that really hit home without ever exposing you to ‘the real thing’ – which can be a very good thing, if ‘the real thing’ is somehow dangerous or sad or in some way harmful.

So I never censored what my children read.

And I would never advise a parent to censor what their children read.

These questions are very personal… and I would never trample on someone’s personal choices.

And when I see children reading something, I never feel like they are reading ‘junk’.  I’m simply glad they are reading.

Okay, now, given that, I have to say that sometimes very popular books and series are, to my aesthetics, truly miserable reads.  So I had low expectations when I picked up The Hunger Games.  But the book was nicely written – clean and straightforward.  It was a delight.

I imagine that most people enjoyed it for the plot… because it seems plot is what sells a story.  But I enjoyed it for plot as well as writing.

That was a happy surprise.


Donna-Jo Napoli’s site with details of all her books is here.

Next week: Ahmed al-Rawi, Concordia University, Montreal, expert in social media in the Middle East



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