Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Women in Folklore Month: Donna Jo Napoli

I still remember the first time I read Donna Jo Napoli's The Magic Circle. I was dazzled by the impact of such a short novel and bemused by its publication as a children's book. The book is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel from the witch's point of view and is in my top ten of the all time best fairy tale retellings, be they film, book, poem or otherwise. It is not a light read. I thought about it for days and the book is vivid in my memory even during the years between rereadings. I can't recommend it highly enough. But it is definitely a mature YA book due to themes. No, it's not as graphic as many other books, but it is about evil. Not in a evil is good for entertainment kind of way, but in a this is it and it makes you miserable and is hard to overcome if you allow it in your life. Really, it can be a metaphor for addiction.

Needless to say, if that is the only fairy tale retelling Napoli had ever written, she'd be an important addition to the list of women and fairy tales. But she hasn't stopped there. Her fairy tale and mytho novelizations are numbered in the double digits now. She is prolific and while some are stronger than others, all make you think and see the fairy tales in new ways. It's hard to choose favorites and I also have some of the Napoli's other novels as keepers on my shelf. Zel, a retelling of Rapunzel, is a top pick, too,

Then I am excited for her upcoming release, The Wager, due out at the end of April. From what I have read, this one is a retelling of an Italian Bearskin variant, Don Giovanni de la Fortuna. There aren't many retellings of Bearskin and I know Napoli has the chops to write a stunning version of it.

All this and Napoli is also a linguist as well as a writer of children's fiction. Here's some of her education and career information from Wikipedia:

She has taught linguistics at Smith College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Georgetown University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and is currently a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.

Born the youngest of four children in Miami, February 28, 1948, Napoli received both her B.A. (mathematics, 1970) and Ph.D. (Romance Languages -- the Linguistics Plan A, 1973) from Harvard, before a postdoctoral fellowship in linguistics at M.I.T. Napoli has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Italy.

If you want to be even more impressed/intimidated, read her full CV.

While Napoli is briliant at exploring the darker sides of characters, she has also written lighter fare suitable for middle readers, such as her Prince of the Pond books (Frog Prince retellings) and Ugly (Ugly Duckling).

I had the opportunity to hear Napoli speak at a children's literature conference in 2002. Like many writers with works in progress, she was reluctant to share any information about other possible fairy tale retellings although she has obviously written many more since. She was generous and kind to her audience, many of whom seemed to be unfamiliar with her work. I admit she was one of the primary reasons I even attended. (Didn't hurt that Robert Sabuda was there, too!)

So if you haven't read any Napoli, do pick up at least a few and make The Magic Circle one of them. If you have, please feel free to share a favorite in the comments. I'm always curious to know which of her books are favorites among readers.

While I have a listing of Napoli's fairy tale and myth novels on SurLaLune, her bibliography is much more extensive and should be explored on Amazon.

Napoli also has a website of her own at Donna Jo Napoli.

And finally, an excerpt from an interview conducted last year at Donna Jo Napoli tackles war and other tough issues in her novels:

Could you name five books you find yourself recommending over and over and why?

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Things They Carried, The Blind Assassin, Celestial Navigation, Beloved. Why? They get inside you and make you rethink positions you thought you'd already well-understood. They disturb. If a book doesn't disturb me, it doesn't matter to me.

If that doesn't sum up her approach to many fairy tales, not much can.


  1. Oh, I can't wait for The Wager! My favorite of hers is Bound. (How perfect to make a Cinderella story set in the foot-binding age of China's history.) Also loved Breath (the Pied Piper one).

    I couldn't finish Magic Circle. Not because it wasn't good, but because it was SO effective that it was depressing me. Maybe this was because I had been on a Napoli binge, and while I find her work refreshing and realistic, I think the realistically dark view on fairy tale worlds had begun to weigh on me. Napoli never lets you escape the fact that life can really wound you. I will certainly pick up Magic Circle again.

  2. Magic Circle is definitely one of the most powerful books I've ever read, especially for one so short!

  3. Thanks for this post. I have never got around to reading thie writer but I definitely want to now.

  4. I think she's too controversial. She's not on my list of stuff to read, as interesting as some of her books may sound. I'm not going to risk it. Too post-modern.