Saturday, August 6, 2011

Donna Jo Napoli keynote: How writing about terrible things makes your reader a better person

Donna Jo Napoli
Donna Jo Napoli is the award-winning author of numerous children's books, and she does everything from picture books such as THE BRAVEST THING to young adult novels such as BREATH.

She has taught linguistics at a variety of colleges, including Smith, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Georgetown, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Swarthmore.

Someone once asked Donna Jo why she ruined her perfectly good books with terrible things. She hadn't asked herself that question back then--she writes what she needs to write.

"But that's not a satisfying answer to anyone," she said. Her illuminating talk explained why these books are important, and why certain kids of censorship are "wrong-headed."

In 1999 she was asked to give a talk on censorship. She was working at it in her office (in the laundry room, which made a lot of sense when her five children were small, she said). She was reading articles about censorship and contacted a professor, who sent her a thick packet of reading material. She learned that the number of censorship episodes chronicled by the People for the American Way was seven times greater in 1996-97 than it had been in 1988-89. And it was increasing.

The top reason for censorship is "offensive language," she said. She can understand that--whether or not she agrees with it.

Other things on the list are explicit sexual descriptions. With these, too, she understands why parents would want to introduce their kids to this topic, rather than encountering it in a book for the first time.

But parents who want to keep their kids away from the following are "thinking the wrong way," she said: incidents of violence or brutality including rape, examples of racism, examples of substance abuse, text that include anti-feminism or sexism, derogatory images of the handicapped, and materials including depressing, morbid topics.

For both protected and unprotected kids, these book serve a vital purpose.

Protected children are talked to and listened to, she says.

"And then we have the other children. Children who are unprotected. You know them as well as I do. Sometimes this is no fault of the parents. It can be built into the system." (For example, when a family is living in grinding poverty.) And then there are kids who are abused by their families. "All kinds of things happen behind closed doors. We know that."

When children read about other unprotected children, "It can be wonderful. If you are unprotected, you can get the sense that you're alone. That it's only you."

These kids often keep their troubles to themselves out of loyalty or pride.

"When you think you're all alone, you can and sometimes do blame yourself," she said. "You can feel guilty that that rotten thing happened to you ... Then you meet somebody in a book and you become that person in the book and they're a perfectly good person, and still that lousy thing happened to them. It is so comforting. You are not alone. It is not your fault. And bad things do happen to good people."

Characters who are hopeful and hold onto their dignity show readers a way to live decently in their world--even if it's only inside their heads, she says. "These books are of crucial importance to the unprotected child."

It's even more important for the protected child. They can grow up and everything goes smoothly, she said. "This is a person who can not only be intolerant, but intolerable. They feel entitled... This ruins society."

"Any civilization is built on empathy. If dreadful things happen to you, you learn a lot of empathy. I wouldn't want dreadful things to happen to these protected children, but I want them to learn empathy. The safest way for them to learn it is through a book. Let them live that life and they will understand that they're lucky. It wasn't just that they're good or they work hard. They also have luck."

She closed with an exhortation to write what's in our hearts: "If you need to write it, chances are, there are people out there--a lot of people--who need to read it."

Like Donna Jo on Facebook


  1. Thank you all so much for maintaining this blog! I would love to be in L.A. and hear all of this myself, but, that's not the way things are in my life right now. Now, by reading your posts I feel like I can be a part of the conference in some way and LEARN! Thank you, thank you!

  2. This is wonderful. She is one of my favorite authors. How I wish I could be there. But this blog helps a lot. Thank you.