Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Swarthmore, Delaware County
Linguist and children?s author Connie Mack currently teaches at Swarthmore College.
Born on February 28, 1948, Donna Jo Napoli has become an author, linguist, and professor at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has five children who help in her profession as a writer. She writes children’s books, which include Pink Magic (2005) and Flamingo Dream (2002), along with young adult books. Winning many awards, these books have also been translated into several languages. At the time of this writing, Napoli is the head of the linguistics department at Swarthmore College.
Donna Jo Napoli, born on February 28, 1948, in Miami, Florida, to parents Vincent Robert Napoli and Helen Gloria Napoli, was never expected to become what she is today. Having vision problems as a young child, Napoli suffered through learning how to read. Once she overcame her struggles, Napoli excelled in math and language through her educational years. Through elementary and high school, Napoli traveled from school to school, as her father was a contractor building their family new homes and selling them soon after. Napoli felt like an outsider and found comfort in the words of the library. Upon high school graduation, Napoli traveled north to receive a B.A. in Mathematics and Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literature from Harvard University. During her junior year at Harvard, on December 29, 1968, she married Barrow Ray Furrow, who was a law major. They had five children: Elena, Michael, Nicholas, Eva, and Robert. Continuing with her education, Napoli received her postdoctoral degree in Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Starting her career, Napoli lectured at Smith College, the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), Georgetown University, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), and Swarthmore College. At the University of Michigan, she received tenure and became a full time professor. She currently is the head of the Linguistics Department at Swarthmore College, located near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Never expecting to become a writer, Napoli discovered that writing was a way that she could express herself as it brought great joy into her life. Due to the fact that her family was very unfortunate, with financial problems and such, her mother and father rarely had books in the house and very seldom read to her. It was not until the age of 10 that Napoli overcame her vision problems and became interested in reading. When she finally began reading, she jumped right into biographies and history books, such as Sacagawea, A Tree in Brooklyn, and the works of Mary Renault. Napoli discovered the beauty of languages as she heard various languages around the house, such as Latin, Hebrew, Calabrese, Napoletano, Yiddish, and Spanish.
Napoli’s first publications came in linguistics. She wrote Syntactic Argumentation, Predication Theory: A Case Study for Indexing Theory, Syntax: Theory and Problems, Phonological Factors in Historical Change: The Passage of the Latin Second Conjugation into Romance, and Linguistics: Theory and Problems. Syntax: Theory and Problems, according to the publisher’s records in the Library of Congress, allows its readers to understand the fundamentals of articles written in different theories. Its goal is for readers to approach linguistics with an open mind. Predication Theory: A Case Study for Indexing Theory, from a review from the Library of Congress, entails argument, predicate, and coindexing principles. The predicate is presented as a semantic primitive and the coindexing principles follow Noam Chomsky’s 1986 notion of barriers. Napoli wrote a few of these linguistics publications, but after losing a child to a miscarriage, Napoli became inspired to write children’s books and young adult novels.
Napoli’s first children’s book was The Hero of Barletta. This book told an old Italian myth, but Napoli wanted to expand and write books that expressed more of her imagination. One of these books was Flamingo Dream, which was about a child dealing with her father’s death and their last trip together, which developed a relationship revolving around flamingoes. After his death, the little girl became angry and did not understand the term “death.” Upon understanding, when it snowed one day and the flamingoes in the front yard became covered, she understood her daddy went to a better place. Napoli illustrates a strong parent–child relationship in this book and incorporates the use of animals, which was inspired by her daughter’s passion to be a veterinarian. Along with this book, Napoli implies an extended metaphor; the disappearing flamingoes represent her father being in a better place. Napoli’s theme of family and animals is also evident in Pink Magic, where she illustrates a strong sibling connection and refers to pigs and elephants throughout the book. Her extended metaphor in this specific book was the two siblings, Nick and Eva, understand the meaning of love.
She wrote about history, (The Hero of Barletta), mysteries ( Three Days), music (Changing Tunes), and fairy tales (Soccer Shock and The Magic Circle). The Magic Circle, however, received some negative feedback for its talk about witchcraft for young adult readers. When the Water Closes Over my Head also received bad reviews due to the language she used; many teachers thought it was inappropriate for young readers. Three Days, on the other hand, received great reviews, as it is a recommended book by the School Library Journal. Three Days is suspenseful and easy to read. It is about a young girl kidnapped after her father’s death at the wheel. The book takes place in Italy where the little girl has no means of communication. She uses clever, hidden tactics to escape her captures, who happened to be a distraught family. This book, inspired by a true story Napoli had heard in Italy, grabs the heart of many readers. Napoli did not always write her own stories, however. She often wrote novels with her children, Eva and Robert. Robert Furrow aided her in writing the Sly the Sleuth series and Richard Tchen assisted her in Spinners. Eva Furrow, Shelagh Johnston, and Marie Kane are also writers with whom Napoli worked closely.
Many of the books Napoli wrote received outstanding awards. Among her picture books and early reader books, Albert captured most of the attention, winning the Kentucky Bluegrass Award, Los Angeles Times Best Book, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Children’s Book, New York Public Library Children’s Books 2001, Bookbuilders West Annual award, and others. Napoli’s The Prince of the Pond received the most recognition amongst her elementary and middle school readers. It received over 10 awards, including the New Jersey Reading Association’s M. Jerry Weiss Book Award of 1997, 100 Best Children’s Books of 1992, Outstanding Merit, and book of the month in the Philadelphia Children’s Reading Round Table. This book is also one of the many that has been translated into a different language, for Napoli’s books have been translated into Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese, Danish, Dutch, Hebrew, Korean, and some other languages.
Donna Jo Napoli is currently still teaching at Swarthmore College and still creating books and novels for all ages.
Syntactic Argumentation. (with Emily Rando) Washington: Georgetown University School of Language. 1979.
Predication Theory: A Case Study for Indexing Theory. New York: Cambridge UP, 1989.
Soccer Shock. New York: Dutton’s Children’s Books. 1991.
The Prince of the Pond. New York: Dutton’s Children’s Books. 1992.
The Magic Circle. New York: Dutton’s Children’s Books. 1993.
Syntax: Theory and Problems. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
When the Water Closes Over my Head. New York: Dutton’s Children’s Books. 1994.
Changing Tunes. New York: Dutton’s Children’s Books. 1998.
Albert. San Diego: Silver Whistle/Harcourt Brace. 2001.
Three Days. New York: Dutton Children’s Books. 2001.
Flamingo Dream. New York: Greenwillow Books. 2002.