How Do I Choose What to Write About? Donna Jo Napoli at Book Week 2019

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by Nick Kleese

When Donna Jo Napoli touched down in Minneapolis, the November sun was just beginning to break the eastern horizon. It would rise into a nearly cloudless day and bring some warmth to the crisp, cool weather that had settled over campus. 

So, too, did Donna Jo bring joy and and illumination to the folks who gathered at McNamara Alumni Center. She noted that her talk, “How I choose what to write about: Artistic freedom and the quest for social justice in the children’s literature world”, was kindled by the ongoing conversation about representation, authorship, and identity in children’s and young adult literature. Her response, conveyed with nuance and humility, was appreciated by the nearly one hundred attendees. “[Authorship] is neither speculation nor expert testimony,” Lizz reflected, noting that “that writing a book is not about proclaiming what you know, it is about contributing to an ongoing conversation. You must expect and engage criticism in order to get closer to the truth.”

A major highlight of the talk was the wisdom Donna Jo shared with the creators in the room. “Artists need to grow big ears and thick skins,” she advised, adding that “perfection is an illusion.” Attendees nodded their heads. “I often strive for perfection, and when I inevitably fail to achieve it, I resent my creativity,” Jordan noted. “But we can do things well enough and enjoy them too: this attitude is something I’d like to incorporate into my life.” Other attendees agreed, feeling emboldened. As Amber put it, Donna Jo’s advice made her feel “more confident as a writer and even a future teacher—you don’t have to be able to relate to everything or every child in order to be understanding and knowledgeable.” As such, the homework Donna Jo gave for artists became, in a crowd of preservice and inservice educators, homework for teachers—and, in doing so, came to recognize the profession’s innate need for creativity. 

As the sky darkened even deeper outside McNamara’s windows, participants were grateful for the opportunity to consider these questions with one of the most experienced and prolific writers for young people today. Megan found Donna Jo “incredibly thoughtful and dedicated to the world of children’s literature, and what we learned was just the tip of the iceberg for her life’s work.” And for those fortunate to stay and interact with the author after the lecture concluded, they found this tip of the iceberg was not just for her work, but for her spirit.

“Donna Jo Napoli is someone who embodies a normal person with so much potential and fulfilling that potential through strength and courage,” Tsi Nue shared, “and from that process, becoming an extraordinary person.”


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