How Writing About Terrible Things Makes the Reader a Better Person

Donna Jo Napoli spoke at the 2011 SCBWI LA Conference on why she writes books with difficult subject matter and how it is essential too creating empathy in readers. Here are my notes from her talk:

I’m Often Asked Why I Write the Books I Write:

  • Napoli writes books with intense content like rape and slavery, and she is often asked why she writes these books.
  • Napoli’s favorite book as a child was “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”. It was a very freeing and eye-opening book for her.

Let’s Talk About Censorship:

  • Napoli is very active in censorship issues.
  • The 1993 Alan Review is dedicated entirely to the issue of censorship.
  • Texas is the most frequent cite of censorship challenges.

Where Do these Attitudes Come From?

  • Why do people think that not swearing in books will make the kids act and behave better?
  • Napoli understands why a parent may not want a kid to encounter sexuality for the first time in a book, but she doesn’t necessarily agree with it.
  • Napoli thinks it is “Wrong Minded” to keep kids away from difficult topics like sexism, morbid topics, racism, violence, rape, drugs, etc. Parents hiding these from their kids are thinking the wrong way.

The Protected Child VS. The Un-Protected Child

  • In this context a “protected” child is one raised in a responsible caring culture, and an “unprotected” child is one that is abused by our society.
  • When an unprotected child reads about another unprotected child it can be amazing. They no longer feel alone anymore. They are less isolated.
  • Most children do not have the power to change their world.
  • We need books without magic and “charmed” lives to see what is real. A child reading about another child in a difficult and possibly similar situation where they character is still able to find hope is very important. That can make a huge impact on the unprotected child.
  • The protected child, however, may be even more important to talk to.
  • Protected children can become intolerant and feel like they have a right to things. They become entitled. They look down on others. We want these children to learn empathy.  The safest way to do that is through a book.

Closing Note:

  • Write from your places of joy, pain, and fear. If you need to write it, there’s someone out there who needs to read it.

Donna Jo Napoli is the author of many children’s books and young adult novels including: Alligator Bayou, The Smile, Hush, The Kings of Mulberry Street, and Bound. 

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