Linguist Donna Jo Napoli Talks to NYT on Her Use of Myths in Children's Literature

The New York Times: The Power of Myth, Kid-Lit Version

By Pamela Paul

November 2, 2011

Of the many gifts Rick Riordan has bequeathed to the world of children's literature, the one most fervently embraced by teachers and librarians may well be the interest in mythology he has awakened in children. Other authors have been following his lead, with two excellent new nonfiction books for middle graders, Gifts From the Gods, by Lise Lunge-Larsen, and Treasury of Greek Mythology, by Donna Jo Napoli, out now. Classics majors, linguists and otherwise literary-minded parents will greatly appreciate these books -- as will their actual intended audience of young readers. ...

As it happens, Donna Jo Napoli, a prolific author of nonfiction children's books and of the gorgeous Treasury of Greek Mythology, published by National Geographic, is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. (How she also manages to write so many fine books for children is a feat in itself.) Her expertise comes through here in the language, which is clear and straightforward, but also eloquent and richly textured.

And so, in telling the story of the mother-earth goddess, Napoli writes: ''Gaia suffered. The cruelty of this father toward his children was unbearable.'' But then, giving even advanced readers good reason to consult a dictionary: ''She offered her children an adamantine sickle lustrous and unbreakable to confront their father with.'' Children familiar with Greek mythology will still have something to learn here.

The myths Napoli has chosen are organized around the gods, goddesses, heroes and mere mortals central to their stories. The stories are strong on action and romantic adventure, and Napoli wisely goes light on explication. Ares is a Marvel Comics-worthy wielder of spear and ''physical magnetism.'' Aphrodite is appropriately bewitching. And when the gods get together, sparks fly. As Napoli writes of Dionysus's parentage, ''Bang! Zeus had another wife.''

Christina Balit's jewel-toned paintings at once illuminate and unify the collection with vibrant full-page illustrations, spot art and decorative borders in a glittery, starred motif. Her work has an earth-mother '70s vibe that calls to mind the sort of art posters that adorn the bedrooms of aging hippies in Santa Fe, but also, Art Deco and, appropriately, Greek mosaics and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The cumulative effect befits the stories told and the intended audience. This is a book meant to dazzle its readers -- and it does.