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Linguist Donna Jo Napoli Shares the Magic of Global Storytelling

Donna Jo Napoli smiles at wooden cat

As a little girl, Donna Jo Napoli was immersed in the magic of storytelling by her grandmother, who spun fanciful tales in her native Italian while doting on her youngest grandchild.

These days, the professor of linguistics and social justice is the one sharing the enchantment, through her latest book, Treasury of Magical Tales from Around the World. Published by National Geographic, the collection includes traditional stories from more than two dozen cultures rewritten with Napoli’s distinct flair, with fairies, ogres, animals, and other colorful characters touching on universal themes.

“Most of the tales are not tales that somebody made up this century or last,” says Napoli, a celebrated author of more than 80 children’s books, including five others with National Geographic. “They’re tales that have been told from generation to generation.”

Cover of Treasury of Magical Tales The collection includes traditional stories from more than two dozen cultures rewritten with Napoli’s distinct flair.

To research the Treasury, Napoli first turned to the internet, searching across countries to find magical tales that have stood the test of time. She then called upon colleagues from the Swarthmore Libraries, who helped her track down the oldest sources they could find. 

“I can’t say enough good things about the librarians — those people are my best friends,” Napoli says. “The library is always willing to borrow something for me, even from abroad. And I don’t care what language it’s in; if I can’t find an English translation, I will work from an original and just try to get some help translating it.”

In honor of Napoli’s grandmother, Treasury of Magical Tales starts in Italy before making its way around the globe, leading readers across Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, the Americas, and the Arctic. One standout story, from Sri Lanka, involves a magical frog who must choose whether to leave his beloved rice paddy for a life in a castle as a human prince. In a folk story from the Jewish Diaspora, a king and queen struggle to understand their son, who says he is a turkey. They worry about his pecking and lack of clothes before accepting him just as he is.

“I love it because it speaks a lot to young people today,” Napoli says. “Young people are trying to figure out who they are, and they are not inheriting the blinders of their parents and grandparents. They are saying, ‘Who am I?’ without blinders on.”

Napoli’s other volumes with National Geographic include treasuries of Biblical stories, Arabian tales, and Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology. For each of those books, as well as Magical Tales, Napoli also collaborated with London-based illustrator Christina Balit, who maintains the same meticulousness as Napoli for accuracy of time and place.

Though written at a level that’s accessible for a child, this Treasury offers something for all readers willing to be whisked away on a fantastical journey, Napoli says. “I tried for stories that were indigenous to a place so that you could learn something about the historical culture setting of a given place,” she says. “If you’re not careful, going from country to country, you can wind up telling different versions of Cinderella that all really stemmed from China.”

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