I am so pleased to welcome Donna Jo Napoli, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Teen category for in her book, STORM. Donna Jo’s contributions to children’s literature are numerous and highly celebrated. This is not her first Sydney Taylor Book Award. Stones in Water was a winner for Older Readers in 1998.
STORM takes readers on an unexpected adventure on Noah’s ark through the eyes of a teenaged girl. Building on historically accurate details, Donna Jo has created a compelling story that will leave readers breathless. I am honored to have the opportunity to interview Donna Jo Napoli about her exciting book.
STORM is a retelling of Noah’s Ark from the imagined perspective of Sebah, a 16-year-old stowaway. What inspired you to write the story?
You know, I think I’ve been asked that question several times and I think I give a different answer every time. So maybe I don’t really know. Certainly, the idea of writing about such devastation was appealing. If anything is going to challenge your abilities and beliefs, it’s an overwhelming event like that, in which all the things you count on have been washed away (here literally). I’m interested in sharp, even savage, challenges. People always surprise me; we can be so weak in so many ways, and then stupendously strong in others. And I was drawn to Sebah because she was ordinary. We all know Noah was remarkable — there’s no way he could have done what he did without being a rock (though his wife pushed her way past me and insisted on giving us some insights into Noah’s torment — that was something I hadn’t anticipated, but was very glad to have happen) . But Sebah was anyone — she was like you or me — I wanted to see what an ordinary person could come up with in such an extraordinary situation.
Your descriptions of Sebah’s home and family, the flood, the ark, the animals, and the interaction in Noah’s family are very detailed. How intensive was your research process?
Oh, the research for this book was a total joy, completely absorbing. I read whatever I could find on life in Canaan — which wasn’t that much. We know a whole lot more about other ancient cultures of that area of the world, but the Canaanites seem to be more elusive. And Genesis gave very little information about the flood, the ark, the animals, and Noah’s family. I used every little detail I found in Genesis — but, really, it wasn’t much. Beyond that, I was free to do anything that seemed consistent and coherent with the history and scripture I read. So I designed the animal enclosures and portholes my own way. I figured out what they’d eat and how they’d prepare it. I tried to use whatever psychological insights I got from the behavior of Noah’s family in the Old Testament after the flood as a basis for how they might have behaved on the ark. And I absolutely reveled in my readings about animals. I just read book after book. It was delightful. Plus I watched many videos of animals on the Internet. And I went to the Philadelphia zoo and simply sat watching animals, thinking about what they’d have to give up if they were shut in small enclosures.
What challenges did you face in the process of research and writing Storm ?
I wished very much that I knew more about the religious beliefs that a girl of Sebah’s background probably had. She was a peasant girl — uneducated. So the chances are she hadn’t spent a lot of time in discussions with others about religion. But I didn’t really know and nothing I read enlightened me. Maybe there were very explicit and profound discussions of faith that went on in peasant families of Canaan. I just didn’t know. That frustrated me at first. I wanted to ground her behavior in her beliefs — but I couldn’t. Finally, I just threw up my hands and let her be persistent and resourceful and I didn’t worry about any introspection. She took life as it came. I’m sure there were people in Canaan like that, because there are always people like that in any time and place. Plus she was busy — she was constantly facing new challenges, many of which were life-threatening. So introspection might not have been appropriate for her anyway. As you can see, I’m still trying to rationalize the decision I had to make.
What was your most unexpected or interesting discovery during researching and writing Storm?
I’m going to be honest, so you’re going to laugh. I always knew it rained “for forty days and forty nights”. We all know that, right? But somehow, I just thought that after that time, they all just got out of the ark. Of course, if they had, they would have drowned. Of course, of course. It’s obvious when you think about it, but I never thought about it. The lines in Genesis about the rest of the time on board the ark just slipped by me — those lines were short and they didn’t make an impression on me. So when I went to figure out a time line for the story, I was shocked at how long they were on the ark. And that was a wonderful discovery, because it meant that everyone’s sanity had to be fraying by the end. And I love dealing with fraying characters.
How do you feel about winning the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Storm?
I dance around the room regularly. I simply get up and dance. That’s what I do when I’m grateful — dance and cry.