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Take the Plunge: Works of Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner

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The newest exhibition in McCabe’s lobby shines a spotlight on the works of Professor Donna Jo Napoli of the Linguistics Department and three-time Caldecott Medal-winning author and illustrator David Wiesner. In conjunction with the newly released “Fish Girl,” a collaborative work by Napoli and Wiesner, “Take the Plunge” features Napoli’s first draft of the manuscript of this graphic novel, original paintings by Wiesner, and notes between Napoli and Wiesner during the creative process. The exhibition also highlights some of Napoli’s other work, ranging from picture books to young adult novels, with drafts of the books and email exchanges between Napoli and various editors on display next to the published editions.

“About a year ago, Donna Jo [Napoli] told the library director Peggy Seiden about her new book ‘Fish Girl,’ and they discussed doing some kind of programming around it,” said Susan Dreher, Visual Resources and Initiatives Librarian at McCabe, about the process of organizing the exhibition.

Dreher worked closely with Napoli in this endeavour to set up the exhibition and schedule the book signing and writing workshop.

“There was a lot of collaboration with [Napoli] in terms of the materials and focus of the exhibition … Once the exhibition was installed, she and I walked around it together so she could provide contextual information on the materials, which I turned into the labels that are in each case. As for David Wiesner, we told him how many paintings of his we could fit in the space, and he selected the ones to be exhibited,” said Dreher.

“Fish Girl” is the first graphic novel for both Napoli and Wiesner and is also their first joint project. Napoli described the creative process behind this book as being far more collaborative than her previous interactions with illustrators, which were usually limited and conducted entirely through the publisher. This undertaking also involved a more visual approach than she was used to. Napoli, who had been friends with Wiesner for many years before working with him on “Fish Girl,” was first brought on board when Wiesner showed her his paintings of fish swimming inside houses, a mermaid, and an octopus while at her home. Wiesner had been painting these pictures for about 20 years by then, but he couldn’t envision a cohesive narrative, so he asked Napoli about it.

“He said [to me], ‘Do you see a story here?’ And I said, ‘Go away,’ and I sat with his drawings for awhile. And it took me a few months … I came up with this manuscript and gave it to him and he said, ‘This is it, this is what we’re going to do,’” recounted Napoli.

Napoli’s initial draft contained textual descriptions of how she imagined the pictures alongside the actual text that she wanted to include in the pictures, and Wiesner took it from there to create the graphic novel accordingly.

“David [then] had to block it all out, what went where, where did these words fit, what are all the pictures, and he wound up with more than 300 pages … That wasn’t possible. That would’ve been a book that cost $50 and you can’t ask the public to spend $50. So that was the most deciding moment,” said Napoli.

According to Napoli, the finished work retains much of the original narrative arc, and she worked closely with Wiesner in making the necessary cuts.

“We negotiated constantly and it was so much fun. It was really interesting,” said Napoli of the experience.

“Fish Girl,” in its finished form, is the story of a mermaid who grows up in a boardwalk aquarium with no one but the fish, her beloved octopus, and her human captor for company. Her life changes when an ordinary visitor to the aquarium strikes up an unlikely friendship with her, and the Fish Girl begins to challenge the boundaries of her tank and her independence.

The hybridization of being half-fish and half-human, having a foot (or fin) in either world, is something that Napoli felt young adults could relate to as individuals undergoing a transitory stage in life that is often overlooked or dismissed by adults.

“We say, ‘Oh, they’re just going through adolescence,’ but, in fact, the questions that you face as you start growing up are not foolish questions, and they stick with you your whole life. And you keep changing, and the world changes around you and you keep having to adjust to it and so these are not matters that go away,” Napoli said.

These themes of change and adjusting to change are prevalent throughout “Fish Girl.” A key difference between this work and a previous young adult novel by Napoli featuring a mermaid protagonist, titled “Sirena.” Much of the research Napoli conducted on ocean life for “Sirena” was carried over to “Fish Girl,” though “Sirena” is the tale of an unlikely romance whilst “Fish Girl” is a tale of an unlikely friendship.

“I saw [‘Fish Girl’] as a very personal journey … Romance can be a wonderful way to come to understand things about yourself, but in a romance, sometimes the issues go not necessarily in the same direction that friendship goes,” said Napoli.

To celebrate the launch of “Fish Girl” and the opening of the “Take the Plunge” exhibition, a joint author talk and book signing was held in McCabe on Wednesday, March 15.

“My parents read me books by Donna Jo [Napoli] and David Wiesner when I was young, so it was really nice to get to see them both talk about their writing and artwork,” said Jacob Malin ’18, who attended this event.

Napoli and Wiesner were both present at the signing, and Napoli also held a writing workshop in McCabe on the following day.

“Although I’ve had Donna Jo [Napoli] as a professor, I was really interested to hear her talk about her creative writing, and the ways in which she adapts fairy tales and mythology.  It was also great to be able to see some of David Wiesner’s artistic process in creating his surreal drawings and stories.  And I loved getting to read the book they had made together afterward!” said Malin.

When asked about her personal writing process when she’s not collaborating closely with someone else, Napoli stressed the importance of just sitting down with a pencil and paper and getting it done.

“I do not believe that writing happens out of inspiration, or out of talent, or out of brilliance. I believe that writing happens out of hard work … You just have to keep going, you have to treat writing like it’s a job,” said Napoli.

Evidently, Napoli follows their own advice: She’s already working on several more books, one of which is slated for publication next year.

“It’s called ‘Hunger’ and it starts out in 1846 in the west of Ireland … So it’s after a whole year of the potato famine,” said Napoli.

Apart from that, we can also expect another novel and a picture book from Napoli in the near future.

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