Interview With Author Donna Jo Napoli

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Donna Jo Napoli is a prominent linguist and author of children’s fiction. Donna Jo, who received her B.A. (in Mathematics) and PhD (in Romance Languages) from Harvard University, has taught linguistics at Georgetown University and is currently a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. Donna Jo is known for her extensive work on behalf of the deaf community and was named the 2014 recipient of the Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award by the Linguistic Society of America. Anonymous Good recently got a chance to ask her about her accomplishments and about what inspires her to do Good. Anonymous Good: How long have you been working with the deaf community and what originally inspired you to do so? Donna Jo Napoli: In 1993 a student of mine did a senior thesis on how to help deaf children learn to read. I knew nothing about deafness at the time, but in order to guide her, I had to read everything she read and discuss it with her. By the time she finished that thesis, I was serious[ly] interested in how deaf people become literate. Since I’m a linguist, I approached it first by learning about the structure of American Sign Language. One thing led to another, and now I do analysis of sign languages, activism work for the language rights of deaf children, and I help create bilingual-bimodal ebooks for hearing adults to share with deaf children. AG: When did you learn American Sign Language? Did you decide to learn ASL because you wanted to or was it a necessity? DJN: I’ve taken only three courses in ASL… so I’m not a good signer. But I’ve got deaf friends now and that helps. AG: You have run conferences on deaf issues in the past. What was that like and what did your position involve? DJN: I was mainly the one in charge of organization. My friends in Deaf Studies guided me on who to invite, and I took it from there. There’s a ton of work behind a conference — but what makes a conference good is who gives presentations. And I have to thank my friends for guiding me there. AG: Tell us about your latest children’s book, Hands and Hearts. How did you use American Sign Language to move the story forward? What did you hope to accomplish by writing it the way you did? DJN: How many stories have you read in which the main characters were Deaf? I bet not many, if any. Children need to read stories that have main characters of all types — but at least some of them should be like the reader. Deaf children have very few books in which the main character is deaf like them. I wrote HANDS AND HEARTS as a poem at first — just for the children I knew at that time at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. But then it slowly evolved into a book. AG: How has your work with the deaf influenced your personal life and your writing? DJN: I find a tremendous amount of satisfaction in working for the language rights of deaf children. Many deaf children are at risk of not acquiring any language fluently. That’s a terrible loss — to be without a comfortable language in which to catch all the jokes and feel at ease and fall in love and express yourself completely. Much of the work I do is with a wonderful team of people — and we have had success in that many are reading our work and it seems that we may actually be helping some people decide to teach their deaf children a sign language. That’s what every deaf child needs. Then if they can also speak, fine, they will be bilingual — and bilingualism has many benefits. But it’s very hard to learn to speak if you don’t hear — even with a cochlear implant. Many deaf children never learn to speak. But if they know a sign language, they can lead perfectly happy, satisfying, productive lives. That’s what I want for every child — the chance to have such a good life. How does working with deaf people influence my writing? I think everything I learn helps me in writing. It gives me one more window on what it means to be human.

For more about Donna Jo Napoli and her work, please visit her website by clicking here.

Also, check out her latest picture book, Hands & Hearts, about a mother and daughter who communicate using American Sign Language.

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