Next up on our #MiddleGradeMania campaign is… *drumroll please* FISH GIRL by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli! Today, we have Donna Jo with us to talk about how she got her start writing…and her least favorite subject in school.


The book/person/thing that inspired me to be a writer is:

That isn’t why I became a writer.  I never wanted to be a writer.  I grew up poor and the idea of being “a starving writer” was unattractive.  I’d had enough of hunger.  But when I was an adult, I had a personal tragedy.  And I began writing as a way to feel like I had some control over my life.  You see, I got to decide what went down on that piece of paper — and that was very consoling.  After about a year, I had worked my way through my grief.  But along the way I discovered I loved writing.  So I kept on doing it.

The hardest thing about writing for a middle grade audience is:

Again, I don’t see it that way.  I don’t really think of my audience as a particular age group.  Instead, I write the best way I can and then I ask myself, who might care about this story?  If I decide it’s a middle grade book, then that’s how I introduce it to my editor.  So I’ll answer this question as though it’s asking about the hardest thing about writing.  And I think for me, since I often write about different times and different countries, my job is to give the reader enough information to enter that world and understand why my characters behave as they do — but not so much information that the book feels like a “lesson”.  It’s tricky. 9780547483931_lres

But now it occurs to me that there is one thing that’s particularly tricky about middle-grade books.  Middle-graders vary enormously in experience.  Some have led a very restricted life, with little independence.  Others have been taking care of themselves for a while.  Trying to interest all of them in the same story is a challenge.  I  have to present scenes so that every reader can come away with a satisfying understanding regardless of their own experiences in life thus far.

Why do you like writing middle grade books? 

I simply love writing.  It’s like putting together a puzzle with thousands of pieces.  That’s a challenge, and if I can make it all fit, it’s amazingly satisfying.

But one thing that’s really fun about middle schoolers is that, like younger readers, they are willing to follow into a magical setting, but, unlike younger readers, they are ready to face all kinds of events that might happen within that fantastical world.  I can get as scary and dark as my story demands I get.

What will middle grade readers like about your books?

Hopefully, everything!

My characters find themselves in situations that demand action — and sometimes the actions they take are extreme and can lead to danger or, alternatively, to absurdity.  I like to push a situation as far as it can go — and I think middle schoolers are willing to take that ride.

My least favorite subject in school was: history (which is funny, since I now often write historical novels)

My favorite snack: figs.0152052496_lres

The best thing about my job is: learning about other times and places in order to set my books there

One piece of advice for your middle grade self:

Relax.  Everyone is not judging you.  Just do your thing and life will be fine.

Where can we find you on the internet? (Social media, website?) and (for my linguist self — you see, I also teach linguistics):