Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.
With more than fifty books published since 1991, I can’t think of a literary pool Donna Jo Napoli hasn’t at least dipped her toe into: picture books, biography, historical fiction, middle-grade mysteries, and, most notably, several young adult novels imaginatively drawn from folk and fairy tales. Skin moves Napoli into new territory once again, to the landscape of the contemporary problem novel. All seems to be going reasonably well for Sep (“there is no nice nickname for Giuseppina”), until she wakes up on the first day of her junior year with white lips. Neither metaphor nor fantasy element, Sep’s lips are instead the first sign of vitiligo, a disease characterized by the disappearance of pigment from the skin. Napoli skillfully stays true to her heroine’s problem while at the same time exploring a potent and persistent theme: every adolescent sees a freak in the mirror.
Roger Sutton: The first thing I have to tell you about Skin is that I felt like such a boy when I read it.
Donna Jo Napoli: Oh. What does that mean?
RS: Well, it seems so female a book to me. Like the casual discussions of tampons and things. I felt like a fifteen-year-old boy going, “Ew, ew, ew, ew!”
DJN: I see. Yes, well, we are inside her head.
RS: We know that the audience for teen novels is generally young women. They buy or borrow and read most of the books. Did you have any consciousness of writing for a female audience?
DJN: You know, I usually don’t think about the reader when I’m writing. But I never give something to an editor until I’ve had my target audience read it. When one of those readers says, “I don’t understand this,” then I’ll think about what the reader needs to know. But otherwise I don’t think about audience; I just write.
RS: How do you find young people to read your works-in-progress?
DJN: There are a few ways. I used to just accost kids.
RS: Till you got arrested.
DJN: Yeah, right. I’d see them passing by in the mall, herds of people, and I would just ask, “Are you willing to read a story?” For little tiny kids, I’ll ask their mothers if they’re willing to read to them. But I found an easier way than accosting (although accosting I still do now and then). At Swarthmore College, where I work, we have an e-mail list where you can say, “I’m selling a table,” or “I need a dentist; who have you got to recommend?” I say, “I’m looking for readers, 14–18 years. Does anybody have a child who might be interested?” For Skin I said there’s explicit sex in it, so if you’re a censoring parent, know that before you ask your kid.
RS: Did you get any specific feedback from kids on this book?
DJN: I did. The younger readers (fourteen, fifteen years) were less critical. They were, I think, grateful to be reading something that handled how horrible you can feel about such intimate things. The older readers, who had a little more life experience, gave me comments about sex behavior, especially with respect to Sep’s boyfriend, Joshua. In the earlier drafts, I had Sep be much harsher toward Joshua. She just shuts him out like a brick wall, and they couldn’t bear that. So they had me soften her a little bit. But I wouldn’t go as far as they wanted. A lot of readers really wanted her to confide in Joshua, but I wouldn’t do it.
RS: That to me is one of the most interesting things about the book, in that you don’t have this put-upon heroine who everyone is picking on and making fun of or rejecting. That does happen, but she is very much complicit in her circumstances.
DJN: You’re right. When you decide to finally deal with an issue — in this case vitiligo — you have so many choices about what to do. The studies on the psychological effects of vitiligo are few, but when you read what the kids say, it is devastating. But I also had my own reasons for wanting to deal with how she handled it, because I had my own problems when I was a teen. I basically cut off all friends; well, all friends were cut off from me, but then I did nothing to reach out to people. I just let myself be a pariah for a while. And I think it’s not that uncommon.
RS: Each of us grew up with at least one thing that we were afraid everybody could see and was judging us by.
DJN: Yes. So I think Sep’s situation is kind of typical of what you go through as a teen. It’s just that hers is extreme, and it’s right there on her face. So hard.
RS: Oh, I can’t imagine what that must be like.
DJN: It takes a while to realize, “That’s me. And it’s all right.”
RS: What brought you to this subject?
DJN: In 2006 I saw someone with vitiligo, and that’s when I wrote the first draft of my story. I’m pretty slow. I go through many drafts.
RS: You sure publish a lot for someone who’s slow.
DJN: Well, I work on many things at once. Not that I work on this today and that tomorrow, but I’ll work on this for a month and put it away for a year and then come back to it. I have no ability to see something when I’m too close to it. I need to get away and come back.
RS: You’ve been at this a long time and you’ve tried so many different things.
DJN: I love writing. It’s sort of like a lifeline. It’s somewhere that I can be very strong, and it’s fun to be very strong. I also use writing to further my education. I can just decide I want to learn about warthogs in Kenya and go off and work on it (Mogo, the Third Warthog). It’s wonderful fun.