Adventure, magic, love, and betrayal. That’s what the sub-title of Donna Jo Napoli’s newest book, Tales From the Arabian Nights, promises readers. In this ambitious and handsomely-designed collection, illustrated by Christina Balit, Napoli gathers a selection of these ancient stories, 45 of the original 1,001 “nights.” Her respect for the legendary tales is evident in not only her expert retellings, but also in the book’s introductory note. “There is a strong sense,” she writes of the stories, comparing them briefly to medieval Greek, Norse, Celtic, and ancient Egyptian mythology, “that good behavior will lead to good results and that the world is basically a lot more delightful than it is frightful.”
I talked to Napoli, a prolific and multi-faceted author and linguist, via email about this project and how she gave the stories new life.
The Kirkus review notes that this collection is "both fresh and faithful to its historical roots." How hard was it (if at all) to make such old stories fresh, as the review puts it?
When I approach tales that have already been told, I tell myself that this is the truth, a real story, real people. And I ask how they must feel. If you take the situation seriously, it's gorgeously complex. A young woman is brave; she risks her own life to try to save the girls in her kingdom, including her beloved little sister. She's also clever; she finds a way to hook her husband. What could be better than cliffhangers? And she has an abiding faith; she trusts that if she behaves decently, somehow things will work out. Oh, her faith gets shaken now and then. How could it not when the threat of her own death hangs over her constantly? But, really, she's got that amazingly beautiful hope for goodness that only the truly innocent can have. And then she does what any husband wants of any wife: She listens to him. She adjusts her stories to meet his needs. And he does what any wife wants of any husband: He respects her words, her ability to create a world and then make sense of it.
What I wanted most, as I wrote that story, was what I knew Scheherazade wanted: for them to grow to love each other profoundly. She whispered in my ear. She walked around in my chest.
How did you decide which stories (of the 1,001) to include – beyond choosing, as you note in the book’s closing, stories for both child and adult readers?
The tales come in so many different forms, and they deal with so many different topics. It was exceedingly difficult to choose just a few and still do justice to the sources. I wanted to give the reader a sense of the intricate and decorative nature of the structure of the whole, as well as an appreciation of the breadth of genres. But even more important than that was to select stories by the nature of what they would mean to Shah Rayar and how they could help him and Scheherazade expose their souls to one another. The stories had to work together toward that one goal. So it was like fitting together puzzle pieces that were not intended to fit in the first place. I had to file here and there.
How long did you work on the research for this collection of stories?
Several years ago, I wrote a draft of a YA novel about Akbar the Third Mughal Emperor. I have yet to try to polish it and sell it to an editor, though it is on my list of to-do's. Anyway, that meant I had already read quite a bit about the beliefs and habits and history of educated Muslims of the time relevant to these tales, too. But I still had a lot to learn, because Akbar was not in the Arab world – and Scheherazade and Shah Rayar were.
Did you learn anything new that surprised you?
Maybe the importance of China in it all. I hadn't realized that Arab influence extended that far. Yes, I knew about the Silk Road. But I had thought of it as just commerce; I didn't understand how much one culture had affected another.
What was it like for you to see Christina's illustrations for the book?
Christina always makes me cry with gratitude. She does her homework. Then she infuses the historical realities with her magic. I am the luckiest writer alive to be paired with her.
What's next for you? Working on any projects/books now you're allowed to discuss?
I'm doing A Treasury of Bible Stories for National Geographic right now – but I'm too early in that work to talk about it much. I just finished up a middle-grade novel called Hunger for Simon & Schuster, which is set in Ireland in the winter of 1846-47. We still have to do the copyediting, but I believe it will come out in 2017. And David Wiesner and I have made a graphic novel, a first for both of us, called Fish Girl (for Clarion). It is completely finished and will come out in spring 2017.
You know, I have little control over when books come out. David and I, for example, worked on our project for years. Then all of the sudden it gelled, and now it's coming out. And I worked in Ireland for three months in 2012 and began reading about Irish history then. But I didn't get to sit down to write Hunger until the middle of 2015. Sometimes an idea comes, and I get the time to work on it immediately. And sometimes an idea comes, and I don't get the time to work on it for a long while. And sometimes an idea begins, but doesn't really take good shape for a long while.
Quick side note: I studied American Sign Language, Deaf Culture studies, and interpreting in college, and my first career was sign language interpreting. I was also Librarian at a school for the deaf. I know that you, as a linguist, are also fluent in ASL. It's nice to know of someone in the children's lit field who also studied ASL.
This is lovely to know. I am part of a team that advocates for the language rights of deaf children. So I'm always delighted to see people get informed about deaf culture and sign languages – and I hope you spread the word. I wrote a little picture book called Hands & Hearts (2014, Abrams) about a deaf mother and child who spend the day at the beach. I hope you'll look for it.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
TALES FROM THE ARABIAN NIGHTS. Text copyright © 2016 Donna Jo Napoli. Illustrations © 2016 Christina Balit. Compilation copyright © 2016 National Geographic Partners, LLC. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, National Geographic.