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Love? Hatred? Bravery? Some gritty details about life in the old South? Yup, Alligator Bayou's got it all.
Now, we're not gonna lie, Shmoopsters: Donna Jo Napoli says it's important for people to read about hardship, and Alligator Bayou's nothing if not a story about hardship. Sure, it's got a love story, and sure, some of the characters do some really brave things, but this is a story about some gritty times in the South, and Napoli doesn't pull any punches.
The story is set in 1899, in the hot cotton fields and swamplands of Louisiana. Are you thinking this book might be about life in Jim Crow society? If you are, then go ahead and give yourself a gold star. If you're thinking this means that the main character is white or black, though, then we've got some news for you: Napoli brings a perspective twist to this book and instead centers her story around Calogero, an Italian immigrant, and his family.
Nowadays, Italians in America may be considered "white," but this wasn't the case back in 1899. So not only are Calogero and his family new in town, but they're also not given the privileges that come with being recognized as white. Calogero finds himself hated and abused, but he doesn't understand why—he just got off the boat from Sicily a few months ago, and back there, people like him are just fine. As Calogero learns about the history behind the passionate racism of his new town, he rebels against it with love and kindness.
Donna Jo Napoli has written a ton of books for young adult readers and knows how to make a story believable and super engaging, even if it's about a topic that is pretty serious. And Alligator Bayou, published in 2009, is no exception. It's historical fiction, and the true events it's based on come from a particularly ugly chapter in U.S. history, but with a story this well crafted, it's hard to put it down.
Get our your time machine, Shmoopsters, because we're going, well, way back in time. The year is 1899, the setting is the Deep South, and the law of the land, unfortunately, is Jim Crow. And while these are complicated times, the most important thing to understand is this: racism runs the show.
Thank goodness we've come such a long way since 1899, right? Not so fast. We still live in a world where discrimination is rampant, and depending on where you find yourself living, you just might be on the receiving end of some seriously not okay behavior just because of your gender, skin color, religion, age, and much more.
And while it's tempting to blame this rough reality on other people just being nasty, a big step to combating prejudice is to recognize that its sources—fear and anger—are emotions we all feel at times. Otherwise, we might just find ourselves fighting hate with hate. No thanks, right?
While Alligator Bayou is set during a pretty ugly chapter in U.S. history, it doesn't just focus on the bad stuff, though: it gives us glimpses of the best and worst ways people behave. And Calogero, our main man, is about as good as they come. So as we watch him cope with the complex reality he is dropped into, it's almost like we get a little road map for how to rise above the prejudice in our own lives—whether it's based on the color of our skin, or something different—and we are reminded that the most powerful antidote to hatred is love.
The Lowdown on Napoli
Napoli had an undiagnosed eye disease as a kid, so she didn't fall in love with reading until she was ten. This bio has tons more information about her, too.
This site has everything you want to know about Donna Napoli, so check it out. Bonus feature: Cute pictures of her grandkids.
Writers and Wannabes Interviews Donna Jo Napoli
Learn about Napoli's writing process, her love of words, and more.
Why Napoli Writes Stories with Animals in Them
Our author's also an environmentalist—and she wrote a book with one of her daughters, who is a veterinarian.
You know that silly saying those who can do, those who can't teach? Not true with Napoli—she's a career professor.
The Horn Book Interview
Roger Sutton interviews Napoli.
Napoli Gave a TED Talk
Napoli talks about why kids need to read about hardship, and she builds a pretty compelling argument. This one's definitely worth watching to the end.
A Bunch of Video Interviews
This page has a lot of video links to interviews—just click on a question toward the bottom of the page.
A photo collection that shows some of what Louisiana looks like when this story takes place.
Donna Jo Napoli
There are tons of photos of the author here.
Map of Alligator Bayou
Do you see an alligator ready to chomp when you look at this map?