National Writing Project

Why I Write: Dyan deNapoli Writes for the Penguins

Date: October 20, 2011

Summary: Dyan deNapoli, a penguin expert and author of the award-winning book, The Great Penguin Rescue, shares her reading and writing background and how she came to write about penguins.


I've always loved to read and to write, and I write for various reasons; sometimes to share a story with or educate other people, and sometimes purely for self-expression. These days, I primarily write for the penguins. But more about that in a moment.

I recently met someone who mentioned that, when they were growing up, their parents didn't read books. I was completely floored by this declaration. They might as well have said that their parents didn't eat food or breathe air. I can't begin to image a life without books. I was fortunate to grow up in a household where both parents loved and valued reading, and I have memories of my mother reading books to me after tucking me into bed at night.

I learned to read at the age of five, and quickly became a voracious reader. Libraries were my church, and throughout my childhood, I would borrow and devour up to ten library books each week. Though people who know me now would never believe it, I was a shy and socially awkward child, and books were a way of temporarily escaping my feelings of discomfort and loneliness. Through books, I could enter other exciting worlds, both real and imagined.

I also began writing at an early age. First, I dabbled in poetry, and later I began crafting short stories. These stories were another way to escape; only this time, I was the one creating the worlds and the characters and the action in the stories. Using my vivid imagination in this way—bringing something to life where there had previously been nothing—was empowering and fulfilling.

Using my vivid imagination [to] bring something to life where there had previously been nothing was empowering and fulfilling.

Writing About Penguins

I knew, shortly after learning to read, that I would write a book someday. I just never knew what that book would be about until the summer of 2000, when I had the privilege of working as a rehabilitation supervisor during the rescue of 40,000 penguins from the Treasure oil spill in South Africa. With the help of 12,500 extraordinary volunteers, we saved 90% of the oiled birds.

The experience was life changing and unforgettable. And, while it was an incredible conservation success story that I felt compelled to share with the world, it would be ten years before that dream would be fulfilled.

In the meantime, while working as a Senior Penguin Aquarist at Boston's New England Aquarium, I had several opportunities to combine my love of writing with my love of penguins, when asked to be the expert content reviewer for three books about penguins. A few years after leaving the aquarium and starting my educational company, The Penguin Lady, I was asked to write the new Penguins article for Scholastic Publishing's New Book of Knowledge encyclopedia. It was exciting to finally be dipping a toe into the world of book publishing.

Then, in late 2006, I received an e-mail from Brando Skyhorse (is that not the best name ever?) that changed everything. Brando is now an award-winning author, but at the time, he was an editor starting up a small publishing house. He had written to ask if I would be interested in writing a general book about penguins for adults.

I started to put together a proposal, but what kept coming out was the story of the 2000 penguin rescue. When I spoke with Brando about this nagging issue, he graciously said, "Forget about this book. Go and write the book that is inside of you, and find a major house that can publish it." Two years later, when the sale of my book, The Great Penguin Rescue, was announced on Publisher's Weekly, the first congratulatory e-mail I received was from Brando.

My mission has long been to raise awareness and funding to protect penguins, and I feel a sense of urgency about this, as 14 of the 18 penguin species are now listed as threatened or endangered. Through my book, my blog and other articles, I've been able to educate people not only about the remarkable rescue of oiled penguins that took place following the Treasure oil spill, but about the current environmental threats to all penguin species. And because I donate 20 per cent of the proceeds from my book to penguin rescue, research, and conservation groups, I've been able to support penguins in this very direct way as well.

The Treasure oil spill rescue is such an important conservation success story. It's a story of hope and triumph. It reminds us of the ability of each individual to make a difference, while also being a testament to the incredible power of teamwork—but it's a rescue that few people had heard about.

Hopefully, that is now changing. When The Great Penguin Rescue was chosen as a "Must-read" Book in the 2011 Massachusetts Book Awards, and as a Silver Award Winner in the 2011 Nautilus Book Awards, I was deeply honored. The Nautilus Award was especially thrilling because it recognizes books that are "changing the world one book at a time". And I was ecstatic because I knew these awards would help bring this story to a wider audience.

But the most gratifying part of writing this book has been hearing from readers who tell me they were moved to tears, or that they learned things they never knew about penguins, or that it was the first they had heard about the Treasure oil spill rescue and they had been inspired to make a donation to a penguin rescue group. This is precisely why I wrote the book. As I said at the start, I write for the penguins.

About the Author Dyan deNapoli is a penguin expert and author of the award-winning book, The Great Penguin Rescue. After working with penguins for nine years at Boston's New England Aquarium, she founded an educational company (The Penguin Lady) to teach children and adults worldwide about penguins. Since 1995, she has taught approximately 250,000 people about these engaging seabirds. She has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including CNN, the BBC, and CBC-radio Canada. In the summer of 2011, Dyan's TEDx talk about the world's largest animal rescue was featured on the home page of

Watch Dyan deNapoli's TED Talk

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