The Smile. By Donna Jo Napoli. (2008). New York : Dutton Children’s Books. ISBN-10: 0525479996. $17.99.

Plot Summary

Elizabetta, dubbed Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci himself, is a free-spirited thirteen-year-old girl living in the Florentine countryside during the Italian Renaissance. Her father is a silk-trader, with many noble business partners, and her mother wants nothing more than for her to become a proper lady and to marry into a noble family. A party is planned for Elizabetta in order to support this aim, but the sudden death of her mother and remarriage of her father brings to light the changing nature of the times and the realization for Elizabetta that the world doesn’t revolve around her. Still, she remains faithful to her love, Giuliano De Medici, whom she met in happier times. In fact, Leonardo da Vinci introduces her to Giuliano. He appreciates Elizabetta’s contemplative nature, and her smile. Yet ,when political turmoil turns Elizabetta’s world upside down once again, and Giuliano is exiled, she still holds him in her heart, despite the twist of fate now holding them apart.

Critical Evaluation

At first, the voice may seem stilted to today’s teen readers, however, this is offset by the descriptions of the earthy nature of life in Italy, the sensual flowers and vivacious lifestyles of the Italian nobility.

Elizabetta is depicted as a strong-willed character from the get-go. She helps her father with the silk trade, although her mother wants her to take up cooking and the like instead. Still, Elizabetta’s greatest hope is to marry a nobleman, and she has her eyes set on Giuliano de Medici. Elizabetta, as any teen, is naive and self-centered. All she wishes for is a huge birthday party to celebrate and draw the attention of Giuliano. When Elizabetta’s life changes, it feels a bit drastic and unlikely.

While reading the story, one constantly questions the historical nature of the tale. I would bet that most teens reading the story will then look further into the mystery of the woman, nay, the teen, dubbed Mona Lisa.

The end of the book contains a short postscript from the author, detailing how the real Mona Lisa, and research about her, inspired the feisty female character in the novel. However, Napoli does not delve into the subject further, leaving it at that: a historical inspiration. This is a bit disappointing, as the novel does pique much curiousity, giving a chance for inquiry to occur. I recommend that this novel can be paired with another, more historical look at the Mona Lisa or the Italian Renaissance.

Reader’s Annotation

Have you ever wondered what it might have been like to grow up during the Italian Renaissance, with artists like Leonardo da Vinci living in your midst, when arranged marriages were the norm, and when political turmoil and death might change everything you know in a single instant? This is a story about those times, about what it might have been like to be the mysterious girl smiling in the famed portrait by da Vinci, the Mona Lisa.

About the Author

Donna Jo Napoli is known for her “fairy tales retold,” but she has won multiple awards for her picture books, young adult literature, and adult books. Her extensive body of work also includes poetry, essays, and short stories. She considers herself a “naturalist,” and loves to garden and bake bread! She has five children as well as two grandchildren.
She received her BA in mathematics in 1970 and her Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures in 1973, from Harvard University, then did a postdoctoral year in Linguistics at MIT. She has worked as a linguistics professor at universities across the country as well as Australia.
She often works as an advocate for the deaf, and has written stories and books based on many different cultures, depicting protagonists from different backgrounds.


-Historical FIction

Curriculum Ties

-Italian Renaissance
-Leonardo da Vinci
-Florentine art, history, and politics

Booktalking Ideas

-Arranged marriage
-History through the eyes of teenage characters

Reading Level/Interest Age

Ages 13-16.

Challenge Issues

Why Did You Include This Book?

Historical fiction has the ability to bring us closer to understanding what a certain time period in history was like. Books like these through the eyes of teenagers offer a different perspective for teenagers today, and may also broaden their interest in the study of humanity’s past.

Donna Jo Napoli is a well-known author of many fairy tales, so I was interested to see her take on a purely historical tale. I was also interested to know more about the mysterious woman in Da Vinci’s famous portrait, as well.

State and Provincial Reading Lists:
Young Adult Book Award, 2009-2010 ; Nominee; Pennsylvania


About thesuperlibrarian

High School Librarian and obsessive reader! On a mission to read as many SUPER YA books as possible!
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