Breath [NOOK Book]


Salz is a boy afflicted with cystic fibrosis -- though in the Middle Ages in Saxony no one can identify it as such. Instead he is an outcast, living with his unfeeling father and superstitious brothers in a hovel outside Hameln. His grandmother has kept Salz alive by having him avoid the mead and beer commonly drunk by all and by teaching him how to clear his lungs.
When the townsfolk of Hameln are affected by a mold that grows on the hops -- poisoning their mead and beer -- ...
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Salz is a boy afflicted with cystic fibrosis -- though in the Middle Ages in Saxony no one can identify it as such. Instead he is an outcast, living with his unfeeling father and superstitious brothers in a hovel outside Hameln. His grandmother has kept Salz alive by having him avoid the mead and beer commonly drunk by all and by teaching him how to clear his lungs.
When the townsfolk of Hameln are affected by a mold that grows on the hops -- poisoning their mead and beer -- Salz is one of the few who are unaffected. The mold's effect is hallucinogenic, and soon Hameln is in the grips of a plague of madness, followed by a plague of rats. It is only Salz who can proclaim the truth -- although it might cost him his life.

In this re-imagining of the Pied Piper tale, a boy afflicted with cystic fibrosis in the Middle Ages is an outcast. When the townsfolk of Hameln are affected by a grain mold, he survives an outbreak of madness, followed by a plague of rats.

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Editorial Reviews

To quote the review of the hardcover in KLIATT, November 2003: Young Salz, who suffers from terrible coughs and often cannot catch his breath, lives in the medieval German town of Hameln. The town is going through a bad time: the farm animals have been falling ill, rats are rampant, the plague is starting to sweep through Europe, and the townsfolk have been afflicted with fits of madness. Salz, whose grandmother has always forbidden him to drink mead like everyone else because he is sickly, is unaffected by the madness, and therefore suspect. He is locked up by the townspeople, but saves himself by telling of a piper he encountered in the woods who has the power to charm the rats away. The piper is summoned, but when he is not paid in full, he retaliates by charming away all the children—all but Salz, who hasn't the breath to follow. It's essential to read Napoli's postscript, which reveals that Salz suffers from cystic fibrosis, and that the rats are not the real culprits in the town's madness. Instead, it's a killer fungus called ergot that affects the flowers of grasses or grains, and therefore the mead made from grains; ergot poisoning can cause hallucinations and fits of insanity, as well as stimulate sexual desire (this sexual licentiousness is touched on in the book). Napoli, the author of Beast and many other novels for young readers, has clearly done her research and she vividly evokes the harsh and superstitious medieval world. This version of the Pied Piper tale is nightmarish but memorable. (An ALA Best Book for YAs.) KLIATT Codes: JS*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2003, Simon & Schuster, Pulse, 260p., Ages 12 to18.
—Paula Rohrlick
Children's Literature
Twelve-year-old Salz is nicknamed for his salty sweat, a symptom of the disease we know as cystic fibrosis. The good advice of his grandmother, the healer, has so far kept him alive. But a fungal epidemic seizes thirteenth-century Hameln, causing madness, decay, and painful death. People mistakenly blame the growing population of rats. Salz and his grandmother belong to a coven practicing cures and magic combined with the Pope's teachings. But their rituals have no effect on this epidemic. Salz tells town officials of the mesmerizing piper's music he heard one day, and a messenger invites the piper to lead away the rats. The piper succeeds, but is paid just half of his fee. Then, in a diseased frenzy, Salz's brother kills Grandmother. Although Salz displays the world-weariness of a chronically ill youth, he loves and protects his kitten and the orphaned girl who joins their household. Salz's constant self-questioning at times disengages the reader, but Napoli's style is generally thoughtful and intense. The book's real focus is not the pied piper's magic but rather the Middle Ages and its epidemics, superstition, civil corruption, and shifting religious doctrine. At the end Salz is still alive, determined to locate his new sister, and applying empirical reasoning of a later era to the mystery of the epidemic. And Napoli's searing grip lingers on our flesh. The novel will serve as a gruesome but fascinating addition to the social studies curriculum. 2003, Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon and Schuster, Ages 12 up.
— Ann Philips
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up-Legend has it that in 1284 the city of Hameln (or Hamelin) suffered a plague of rats of which they tried to rid themselves by hiring a piper to lead the vermin away. When the residents reneged on their payment to him, he led their children away, as well. This tale has proved fertile ground for a lot of literature, from the 19th-century poem by Robert Browning to a 20th-century novel by Gloria Skurzynski. Now Napoli adds Breath-and breadth-to the canon. She includes the potent elements of ergot poisoning and suspected witchcraft in her plot, which is narrated by 12-year-old Salz-a boy whose frequent, serious illnesses render him almost useless on his family's farm. (An afterword explains that he has cystic fibrosis.) The author vividly describes the frightening conditions facing the townspeople and their increasingly desperate attempts to understand and overcome the torrential rains; the rat infestation; the diseases afflicting their livestock; and the physical, mental, and sexual maladies that beset them. Salz is an intelligent observer who is tried for witchcraft when he doesn't succumb to the same illnesses as the rest of the population. (He doesn't drink the beer made from the infected grain.) Readers unfamiliar with the psychotropic effects of ergot poisoning may be as mystified as these medieval citizens by the events presented here. Salz's illness is likely to be equally puzzling until it is explained in the postscript. The confusion and speculation this ignorance might produce are realistically portrayed, but it's possible that foreknowledge would provide a richer reading experience for teens.-Miriam Lang Budin, Chappaqua Public Library, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This fascinating Pied Piper bypasses the villain rehabilitation or feminist perspective common to most modern retellings; instead, it solidly grounds the tale in the 13th-century town of Hameln. Chronically ill, Salz can't help on the farm, so he studies with the priest as if preparing for the church. With his beloved Großmutter, he's also a member of the town's coven of Christian, God-fearing witches. Though no one expects him to live to adulthood, Salz dreams of a cure, perhaps brought from distant lands by a traveling piper. In spring, a devastating stock blight is followed by strangely selective plague, as the townsfolk fall ill with a terrifying, diseased madness. Is it caused by rats, or sin, or witchcraft? Salz, searching for logical answers and moral consistency, wants to help, but without drawing attention to his own suspicious (relative) health. A compelling mystery (explained scientifically in the author's postscript) and fully realized characters bring life to the legend. Move over, Browning. (Fiction. 12+)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439132227
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
  • Publication date: 5/11/2010
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 426,605
  • Age range: 12 years
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Donna Jo Napoli is the acclaimed and award-winning author of many novels, both fantasies and contemporary stories. She won the Golden Kite Award for Stones in Water in 1997. Her novel Zel was named an American Bookseller Pick of the Lists, a Publishers Weekly Best Book, a Bulletin Blue Ribbon, and a School Library Journal Best Book, and a number of her novels have been selected as ALA Best Books. She is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband. Visit her at
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Read an Excerpt


By Donna Jo Napoli

Simon Pulse

Copyright © 2003 Donna Jo Napoli
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-689-86177-X

Chapter One


The beat is steady, unlike my own breathing. It draws me. And not just me: A hawk has come to investigate. Might the raptor think it's a heartbeat? Now squirrels are coming. And a badger. Creatures creep and hop from every direction, voles and rabbits and mice, creatures that normally hide when a raptor wing glides overhead.

This is new. Caution livens my skin.

My throat tickles. I fight the cough. Cursed, thickened lungs that would betray me.

I grasp a sapling to stop myself. Time is short - it shouldn't be wasted on satisfying simple curiosity. I'm supposed to be gathering the first wild herbs of spring for Grossmutter. She'll use them in a brew. Tonight the twelve of us - one shy of being a full coven - will take pots of the brew and go from field to field, sprinkling it on the earth before the farmers till and sow. The brew ensures a plentiful harvest. We do this every year, though no one outside the coven knows. Our coven of worshipers takes care of Hameln town in ways no one guesses. That's what I love being part of - the beautiful mysteries.

I should seek out the herbs swiftly - Grossmutter's waiting. I should avoid anything that deters me from my duty.

Instead, I let loose of the sapling and become one with themesmerized creatures, following the beat, almost against my will. It's a hook in my chest, slowly dragging me in.

I walk quietly, stealthily. The woods can hide vagrants and criminals. They can hide knackers or hangmen or prostitutes - the despised of society. The woods can hold danger.

But the beat insists; I walk.

He sits on a raised tree root, slapping his thighs rhythmically through green-and-yellow-striped trousers. Colors of the rich. His chest is white and thin. Not pasty like mine; he's not sickly. Rather, he seems spare. And ready to spring.

His shirt, red like blood, lies on a burlap sack on the ground. A pipe sits on top of the heap.

A music pipe.

Our coven needs a new piper. Then we'd be a full thirteen again. Our effectiveness would be secured.

Alas, a rich man would never consider a post so humble as coven piper. But a rich man isn't likely to be alone in the forest, either.

The beech beside me stands dead. I break off a branch. The crack brings the man to his feet. The animals scatter.

I step into the clearing before he flees too. The branch has become a cudgel in my hands. I am foolhardy enough to face a stranger alone, but not so much so as to do it empty-handed. One who lacks a means of defense is nearly as culpable as one who gives offense.

His skin pimples with fear. But now he squints in disbelief. "Has a mere boy come to pummel me?"

I've never pummeled anyone in my life, which I believe is twelve full years, what my priest, Pater Michael, declares a miracula, nothing less than a miracle. "I'm nearly a man."

"You have the arms to prove it," he says, noting the one part of my body that swells with strength. His arms, instead, are like his chest - ropy. He holds empty hands up. "Won't you have pity, Master, on a simple fellow passing through?" He bows his head.

"Those aren't the clothes of a simple fellow."

He looks at my farmer smock and pants, and smiles just a little. He turns slowly in a circle, then faster. Then he's dancing, lifting his knees high, grinning like a fool. He twirls till he falls, laughing, on all fours.

I've never seen such a display outside of festivals and marriages and, of course, sacred ceremonies. It makes me think of our coven's jumping dance. The higher we jump, the higher the crops will grow. But we never dance without music; we don't do what this man just did.

He turns and drops onto his bottom. "Simple enough for you?"

I'm smiling at his wordplay. Puns confuse the devil, so they keep him at bay. From this man's behavior, though, it would seem he's not exercising prudence, but merely playing the jokester. "So, you're passing through, witty fellow. From where?"

"Most recently, Bremen."

Bremen is one of the largest cities in Germany, with more than ten thousand people. It's a week north of here, for those strong enough to walk all day. Nearly to the great North Sea. I've never been there; just the exertion of going to the healing waters at Bad Pyrmont is enough to bathe me in sweat, and that's only a half day south of here. But I listen well when travelers talk, and the images that fill my head bless me with the illusion of experience. My ears itch to hear more. "Tell me about it."

"A moat surrounds the whole town, right outside the massive wall."

I know what a moat is. The nuns in Hoxter talk only of the cathedral school in Bremen. They say that's all that should interest me, a future cleric, if I have a future, which no one but Grossmutter believes. But everything interests me - everything. My ears filter out nothing, no matter who is talking.

A moat. Enemies. Battles.

"Our town is nearly surrounded by water too," I say, "but from natural rivers - a natural moat. And we have walls against enemies."

"Really, now?" He looks amused. "And who attacks?"

My cheeks got hot. I shouldn't have boasted, for I don't know of any attack.

An infantry passed through Hameln town once, when I was but five or six years old - when Mother was still alive. It wasn't a Crusade. The most recent Crusade was a couple of years before my birth. No, this was just some sort of display. The soldiers wore iron helmets with neck guards and cheek guards. Metal scales of armor protected them from shoulder to midthigh. They carried wood shields covered with leather that was gilded or silvered and had bronze decorations. Father said they were all dressed up with nowhere to go, and he laughed like I believe this stranger would laugh. But my brothers and sisters and I watched intently, and Mother squeezed my shoulder as she stood beside me in the crowd. All of us wanted to fight the infidels. What better way is there to show your love for Jesus Christ? For years after that we boys made helmets out of old leather scraps and marched in the woods behind our farmstead.

I place the branch on the ground and drop beside it. I sit with my arms around my raised and spread knees, careful to cross my legs only at the ankle so that the rolled cuffs of my pant legs hang free. "Forget Hameln. Tell me more about Bremen."

"There are peat bogs outside town. And farmers have built dikes to steal marshlands from the sea. Willows and poplars sway in the winds. Boats go in and out the harbor." He puts his hand above his eyebrows, as though he's screening his eyes from the sun as he looks across a vast harbor. Then he lets his hand fall and grins. "Lots of boats. More than a boy like you can count."

"I can count high," I say.


I could start counting and continue till he tells me to stop. But I lose my breath so easily. Pride isn't worth it.

"What are you doing in these woods?" asks the man.

"Gathering herbs."

"A girl's task," he says.

I could rise to that insult; I could tell him it's my job for the coven. But just hearing the word can make people grimace in fear, for words can empower evil. Many people know only about the wicked covens. The ones that bring trouble and promote Morth deeds - death deeds. They are rabid and wrathful. Their neighbors get worms or epilepsy. These covens bring on lightning and tempests. They cause hailstorms and ruin crops. They make men sterile and women deliver stillbirths. They are nothing like us.

I won't risk scaring him off. "There are no girls left in our family," I say reasonably, "and I'm the youngest."

His eyes flicker past me and back again. "Did they marry?"



"One. The others were sold."

"Ah, sold." Melancholy tinges his voice. His shoulders curl forward. "Some people don't deserve children."

The harshness of that thought shocks me.

Krote moves.

The man jerks to attention. "What's that in your pant leg?"

I unroll the right cuff gently till Krote is in the open. He blinks, then hops to the ground beside my foot. He's dusty black, nearly as dark as the rich dirt.

"Do you always carry a toad on your person?" asks the man, his face relaxing again.

I nudge Krote just the slightest with my big toe. The toad makes a single hop.

Every member of a coven has a familiar - an animal through which we have our magic powers. A dog, a horse, a hen - any black animal will do. When it dies or goes astray, another takes its place. Krote is my familiar.

"It seems he doesn't want to leave you." The man reaches forward a hand. His confidence almost offends me.

I tense up: People don't always treat toads kindly. "I wouldn't touch any black toads around Hameln town if I were you. Any one of them could have been rolled in my pant leg."

He blinks and sits on both hands, his face a mask now. This is a prudent man, after all. I shouldn't have made my words sound so threatening.

Krote hops off among the sparse underbrush. These beeches offer their flat leaves to the heavens, like upturned palms; little sun can penetrate to the forest floor. But he's a smart toad though; he'll manage. Godspeed, Krote.

"So, you came from Bremen," I say in a light tone, eager to get the man talking again. "And where are you going to?"


"But you've strayed and gone too far."

The man jerks his chin toward me. "How's that? I followed the river."

"Which bank?"

"The left as the river flows. They told me the Leine runs in from that bank."

"It does. But from the left bank of the Aller, not the Weser." I stand and draw a map in the dirt with my branch. "See? You followed the Weser, so you walked almost due south to Hameln town." I draw a deep star. "But the Aller comes into the Weser from the east, and the Leine runs into the Aller at least a day's journey later." I draw another star where Hannover lies. "The Leine goes to Hannover; the Weser doesn't."

The man stares at my map. "So I'm past where I want to be?"

"Not by much." I sit again. "You're still in Saxony. You could be in Hannover by the day after tomorrow."

"Even crossing these hills?"

"These are nothing. Be glad you won't have to cross the Harz Mountains. They're to the southeast. You'll go northeast."

"You're a veritable geographer," says the man. He pulls his hands out from under his bottom and brushes off the dirt, looking at me the whole time. He tilts his head, sizes me up. Then he rubs the side of his neck. "But I wager you haven't seen the Aller or the Leine or even the Harz Mountains, have you, now?"

The challenge stings; I hate being judged by my body. I take up the stone again and quickly draw hills into my map. I add the Harz Mountains. "There are evergreens there," I say, "not just beeches. Most of them are pines." I outline a castle. "That's where Herzberg should be." I extend the Weser south. "And this is Hoxter." That town I can mark with complete assurance. I throw the stone past his cheek, close enough that I'm sure his ear felt the air move. It strikes a tree trunk. I wince in apology to the tree. "I've seen lots of the world. In maps and drawings and stories. I study."

He touches his ear lightly and gives an exaggerated whistle of appreciation. "At the monastery of Schonau near Sankt Goarshausen, I wager."

That famous monastery is far. I realize I don't even know where it is - I couldn't place it on a map. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and back. "Don't mock me. I read works from Schonau - I read everything. I've read the letters of the Benedictine nun Elisabeth von Schonau. I've read about her visions and ecstacies. She rails against the corruption of the church. I know her work as well as if I had the good fortune to listen to her directly. You can believe me on this. I study with the priest in Hoxter once a month because our own priest can hardly see anymore. I go by boat up the Weser. After my birthday in autumn, if I live, I'm going to the town school in Magdeburg, where the bishop himself teaches." And now the coughs come. I talked too much, too fast. I fold forward over myself, coughing and gagging.

"What is it, boy?" The man claps a hand on my back.

The mucus presses in my windpipe, threatening to clog it. I get to my feet with difficulty and wave the man aside. Then I stand on my hands. Gobs of muck fly from my mouth onto the dirt. The coughs scrape the insides of my lungs, thinning every part, forcing a path for air. Coughs and coughs. Gradually they subside. I right myself to the sweet pleasure others enjoy without thought, the sweetest pleasure of all: breath.

The man gapes still. "How long can you stay up on your hands?"

"As long as I need to. Grossmutter taught me when I was younger than I can remember. She says it's why I'm still alive. She says I can't die if I'm standing on my hands."

"You have a cunning grandmother." The man looks contrite. "May you live past your birthday. May you study wherever you like. Even at the Fulda monastery down in Frankish lands. May you study arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music - whatever you want."

Music. "I heard your beat."

"I know. It brought you to me. Just like the animals. You're a funny boy, to come to animal music, and mere beats, at that. But I saw it in your eyes: You couldn't help it, could you? All of you, fascinated."

There's that cockiness again, like when he thought he'd touch Krote without my permission. But we're becoming friends now, so I let it go.

"I like almost anything rhythmic. I always have." I don't tell him how many times I've fallen asleep to someone pounding in regular beats on my back.

His pipe tantalizes me, perched on the heap of his red shirt. "Have you studied music?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "It comes naturally. That's why I'm on my way to Hannover - for the apple blossom festival."

Musicians that learned on their own make the best coven pipers. "We have an apple blossom festival here, too," I say encouragingly.

He smiles. "Hannover is big. They set up platforms in the town square so everyone can see the actors and musicians."

"It sounds like the new Easter passion plays."

He laughs now. "Not so elaborate, I'm sure. But it lasts two days. And it pays. There are festivals all through sowing and reaping. Then the saints' days follow. I can stay busy till the end of autumn."

"If you're looking for work, our farmers can always use an extra hand. Everything grows in the loess of our plains."

"I'm a piper. Festivals in little towns like yours are too brief and far between to keep me happy."

"Exactly. You could farm for money and pipe for joy. The life would be a lot better than that of an itinerant piper. And those who listened would be far more attentive than your usual audience."

"How so?"

"You'd have to give up your dandy clothes and don all black."

"All black?" His voice hushes to a whisper. "You mean be a devil's piper?"

"It's not shameful."

"So, that toad really was your familiar."


He shakes his head. "I'm just an ordinary Christian piper. And what about you? You said you study with a priest, so how can you belong to a coven?"

"We're papists in our coven - we follow the pope. We practice the good magic of the old religion, merging it with the enlightenment of the new religion." I stop for breath. "We are soldiers of Christ."

"Christians can't abide pagan ways."

"Why not? Pagan ways with nature do no harm. No one has reason to fear us - no one decent, at least."

He shakes his head harder.

"Even the priests consult us, I swear. When things go really wrong, they come to us. Don't be fooled by black clothing: We wear it only out of tradition." I don't even know if what I say is true. I'm not sure why we wear black. Many things about the coven are secrets from me, for when I ask, the supreme head says I'm too young to know. He let me join when Grossmutter asked, because she's the oldest member and, as such, commands respect. And because he doesn't think I'll be a member for long.

"You risk your soul," says the piper.

"That's the one thing I don't risk. My name is Salz."

He pushes his bottom lip forward in confusion. "They named you after food salt?"

"Not originally. I was christened Siefried." I wipe the sweat that remains on my brow and hold out my hand. "Lick it."

He pulls back slightly in surprise. But then he licks. He wrinkles his nose. "You could salt a vat of gruel."

"The priest at Hoxter renamed me. He says it's better to face your afflictions than to pretend they don't exist. So I'm S-A-L-Z. S for soul's salvation; A for activity and ability; L for loyalty and light heartedness; Z for zeal in making money. The letters A, L, and Z are wishful thinking. Other children salty like me die before they're useful. But the letter S was in my christened name too. It belongs to me." I wipe my hand on my smock. "So you see, my soul is guaranteed salvation."


Excerpted from Breath by Donna Jo Napoli Copyright © 2003 by Donna Jo Napoli. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2004

    Worth every Breath

    This book is outstanding. I love the book, but the ending is such a cliffhanger I keep thinking about it. Although it gets me angry ((the ending)), I still love it. A LOT better than the author's other book, 'Three Days,' which was horrible.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2014

    Well written!

    Great take on an old story. Love the use of real historic elements.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2013

    The kit comes out of the entrance and sees the big cats

    "I am Leatherkit," says the blue eyed kit with red brown fur. "Can I have a Mom?," Leatherkit asks.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2013

    No prob bro bro


    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    It was absolutely breath-taking. I love how everything was described. How i couldn't dare put it down even when i had cause i just had to know what was going to happen next. YOU MUST READ THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2006

    Incredible and Surprising

    This is such a wonderfully imaginitive retelling of a classic story that after I finished the book, I was left speechless with awe. It filled me with questions and made me completely reexamine the original story. (What is the original story? Read it and find out.) I would highly recommend this book to all types of readers.

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    Posted April 27, 2010

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    Posted September 25, 2013

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    Posted September 25, 2010

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