Photo © Jason Stemple
Thumbnail courtesy of Macmillan and First Second Publishing
Interview by Amber White
Reading is magical and so is the work of Jane Yolen.
Abraham, my nephew, stands at his miniature bookshelf, carefully running his fingers across the spines of his Jane Yolen dinosaur book collection. At the ripe old age of five, Abraham is in love; he has fallen hard for Yolen’s playful, rhythmic language. He decides on tonight's selection, How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? With each turn of the page, Abraham curls in closer, and begins reciting each verse verbatim. He carefully points out each dinosaur name hidden in the colorful illustrations. "Do you see it?" he asks.
Toward the end, magic: Abraham's eyes flutter, then close. Fairy dust? No. Just beautiful writing that ignites a reading inferno inside the mind and heart of a young boy.
Jane's passion for reading and writing was cultivated at an early age. Jane's father worked as a police reporter, a café journalist and even a publicist in Hollywood. Isabelle, Jane's mother, enjoyed crafting short stories, crosswords and acrostics from home.
As a teenager, Jane and her brother Steven created a newsletter for the apartment complex they were living in. In high school, Jane describes herself as a "gold star" student. She was involved in everything from sports, as captain of the basketball team, to debates, as well as News Editor of the school paper.
By the end of Jane's fourth year at Smith University, the fire within was growing. Jane's attraction and talent in reading and writing took center stage. She won numerous writing awards and served as president of the Press Board. Jane's versatile writing style and talent had emerged. For the senior musical, Jane not only penned the lyrics, but she sang them as well!
Throwing Logs on the Fire
It's easy to see why Jane is called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century. Yolen's love affair with language and writing has resulted in more than 300 published books and numerous accolades and awards over the years. In 1988, Owl Moon received the prestigious Caldecott Medal, while The Devil's Arithmetic earned various Jewish Council Awards and was even made into a ShowTime movie.
This year alone, Jane has released several children's books, including Lost Boy, Elsie's Bird, and How Do Dinosaurs Love Their Dogs?, and has more logs ready to keep the fire burning.
Much like a gift wrapped in shiny tear-me-open paper, the following interview provides a window into some of Jane's current projects, as well as some of her thoughts as an author and writer, poet, and thinker.
Amber White: Jane, you currently reside in Western Massachusetts, and spend several months each year in Scotland. Do you find your surroundings in these two distinct places generate different kinds of writing?
Jane Yolen: There are three very different elements in my writing in two countries, two houses.
One, the research volumes I have amassed (over 40 years in Mass. and 18 years in Scotland) are entirely different. The local libraries—Smith College, University of Mass. and Amherst College in one place, the University of St. Andrews in the other—hold very different collections.
Sometimes it is quite frustrating because the books I need are elsewhere. I was working on a short story about Emily Dickinson once in St. Andrews ("Sister Emily's Lightship," which won that year's Nebula Award for short fiction), but the university had a single book of her poetry and nothing biographical. At home in the States I had a full shelf of books about her. It ended up costing me an enormous sum—more than I made on the story—to have my assistant ship some of those volumes to me.
Two, the language I hear on a daily basis is so different, the cadences and the word choice. Not just petrol for gas and verge for the shoulder of the road. In Scotland they call the sea mist the "haar," a "loan" is not just what you get from a bank, but is also a cow path. If someone thinks you are talking too much, they might say: "Haul dyer wheesht, woman!" And my very favorite word in the whole word is an archaic Scottish word: traghairm. It means "to prophecy while wrapped in a bullock’s skin behind a waterfall." I kid you not. For someone so in love with words, it has a huge effect.
Finally, in the States, my phone rings constantly, and I am away on book tours and to conferences, conventions, lecture tours, and workshops. I have to fit my writing into the interstices of my life. In Scotland, if the phone rings, it's a friend making a date for dinner or tea or a six mile Fife Coastal Path walk, or the movies, or a day at the Pitternweem Art Festival. I have long, glorious hours for writing.
AW: For all ages, you've written fantasy, mysteries, poetry, sci-fi, picture books, biography, folklore, comics, non-fiction, YA series, collections, fairy tales, board books, cookbooks, and more. With 300 books published and more in the works, how do you go about deciding what genre will best showcase the ideas you have when starting a new project?
JY: When I start writing something, it shapes itself. I have had poems grow into picture books. Picture books grow into short stories, short stories grow into novels. Novels grown downward into poems or picture books.
AW: With the spring release of your graphic novel, Foiled, and a sequel soon to follow, your versatility in writing is absolutely incredible. What challenges or successes did this genre present to you as a writer? What did you learn about yourself during this particular project?
JY: This was one of those huge upward learning slogs.
When I write picture books—which should have been an easy corollary to graphic novels—I simply hand the text over to the editor to give to an illustrator. There is motion and emotion, a story arc, an interplay between text and pictures; but it is the artist who decides on which page the pictures go and how to get the reader to turn the page by the magic of the illustration.
When I write a novel, another close cousin to a graphic novel, one would think (they even share a name), I use words to paint all the pictures. I adore lush descriptions of place and often in my work landscape is a character in itself.
In movie and play scripts, which I have also written, the amount of stage direction is minuscule compared to the actual dialogue, yet it is there in a kind of coded shorthand. "Exeunt, pursued by a bear" covers a lot of ground.
All this gets stood on its head where graphic novels are concerned.
When the editor of my first graphic novel and I shook hands over Foiled, even before he and my agent did historic battle over the terms of the contract, I thought: This is going to be fun. How hard can it be?
The short answer was: It was very hard. The learning curve was huge. It turned out that all I really knew going in was how to write.
Graphic novels have their own (stretchable) rules, their own tropes, their own patterns, their own form and format when it comes to actually writing the thing down on a page. There is a history to the graphic novel as well as battling historians. There are superstars in both text and art. There are awards, conventions, critics and revisionists. Graphic novels and comics are not really newcomers to the publishing world, though somehow we are all acting as if they are.
But what makes writing a graphic novel different than writing a picture book or a novel or a movie/theatrical script is that the author has to be part art director, part movie director, part set-designer and costume-designer, part storyboarder—some of which is especially difficult if, like me, you cannot draw at all.
Each page is not just written, but conceptualized as a piece of art. I didn't just have to write differently, I had to think differently about what I was writing.
AW: Have you started the sequel?
JY: The sequel, Curses, Foiled Again, is written, revised, accepted, and the illustrator is already at work on the pictures. We are talking about a possible third book.
AW: Many people may not be aware that you have several song books under your belt and you enjoy penning song lyrics. What genre of music do you typically enjoy writing for? What instruments do you play? Have you had the opportunity to write lyrics for any musicians you enjoy?
JY: I play both the guitar and piano very badly. I used to be a folk singer in college, made a bit of money. (It was the '50s, you know.) And I still occasionally write songs for groups (mostly folk rock). My middle child has been a professional musician for 20 years though he is now a web designer. I have (I think) about 15 books that incorporate music in them, or are collections of music, all but two done with that son.
AW: Your collaboration with your daughter, Heidi, on The History Mystery series brilliantly captures an underlying theme present in a vast majority of your work—research. You talk about "tuition" or putting in the legwork before following intuition.
JY: I collect old books and hope that, with the advent of online stuff, the old books will not go the way of the dodo. When I am browsing in a secondhand bookstore, I pick up stuff for which I have NO idea if I will ever use it. And suddenly, a moment comes—often in the depth of winter when I need something new and wonderful to happen—when one of those books sparks an idea. Or a magazine article I clipped comes alive. My latest book, my 300th actually, Elsie's Bird began that way, from an article in the Smithsonian Magazine. But that beginning occasioned a lot of hard graft doing research.
What most people don't get, though, is that teen fantasy novels take research. You have someone wandering for days in a forest—what birds might they encounter? What will they eat? How long can the average horse run, walk, canter, gallop before collapsing? How do you treat a snakebite, mushroom poisoning, or poison ivy? How do you build a shelter from the snow?
AW: Not only have you collaborated with your children, but also with Bruce Colville on the millennial YA thriller, Armageddon Summer, and I was excited to see that your collaboration extends into Writing Groups, as well, both online and in person. How has your participation in writing groups helped shine the spotlight of awareness on your thinking as a writer?
JY: I have been involved in one writer's group or another since the early '60s. I have been running workshops, giving lectures on writing, mentoring since the late '60s. But I was an editor and a reviewer even before getting published in book form. All of those things have contributed to my own writing immeasurably because I get to see the kinds of questions I need to ask myself as I write.
AW: Technology is constantly changing the landscape around us. How has technology impacted you as a writer?
JY: I now write entirely on the computer, but use it really as just a speedier typewriter that can correct my poor spelling. And I do some beginning research on the Internet. Other than that—and the ease with which one can communicate with friends, family, and fans—I am a technophobe.
AW: Your picture book, My Father Knows the Name of Things, is a beautiful tribute to your late husband, David Stemple. It's smart, but also pulls on the heartstrings of the reader—relate-able at any age. What propelled you to write this book? Was it an emotionally difficult book for you to write?
JY: I actually began writing the book when David was dying, so the book means a lot to me and my family. The Stemple nieces and nephews called him "the man who knew everything" because he was a brilliant man who really did want to know the names of everything. Turns out, there are a lot of fathers out there with a similar pathology. I have heard from many people for whom the book resonates.
AW: Jane, you say ideas come from "What Ifs". What if you could have any super power, what would it be and why?
JY: The ability to write on ten different books in a day. No, wait—I already have that power!
AW: In Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft, you talk about publishing as being simply an exclamation point…only a spot of punctuation. When you wield the pen or press the keys, what about the process brings you such joy?
JY: The unfolding of a story or a poem that wasn't there in the real world before I began it simply amazes me every time. It is as if these stories and poems leak from my fingertips. Of course, after that comes the hard work. But I even love that part of the process. In a past life, I was probably a gem polisher!
More information on Jane Yolen's biography and publications is available at JaneYolen.com.
© Amber White, 2010