Jane Yolen, America’s Hans Christian Andersen
Known as the “Hans Christian Andersen of America,” Jane Yolen has written over 300 books including Owl Moon, winner of the 1988 Caldecott Medal. She has also been awarded the Regina Medal, the Kerlan Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Society of Children’s Book Writers Award, the Mythopoetic Society’s Aslan Award, the Christopher Medal, the Boy’s Club Jr. Book Award, the Garden State Children’s Book Award, the Daedalus Award, a number of Parents’ Choice Magazine Awards, and many more. A devoted mother and grandmother, she lives four months of the year in St. Andrews, Scotland and the rest at her home in Massachusetts.
Nicki Richesin: You began writing stories, essays, and poetry as a child and continued as a gold star student at Smith College. You sold your first book Pirates in Petticoats (love this title!) on your 21st birthday. That must have been an exciting day for you. How did you become a children’s book author?
Jane Yolen: By accident. I thought I was a poet (of adult poems) for my heart and a journalist for my pocketbook. But somehow the first book I sold was for kids. It turned out that I loved doing it so much that of my over 300 books, all but about twenty are for children.
Your late husband David Stemple was the inspiration for Pa in Owl Moon for which you won a Caldecott Medal. Your husband had a profound impact on your life and writing. How did he encourage you and influence your work?
JY: First, I want to be sure that you (and your readers) know that the book won a Caldecott, an award given to the illustrator and the book, not the author. Though of course I benefit as well!’
As to David, he was not only my cheerleader, my inspiration/muse, at times my gadfly, he was always my first reader.
Some of your most recent books like Sister Bear: A Norse Tale and Snow in Summer seem terribly romantic and yet like Not One Damsel in Distress knock the charming prince to the rescue off his horse. How important to you is it that you create feminist role models for young readers?
JY: I don’t labor to send a message in my stories. Boring books are written that way. Didactic books are written that way. However, as a modern woman I can’t help but be influenced by the zeitgeist. So all those butt-kicking young women seem to fall naturally from my fingers onto the keyboard and thence the page.
Your fantastic book The Devil’s Arithmetic was adapted to film by Dustin Hoffman. How did it feel to see actors speaking words you had written and bringing them to life on the big screen? Would you like to see any of your other books adapted to film?
JY: Well, films come with big paydays, so of course authors like to have them happen. BUT films also come with big problems, changes, even the massacre of favorite characters. So it is always a mixed blessing. Film and print are simply two very different and demanding mediums.
Scotland is the original land of the faeries- a country rich with folklore, fairy tales and traditions. I believe many of your books (including Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast) were inspired in part by your time there. How has living part-time in Scotland influenced your writing, if at all?
JY: Lots and lots. Three ways really. 1. Sometimes directly: a story is set there. Like the Tartan Magic series. Tam Lin picture book. Lost Boy: The Story of James M. Barrie and Peter Pan picture book. 2. Sometimes indirectly, i.e. a setting or character or turn of phrase. Wild Hunt is definitely my Scottish House, but only I know that. And 3. I write more during the summers I am there, and the light floods in from 4:30 a.m. till nearly midnight. I am a writer in the daylight not the dark.
JY: Both, inextricable.
What does it mean to you when you say, “I still believe in books”?
JY: I know that story delivery systems are changing even as we speak. Phone apps and e-books and movies, and TV and and and and. . .but story still remains. However, I love books, the physical nature of them, how they smell, how they feel in the hand, how a page is turned, the rustle it makes. How I can annotate, turn down a corner of a page, tear a piece out. (Shhh, don’t let anyone know I said that.)
You’ve said, “I don’t care whether the story is real or fantastical. I tell the story that needs to be told.” You’ve written so many stories at this point. Are there still more you feel as if you’re still itching to write that have been waiting for you to tell them?
JY: At 72, I KNOW I don’t have the time to write down all the stories still in my head.
I read on your blog that you’ve been writing a poem a day since January 1. Would you be kind enough to share your favorite one with us?
JY: Perhaps not my favorite, but one of them:
This is the turn of the month,
Cornerstone of the year.
Forty some days towards the light.
I am still here, still here.
This is the hurtling snow,
Trees groaning heavy with white,
When the writing comes hard and comes slow,
And it’s still night, still night.
This is the furnace’s laughter.
This is the plow’s early call.
The driveway holds ice that is hidden,
And I have to watch for a fall, a fall.
This is the turn of the winter.
This is the inning of fear.
This is the month of my birthday.
And I am still here, still here.
©2011 by Jane Yolen, all rights reserved
Thank you so much for your time.
Nicki Richesin is the editor of four anthologies,What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding On To, and Letting Go of Their Daughters; Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond; Crush: 26 Real-Life Tales of First Love; and The May Queen: Women on Life, Work, and Pulling it all Together in your Thirties. Her anthologies have been excerpted and praised in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Redbook, Parenting, Cosmopolitan, Bust, Salon, Daily Candy, and Babble.