Most people have no trouble answering trivia questions about their own accomplishments; Jane Yolen is an exception. The award-winning author admits she has trouble keeping straight the dizzying array of colorful characters and plots in her more than 200 books, which range from poetry to fiction, fairy tales to science fiction, and songbooks to novels.
Yolen's children's books have received numerous prestigious awards, including the Caldecott Medal for Owl Moon, the Horn Book Fanfare Award, the Society of Children's Book Writers Golden Kite Award, the Christopher Medal, the Kerlan Award, and the Regina Medal.
Her mastery of the written word is not surprising, given her literary origins. Her father was a newspaperman, and her mother wrote short stories and created crossword puzzles. Born of two wordsmiths, the rest is . . . poetry. Raised in New York City and Westport, Connecticut, Yolen graduated from Smith College and received a master's degree in education from the University of Massachusetts. She has been a professional writer ever since, initially writing poetry and newspaper articles. She sold her first book, Pirates in Petticoats, a nonfiction book about female pirates, on her 21st birthday.
Next came a book of poetry for children, and a few books later, she began writing fiction. Unlike most aspiring writers, however, Yolen wisely recognized that to successfully write children's books, she should learn more about the publishing industry.
She edited children's books for several years before becoming a full-time writer, a career she clearly prefers. "I am a person in love with story and with words. I wake up, and I have to write."
Now, more than 25 years later, Yolen remains a poet first and foremost. Her recently released Snow, Snow combines poems with photographs that evoke winter's chilly beauty. This is the third such book on which she collaborated with her son, Jason Stemple. (The others are Water Music and Once upon Ice.) Stemple, an outdoor photographer living in Colorado, selected his favorite snow photos and sent them to Yolen. The pictures inspired her to write 13 poems celebrating winter. "I love cold weather," says Yolen. "I don't ski anymore, but I do enjoy the snow." Children and adults alike will delight in Stemple's crisp, bright photos and Yolen's simple, well-crafted, and vivid images: "Somebody painted/The trees last night,/ Crept in and colored them/White on white./When I awoke,/The tree limbs shone/As white as milk,/As bleached as bone." Snow, Snow is a wonderful book to introduce children to the art and beauty of poetry.
Yolen's keen sense of rhythm and artful phrasing pervades her prose as well as her verse. One of the few children's authors to write about real life, Yolen's quiet poetry poignantly reaches out to kids dealing with sadness and pain. She has written about the death of a beloved family member, a lonely child missing a father gone to war, and the damming of a scenic river. At the other extreme, Yolen is equally adept at humor and satire, writing poems about dancing dinosaurs and hilarious stories about a space-traveling toad and his spaceship "Star Warts."
When asked if it is difficult to switch between the silly and the somber, Yolen replies, "No harder than a child in school to go from math to social studies!"
Describing the breadth of her writing, Yolen says, "It's astonishing that so many writers today just keep writing about the same things. I think that's boring. Writers can be as broad and deep as we want to be, to teach and share life's lessons with kids."
And teach she does. In another recent release, Raising Yoder's Barn, which is set in the Amish country of rural Pennsylvania, Yolen teaches the lessons of hard work and neighborly compassion. When lightening strikes the Yoder's barn, an entire family and community — including eight-year-old Matthew Yoder — lend their unique talents and rebuild the barn in a single day. Yolen often visits the Amish country and says, "I knew that I would write about that landscape and those good people when I found the right story to tell. This is that story." Raising Yoder's Barn is rife with similes: "My brothers and I worked hard all summer in a field with furrows straight as a good man's life," and "Lightening, like a stooping hawk, shot straight down toward our barn." Warm, hazy paintings by illustrator Bernie Fuchs make the reader feel the timelessness, gentleness, and simplicity of the Amish community.
Sometimes story ideas literally come knocking upon Yolen's door. Yolen and her husband live in Hatfield, Massachusetts, home to Smith College, her alma mater.
Recently, the head of Smith College invited her to write a children's story commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of the school's founder, Sophia Smith. That book, Tea with an Old Dragon, published last fall, incorporates the few known facts about Smith with various local legends about this pioneer in women's education. It is also the true story of a young girl who took piano lessons from Smith, the so-called "old dragon." Yolen's fellow alumna Monica Vachula added her exquisitely detailed illustrations to this charming story.
With so many unique books to her name, Yolen claims no favorites. "The one I like best is whatever I am working on at the time." She is currently finishing a historical book for young adults about Mary, Queen of Scots and collaborating on several efforts with her children, all of whom inherited her creativity and love of books. Yolen and her daughter Heidi E.Y. Stemple, a writer, are collecting folktales from around the world that focus on mothers and daughters; and she and her son Adam, a musician, are working on a songbook of old folksongs.
While the minutia of her stories may at times elude her, Yolen has no trouble summarizing her books on the whole. "At a time when books are competing for kids' attention with a lot of razzmatazz, my books are like a quiet friend. I think they give much more to a child."
Lisa Horak is a mother and freelance writer living in Annandale, Virginia.