Flying High with Gifted Authors Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple

I just returned from a picture book boot camp with Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple. Not only are they a powerful teaching and mentoring team, but they also write beautiful books together.  Within the last couple of months they released 3 bird books for all types of readers. I’m thrilled to interview them for Writers’ Rumpus, just in time for holiday shopping!


Kirsti Call: Everything about FLY WITH ME is stunning: the photographs, the text, the concept. What inspired you to write it?

Jane Yolen: Two different answers: It was a lifetime book, as in it summed up a lot of our lifetimes. But actually Nat Geo, for whom the four of us had done an earlier book, asked us to do it. It seemed made for us.

Heidi Stemple: We are a family who loves birds. We were all taught birdwatching by my dad David Stemple (you may know him as Pa in Owl Moon). This is the sort of book that you WISH you could write. NatGeoKids gave us the opportunity. We jumped at it!

KC: How did the collaboration process work?

JY: I came up with an initial outline which got changed, enlarged, en-smalled, then enlarged again. Everyone had input–the family and the editorial staff. Heidi and I chose  sections we really wanted to work on. The boys chose the ones they wanted. No one argued. Extra pieces got doled out when need arrived. Heidi did almost all of the liasing with the editor. In the end, she and I wrote more sections of the book simply because we were faster, had more discrete writing time, and were here together to discuss things on a daily basis. The boys polished their own sections to a high shine. Though in the end I have to admit Heidi worked on the book a lot more than any of us by a good deal.

HS: Yes, I played point on the overall work, but the entire book was a real family effort. My brothers stood at the ready and wrote and revised any and everything I asked—they were troopers (though, they probably rolled their eyes at their bossy big sister a lot). There was a lot of email back and forth between all of us as we came up with new ideas to round out a section or when our editors decided something needed to be longer or shorter. Many times, while I was fleshing out a section, I would send a piece I originally wrote to one of my brothers and said, “Help! Can you make this 100 words longer?” Or to my mom saying, “Here is the research I did, but I’m too busy with another part to write the section, can you do it?” At the end, I took the entire thing and made sure it worked as a whole. I’m really proud of the way we all worked together.

KC:  What do you hope people will learn and feel as they read this book?

JY: That birds are a treasure but always under threat from climate and territory changes. That we need to protect our environments. That learning about birds from the dinosaurs forward is one way of beginning to help protect them.

HS: Pretty much what she said. But, also, I really love the kids who come up and grab the book at book festivals or bookstores and just delve into the facts. There is just so much to look at and discover in this book, I want it to also be a treasure trove of new bird facts.

KC: CROW NOT CROW does an incredible job of engaging the reader, while teaching them a birdwatching technique for young children.  What inspired you to write this story?

JY: When Adam–who had invented the method to teach his city-bred wife how to bird watch–declared (after much nudging from me) that he could not write a picture book, I pointed that as a published novelist, he already understood plot, arc, character, setting. As a published poet and lyricist, he already understood compression and the need for the absolutely right word. But I would write it with him, I said. Now he’s hooked.

KC: How did the collaboration process work?

JY: I began the book, threw it to him, he added stuff, I carved it into page-sized pieces, taught him how to dummy it, let him do a bit of research for the book that I was too tired to do.

KC:  What do you hope people will learn and feel as they read this book?

JY: That there is great joy in bird watching plus a fail-safe way to learn how to look for and at then–if you are willing to have the patience to try.

KC:  I can’t tell you how much I love this COUNTING BIRDS: THE IDEA THAT HELPED SAVE OUR FEATHERED FRIENDS!  The words and illustrations enhance each other, creating a true work of art.

HS: Clover Robin, who illustrated the book, is amazing! I told her so. She loves birds, too, and you can tell in the art. She told me that the spread with the dead birds was difficult to illustrate but she really made a thought-provoking page. The dead birds are flat and almost un-birdlike shadows while the live birds sitting in the tops of the trees are filled with life and color and joy. The difference really drives home what an impact [bird scientist] Frank Chapman made when he proposed switching from counting with guns to counting with eyes and ears only.

KC: What inspired you to write this story?

HS: I participate in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count every year. My dad and I did it together until his death. At that point, I didn’t know a lot about the Count’s history. I had always wanted to write a story about the Count, but had no idea how to tell it. I thought it was a fiction story about a family going out to take part in the count, but when I started reading about its history, I knew there was a story there. It took me a LONG time to figure out how to write the story.

KC: How did you decide how to approach the story?

HS: Oops, I kind of answered that above. I tried to write it from a Mom’s point of view—tucking her kid into bed then going out owling (which is exactly what I would do). That failed pretty miserably. Once I realized MY story had already been told (in Owl Moon by my mom), I kind of realized that this was Frank Chapman’s turn to have his story told. As soon as I figured that out (it took about 3 years), I was free to tell the story the way it wanted to be told—as a nonfiction.

KC: What do you hope people will learn and feel as they read this story?

HS: I really wanted kids (and adults, too) to see how one small idea can grow and have a lasting impact on the world.   That they can all be citizen scientists. That the earth is still in need of saving and we can all help.

KC: Thank you for visiting Writers’ Rumpus, Jane and Heidi! And I know from personal experience, that anyone who reads these bird books will be flying high!

Jane Yolen, often called the “Hans Christian Andersen of America,” is a poet, storyteller, writer, lyricist for her band.She is also a widow, mom, Nana to six, and mentor to hundreds of writers and illustrators over the years. Along the way, 
she has published over 376 books out, with 29 more under contract, almost all with traditional publishers. Besides books, she writes a poem every day which she sends out to almost 1000 subscribers and if you want to join her poetry list (mostly adult poems) join here: 

You can follow her on twitter at janeyolen.  Her website is

Heidi E. Y Stemple didn’t want to be a writer when she grew up. In fact, after she graduated from college, she became a probation officer in Florida. It wasn’t until she was 28 years old that she gave in and joined the family business, publishing her first short story in a book called Famous Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories. The famous writer was her mom, author Jane Yolen. Since then, she has published about 25 books including Counting Birds, Fly With Me, You Nest Here With Me, Not All Princesses Dress In Pink, and two Fairy Tale Feasts cookbooks, as well as numerous short stories and poems, mostly for children.  

Heidi lives on an old tobacco farm in western Massachusetts where she writes, reads, cooks, sews, and once a year, calls and counts owls for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.  

You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at heidieys. Her website is .


  1. Amazing interview! I love how Jane and Heidi can take one topic and write about it in so many different ways…from so many different angles. It keeps things fresh and engaging. Can’t wait to read these!


  2. What a beautiful picture of three talented women! Kirsti, this is such a personal and heartwarming interview, and I thank you for sharing. As part of a bird-loving family ourselves, I’m over-the-moon thrilled about these gorgeous books.


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