Bringing Up a Writing Family: A Kidlit Journey with Award-Winning Author Jane Yolen

René Bartos: I am so excited to be able to chat with author Jane Yolen today! Welcome to Writers’ Rumpus Jane! I am humbled and honored to talk to a writer with your expertise and experience. Newsweek dubbed you “The Hans Christian Anderson of American Children’s Literature.” Wow! You have authored more than 400 books and are also an esteemed poet and essayist. My brain is trying to process this…Can you tell us a little about your journey into the kidlit world? 

Jane Yolen: The funny thing is—I stumbled into it. I was a poet from early childhood, and with my younger brother used to interview neighbors in our apartment for a “newspaper” we wrote. Our mother typed it up with carbon papers and we sold it back to the neighbors for 5 cents each.

My father was a journalist, president of the Overseas Press Club and later on a vice president of a top public relations firm and my mother wrote magazine stories (only sold one) and made crossword puzzles and acrostics of which she sold many. A good number of their friends were writers (think James Thurber, Hemingway, etc.) and my assumption as a child was that all adults were writers, but they had day jobs like teachers, bakers, policemen, etc. So, when I grew up and graduated from Smith College (where I won the poetry awards, wrote the lyrics to the Rally Day show songs, and was president of the Press Board), I thought I had my life mapped out. But after a summer as a cub reporter for the Bridgeport Sunday Herald, I realized I was a terrible reporter. And after another summer as a researcher for Newsweek, I knew that I wanted to write books.

I thought I meant adult books. And in fact I wrote a book under my father’s name about kite  flying because he was also (long story) International Kite Flying Champion.  It was published and then I managed to get an editor at a different publishing house interested in a children’s book about women pirates. (Notice, both books were non-fiction.) But then on the back of those successes, I realized I wanted to write children’s books of all ages and all stages, and I needed to know more about the writing and publishing of them. So, I took a course at The New School, wrote a picture book that I managed to sell, became an Assistant editor for Knopf Children’s Books  for five years, and I was on my way! And 60 plus years and 400+books later……here I am.

RB: You have authored many award-winning books, some solo and others with family members. You have co-authored books with your daughter Heidi E.Y. Stemple, sons Adam and Jason Stemple, as well as with your first grandchild, Maddison Stemple-Piatt. It is so important for parents and caregivers to read with children and get them engaged with books right from the start. You have taken this one step further by writing with them! Please tell us a little more about the books you co-authored with family members and your tips for bringing up a writing family.

JY: Writing with a partner (or partners) is entirely different than writing by oneself. Though I must quickly point out that writing children’s picture books includes not just the collaboration with an editor that any book entails, but collaboration with an illustrator as well. And an art director. One quickly learns not to be adversarial, but advisable. You make suggestions and take suggestions. And working with good friends, one’s children, or one’s grandchildren means there is a lot of give and take, a lot of listening, a lot of compromise that goes into the work. I have done picture books and novels with friends as well as family. One would think the family would be the hardest. But in fact, because we have been writing together since they were very small, they are peaches to work with. Only grammar occasionally gets in the way! One of my nicknames in the family is The Grammar Witch.

When my daughter Heidi and I work together, we often sit cross the dining room table from one another (we have houses next door)  and read parts of the book aloud. We have done a bunch of poetry books and picture books this way. The eye and the ear are different listeners. And so, I will read her poem, and she will read mine. Gosh, you can tell in an instant where a poem has gone wrong that way. Adam and I send chapters of novels back and forth. (He lives in the Midwest; I live in the Northeast.) He is great on plot. I am terrible. I am great on character. We are both terrific on dialogue. I am better on background scenery, but he is fast catching up to me. Jason and I did over twelve books of poetry together based on his nature photos. He is a professional nature photographer and has stuff in magazines, on tv shows, on billboards…and I would once or twice a year visit when he and his family lived down south to look through his latest batches and batches of photos, find a theme, then write 14 – 18 poems for the book. He only writes when he has to….for example: for a nature magazine to support the pictures he has taken or for the family book we all wrote together called FLY WITH ME, which was all about birds and dedicated to their late father who had taught all of us to be bird watchers.

And now two of my six grandchildren have done picture books with me as well. Maddison Jane (Heidi’s daughter) wrote WHEN NANA DANCES WITH ME when she was ten though we didn’t finally sell the book until she was in law school! We had both been ballet dancers in our youth and dabbled in other dancing as well. And the day after we were told the book had sold, she sent me a new manuscript in the email with so much promise, I dropped everything to work on it with her and it has recently come out: BIG BOLD BEAUTIFUL ME based on an undergraduate project she had done at college on body positivity. And her slightly younger cousin Ariel (Adam’s daughter) and I have written a picture book based on her learning martial arts after having been very badly bullied in elementary school by a gang of mean girls. That book is KIKI KICKS. And it is now being illustrated. With both grandchildren, I was more instructive than with  my children because being a generation younger, they hadn’t stood over my shoulder for years while I wrote or heard me talk about writing in the same way as their parents had.

Interior spread from Big Bold Beautiful Me by Jane Yolen and Maddison Stemple-Piatt,
illustrated by Chloe Burgett
Interior spread from When Nana Dances by Jane Yolen and Maddison Stemple-Piatt,
illustrated by Priscilla Burris
Adam, Jane, Heidi, and Jason at the Eric Carle Museum party for Jane’s 365th Book (The old days!)

RB: Your website has excellent resources for educators and writers. While pouring over all your great recommendations, two posts under the section “On the Slant” caught my eye, entitled “Showing Up” and “How to Prime the Pump.” Could you share a little more with us about how you helped to foster courage and perseverance in your children, and tips you shared with them about pushing past writer’s block and setbacks? 

JY: Showing Up is a phrase that I use meaning: Be there to write something every day. I begin most days writing a poem. That’s priming the pump, getting my fingers as well as my brain started on the day’s work.

And if it is not a day you can get to the writing desk, be sure to have something to take notes with wherever you are. Because paying attention is another way to say Show Up. There are stories everywhere if we just pay attention, stay alert, show up. I take writing students out for a half hour to an hour walk and tell them that if they cannot come back with ten ideas, they are not really trying. Why is that bird sitting on that uncomfortable pointed stump? Why is there a small stone on top of that pole? Whose tracks are those? What is the sound of a car going by to a turtle in the road? What do the clouds look like? All kinds of story starters. That is not to say each idea can be made into a book. But each idea should be attempted, examined, and sometimes put away for a day, a week, a year…

As for perseverance: look forward, not back. Every year a new editor is born, a new publishing group comes into being, new focus, new trends. It took me twenty years to write OWL MOON and 20 minutes to write the first HOW DO DINO books. It took some 15 years to sell Maddison’s and my book. Other books I have sold after talking to an editor for ten minutes.

I take out old manuscripts all the time and rewrite them. Sometimes they sell, sometimes they go back into the file drawer. If someone turns down a book, I assume it was the wrong editor, and keep trying.  That’s the only magic.

Here is something to remember: I was an editor at Knopf for 5 years and an editor with my own imprint at Harcourt for 9 years. In NONE of those years would I have bought A WRINKLE IN TIME or THE GIVING TREE or  LOVE YOU FOREVER, or THE RAINBOW FISH, or THE FARTING DOG books. I wanted to publish Neil Gaiman’s CORALINE and told him so, but my superior in the department said it was too scary and refused to let me buy it. Editors have different reasons (sometimes no reasons) for turning down a manuscript. Move on.

RB: You clearly have a family that appreciates nature, and you seem to have a particular affinity for birds. I can relate, being a nature enthusiast involved in volunteer conservation work. Time spent in nature is so important for children, rich with educational opportunities and a source of joy and wonder as well as inspiration for stories. Your daughter Heidi touches on this in her author’s note for COUNTING BIRDS: THE IDEA THAT HELPED SAVE OUR FEATHERED FRIENDS. She describes being the little girl in your Caldecott Medal-winning book OWL MOON and recalls family trips into the woods to call down owls as a child. Could you tell us more about how fostering an appreciation for nature influenced your writing as a family?

JY: I grew up in New York City where birds were pigeons we called “flying rats”. ‘It was only when I met my husband-to-be, David Stemple, who had grown up on in a mountain town in West Virginia that I began to appreciate the outdoors.  We hiked, birded, skied, went across the Atlantic on a boat, drove a camper bus around Europe, the Middle East and Greece for a year. Came home, had three children in six years, who all went out birding with him. Even as he was dying of cancer, he would sit at our kitchen picture window for hours watching the birds, often with  his granddaughter Maddison by his side. He died at 69 but my children and grandchildren have carried the birding on. I am the least of them, but I write about them and their birding escapades. A new book soon coming out is LOVE BIRDS about two kids who meet because of birding and fall in love as they grow up birding together.

Interior spread from Counting Birds: The Idea That Helped Save Our Feathered Friends by Heidi E.Y. Stemple, illustrated by Clover Robin

RB: You seem to have an endless supply of great ideas and interesting topics for books. Please tell us about some of the sources of inspiration for your books through the years.

JY: I find ideas talking, walking, and looking for animal interactions. One granddaughter who was house sitting for us one summer wrote: “Hi Nana, A bear sat on your porch today” and I wrote back: You have just given me a story. I also get ideas from family stories (CROW NOT CROW was how Adam taught his Minneapolis wife how to bird) and from newspaper clippings, books about history, overheard conversations, trips to foreign countries, and from my own poems. Nothing is lost on me.

RB: Could you share with us a little about your writing process and do you have any helpful tips for kidlit writers?

JY: I literally get up in the morning, brush teeth, wash face, put in hearing aids (yea, that old), get dressed nicely (signaling I am going to work) and have breakfast. Then I read the newspaper and then sit down at my desk and begin to write.

 Sometimes I answer email, or write a poem, or look at a book I am stalled on. Sometimes a new idea is demanding my attention. Sometimes I have meetings to go to. Or book signings to attend. These days–at my age–I go to many memorial services, both for my new husband’s colleagues and friends, and mine. I might send an email to editors who have had a manuscript for too long. Or have a conversation with my agent, or one of my kids. Or write a poem in response to one of my husband’s poems.

I usually write between 4-8 hours, taking time out to watch developing news, take a walk, answer email, send  off the day’s poem out to my subscribers.  For me, a day I do not get in at least a couple of hours of work (because of travel or illness–the usual demons) I feel incomplete.

RB: Do you have a community of writers, critique groups, or other supportive folks who inspired you and helped in bringing up a writing family ?

JY: I have three distinct groups. First there is my Massachusetts Tuesday morning critique group. We just lost our anchor–Patricia MacLachlan, who was the second or third person I brought into the group some 45 years ago.

Then there’s my Mystic Connecticut area SCBWI group. The Mystic crew is a changing crit group, basically for newbies, not well published authors,  but I just go to offer my editorial wisdom and long experience, not to read my own stuff, which I do  in the Massachusetts group.

And the third group is Western Massachusetts Illustrator’s Group (WMIG) which I helped start some thirty ? years ago. I am not an illustrator-can’t even draw a stick figure with any finesse. But I love illustrators, go to as many of their meetings as I can, and have done picture books with at least half of the group.

RB: Ongoing support and critique groups are so important. I love that you are giving back. You somehow are finding time for “bringing up” new pre-published authors in addition to your family. Do you have any other children’s books (solo or in collaboration with family members) in the works? We would love to see more!

JY: Nearly 40 sold upcoming, some already being illustrated. Here are a few just out or coming out soonish: LOVE BIRDS, picture book I call the sequel to OWL MOON; GIANT’S ISLAND just out; YUCK YOU SUCK (poetry about animals that suck) with daughter Heidi just out; MRS. NOAH’S DOVES (Biblical midrash); SCARLET CIRCUS (sf and fantasy short stories about love;  SHLIMIEL COMES TO AMERICA (chapter book with full color pictures); and KIKI KICKS with granddaughter Ariel Stemple.  The rest are probably too far away from being published, but if you ask me next year…

RB: Thank you so much Jane! Your journey is so inspiring. You have shared your enthusiasm, creativity, and talent for writing with your family as well as the kidlit community, and have created many inspiring and empowering books for children. We look forward to enjoying more of your work and your family’s work in the future.

Jane Yolen’s books and stories and poems have won the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, two Christopher Medals, three World Fantasy Awards, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, two Golden Kite Awards, the Jewish Book Award and the Massachusetts Center for the Book award. She has also won the World Fantasy Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Grand Master Award, and the Science Fiction Poetry Associations Grand Master Award (the three together she calls the Trifecta). Plus she has won both the Association of Jewish Libraries Award and the Catholic Libraries Medal. Also the DuGrummond Medal and the Kerlan Award, and the Ann Izard story-telling award at least three times. Six colleges and universities have given her honorary doctorates for her body of work, so–she jokingly says–you could call her Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Yolen though she can’t set a leg. However, she does warn about winning too many awards as one of them set her good coat on fire. If you meet her, you can ask about that!

Website: janeyolen.com

Twitter: @janeyolen

Instagram: @jyolen

Facebook: jane.yolen

14 comments

    1. Jane gave me the best advice ever at a Children’s Reading Round Table conference, many years ago.
      “There is no time fairy. You have to steal it.” This was said in regards to finding time to write.

      Liked by 1 person

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