TV, Books, Movies, Style, & Online Media

April 13, 2008

Book Talk with Jane Yolen

By Denise Tong

Jane YolenWhen browsing through a library or bookstore, it would be hard not to run into one of Jane Yolen‘s books—she’s written almost 300 of them. Famously called “a modern equivalent of Aesop” by The New York Times and the “Hans Christian Andersen of America” by Newsweek, the award-winning writer has moved and entertained readers of all ages for nearly 50 years.

Yolen has contributed to the fantasy and science fiction genres with novels, short stories, poetry, and children’s books; she has also edited short story anthologies. Her work has garnered accolades including a Caldecott Medal, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, two Nebula Awards, a Golden Kite Award, and two Christopher Medals.

Her best-known work includes the novel Briar Rose and the children’s stories Owl Moon and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?. The 1999 TV movie Devil’s Arithmetic was based on her novella of the same name. Produced by Dustin Hoffman, the movie starred Kirsten Dunst, Brittany Murphy, and Mimi Rogers. 

Currently, Yolen is as prolific as ever, juggling several projects at once. Her works-in-progress include the novel Except the Queen and her first graphic novels, Foiled and The Last Dragon.

In addition to her writing, the Massachusetts resident keeps her schedule full by traveling frequently around the country to give talks and do storytelling presentations for children. She keeps fans updated on her activities through her Web journal and welcomes mail from readers, writers, teachers, and librarians.

Yolen helped Current Vine kick off National Library Week (April 13–19) by discussing her work and her love of books.


CV: Do you have any favorite library memories?

JY: During World War II, when I was a small child, my father was in the service, so we left our New York City apartment and moved down to Virginia to live with my mother’s parents in the house where she grew up. Twice a week, my mother, baby brother, and I would board a bus on Kecoughtan Road to go to the library in Newport News. At four I was already a great reader, and I still remember the feeling of the library’s doorknob under my little hand.

CV: What place do you think libraries and books have in this increasingly electronic world?

JY: I am a book person. I love the feel of a book, the turning pages, the smell of the binding, the sometimes raised letters. I love the fact that other book lovers before me have put their hands on the book. I would hate to see books in libraries disappear.

CV: How would you describe the process so far of developing your first graphic novels?

JY: For me, graphic novels are a combination of picture books, novels, and movie scripts, so I am delighted to put those skills together.

CV: What is currently inspiring you?

JY: I am working with my son on a novel about a Jewish kid, a golem, and a garage klezmer fusion band. And a book with a friend about two sister fairies kicked out of Faerie and sent to live with humans in the city, made middle-aged, and stripped of their magical powers.

CV: Is there any genre or style that you haven’t yet done that you would like to try?

JY: No, though I’d love to have written a [big-budget] stage musical; I did two early on with local companies back in the late 60s, early 70s.

CV: What do you think of the increasing prevalence of fantasy stories?

JY: I think the enormous number of fantasy books right now is due to publishers hoping to find the next Harry Potter. When something else strikes big—say an historical novel or a mystery novel or the like—they will be off after that next hare. There will always be fantasy novels. People who love them, love them tremendously. People who love Harry Potter mostly love Harry Potter. Trends come and go. I don’t worry about them.

CV: Many creative professionals struggle with the issue of art versus commerce. How do you think you’ve reconciled the two over the course of your career?

JY: I call them heart books and head books. I write what I please, when I please. Some books sell well, some don’t. I just have fun writing.

CV: Looking back, how has your writing outlook or process evolved over the years?

JY: I am better at realizing which ideas are viable and which are not. At 69, I am acutely aware that my time as a writer is probably now to be counted in short years, not long decades. So I make better decisions about where I want to put my time, energy, and talent.

Photo copyright Jason Stemple.