Jane Yolen grew up thinking all grown ups were writers. Her father was a journalist and her mother wrote short stories and created crossword puzzles. “I love writing and have always been good at it. . . .My first big success as a writer was in first grade where I wrote the class musical. It was all about vegetables and I played the chief carrot.” From there Yolen wrote a junior high school essay on New York manufacturing in verse, and her final exam for American Intellectual History at Smith College in rhyme.
Yolen has written more than 200 books for children and adults. Dubbed by Newsweek “the Hans Christian Andersen of America,” Yolen’s idea folder bulges with new stories to write. She prides herself on juggling as many as ten stories, books, poems, and songs at once, and compares her work habits to those of a mule train driver: “I hitch 24 horses up to my wagon, crack the whip, and if one dies along the way, I cut it out of the traces and move on.”
Ideas come to Yolen from everywhere—books, songs, newspapers, dreams, conversations. “The storyteller in me asks: what if? And when I try to answer that, a story begins.” Yolen’s late father, an international kite-flying champion, supplied the inspiration for The Emperor and the Kite, a 1968 Caldecott Honor Book. The 1988 Caldecott Medal winner,Owl Moon, was inspired by Yolen’s husband—an avid birder and ornithologist. The Wizard’s Map and The Pictish Child from the Tartan Magic series, Queen’s Own Fool and Wild Huntgrew from Yolen’s fascination with “the land, the people, the history, and the folklore” of Scotland, where she makes her home five months out of the year.
Yolen’s mysteries, folk tales, fantasies, science fiction, poems, and songs have been translated into 14 languages. She has written picture books, easy readers, middle grade novels, and young adult novels; she has created song books, poetry collections, and anthologies. She has written both fiction and nonfiction. In fact, she has written so widely that some of our old favorites are a dim memory for her. “Owl Moon was published in 1987 and written at least three years earlier.” Yolen describes her own favorite as “what I am currently obsessed with, a story or poem or book which you—the reader—might not see for years yet.”
The secret to Yolen’s productivity is simple: “BIC. Butt in chair. That’s how you become a professional writer. It doesn’t have to do with inspiration; and it doesn’t have to do with agitation. . .it has only to do with perspiration. William Faulkner once said, ‘I write only when I’m inspired. Fortunately I’m inspired at 9:00 every morning.’ BIC.”
The characters of any particular book are “real” to Yolen, but only as long as she is writing the book. “We are what we read. We become what we write. And so I write about Merlin, angels, unicorns, dragons, and witches, and become each one in turn. Oh, not literally. But I can, through pretending, be anything I want to be.” Some of Yolen’s favorite characters possess the qualities she values in a rounded person: hopeful, courageous Gog from Boots and the Seven Leaguers; kind Artos from The Dragon’s Boy, determined to find wisdom; Commander Toad from the series with the same name, “brighter and braver than even he knows;” and Hannah/Chaya from The Devil’s Arithmetic who “learns the ultimate gift of giving.”
When Yolen isn’t writing, she takes to the stage as a professional storyteller. She is mother to three children, and grandmother to three more. The one thing she’d like her readers to know about her is she is not a genius; her books come from hard work and dedication.