Chinaberry Interviews Award-Winning Author Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen has long been one of our favorite authors here at Chinaberry. Ann still remembers when she gave away the last 20 copies of Jane's book Dreamweaver back in 1982. Each of the 20 autographed copies was sent free with orders over $40.00. Twenty years later, Jane is still autographing books for Chinaberry. Recently, Ann and I had the honor of visiting with her as she autographed Off We Go and Not One Damset in Distress for us. For those of you not familiar with Jane Yolen, she has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the 20th Century, having written more than 200 books for children, young adults, and adults. It's not every day one gets to spend several hours alone with Jane Yolen, so I decided to seize the moment, grab a steno pad, and ask her if she wouldn't mind answering a "few" questions for the Chinaberry newsletter.

The first question that popped into my mind was concerning her career aspirations as a young girl. Had she always dreamed of being a writer? As it turns out, Jane wanted to be three things when she grew up. First, she wanted to be a ballet dancer. She even studied under Balanchine and was known for her jumps and turns. "But that was before I discovered chocolate chips," she told us. Young Jane then thought that maybe owning a horse farm might be more her calling. So one year at camp, she volunteered to get up at 5:00 a.m. each day to muck the stalls. Well, that was the end of THAT. Jane then decided to become a lawyer, and she even won several awards while being on the school debate team. The only problem was that during hot debates she had a tendency to cry.

All during this time, Jane enjoyed writing. Since her father was a journalist and her mother wrote short stories, Jane figured that all grown-ups took a similar pleasure in writing. She was surprised to learn that most adults were downright scared of writing. Not Jane, though, who began selling her articles and poems in college, and her first book at age 22. (Jane earned a B.A. degree from Smith College and a M.Ed. degree from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.) She has been writing and selling books ever since.

As a child, Jane's favorite authors were Louisa Mae Alcott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Francis Hodgson Burnett, James Thurber, and anyone who wrote about dogs or horses. Jane's thoughts regarding books and reading are, "Children should read up and grown-ups should read down." Jane read a lot to her kids while they were growing up, and there was always plenty of story and poetry sharing in the car. She found that the best way to lead children to good books as they get older is to casually "leave them around" the house.

Not surprisingly, all three of Jane's grown children are writers themselves. A couple of the books her son Adam Stemple, a musician, has written with his mother are The Lullaby Songbook, and The Laptime Song and Play Book. Jane's son Jason Stemple, a photographer, provided the photographs for Color Me a Rhyme and Water Music, and he is currently working on a book he is both photographing and writing himself. Daughter Heidi Stemple, a former probation officer and private detective, has written a series of unsolved mysteries with her mother, a book of poems written back and forth between them called Dear Mother, Dear Daughter, and Mirror, Mirror, 40 Folktales for Mothers and Daughters to Share.

Listening to Jane talk about her love for writing is how I imagine it would be talking with Julia Child about cooking. Writing feeds her and keeps her alive. I asked her if she kept a journal. She said that before June 30 of this past year she never kept a journal for more than 20 seconds. But on June 30 Jane began journaling in earnest, as she is working on a journaling project called "Telling the True."

So many writers have little rituals as they write. SARK loves to write in bed, all comfy in her pajamas. I, myself, can write anywhere as long as I have chocolate chip cookies nearby. As for Jane Yolen, she likes to keep plenty of decaffeinated British tea on hand.

When asked how long it takes her to write her books, Jane's answer was, "Three days, 23 years -- and everything in between." She recently completed a picture book called Soft House, a quiet book that has taken her 23 years.

I asked Jane if she ever experienced writer's block. She said if she blocks on one, she just goes on to another project. When you've got 15 writing projects all going at once (like Jane does), I guess "writer's block" would be the least of your worries!

In her spare time, Jane enjoys traveling, spending time with her three grandchildren ages 2-1/2, 5-1/2, and 17, antiquing, going to movies, concerts, and dancing at her son's rock concerts.

When Jane's children were little, her office was a room in the center of the house so she could keep close tabs on them. In those days, she did all of her writing on a typewriter, even though her husband was a Professor in the Computer Science Department at U. Mass. As her children grew into teenagers, having an office in the center of the house didn't work so well anymore, as they lived across the street from the high school. She then decided to move her office into the attic, which she called "The Aerie." And, five years ago, she even started using a computer!

Jane's tips for working at home? "Marry well!" Jane gives much credit to the man she considers "the most wonderful husband." She encourages mothers to remember to do something for themselves once in a while -- something wonderful. This could mean spending a couple of hours reading a book, or it could mean going out with friends for lunch -- whatever is wonderful for YOU. This also goes for families who are caring for the terminally ill. Women tend to be the "giver-outers" of the Universe, and we're taught early on not to be selfish. Jane encourages us all to cultivate a little selfishness -- just long enough to catch another breath. Because, as Jane puts it, "If we are not breathing out, we will have given out."

Regarding parenting advice in general, Jane says, "Always let them know you love them -- and that's not always easy if you find yourself parenting difficult teenagers! And concerning 'difficult' teenagers, you can't change them. They have to want to change themselves."

Jane's wish for the world? "That we would stop hurrying so much." As one of her friends says, "Take time to stop and smell the babies."

More information regarding Jane Yolen and her work can be found on her wonderful Web site,

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