Talking with Jane Yolen

Book Links March 2008 (vol. 17, no. 4)

By Jeanette Larson

“If you go owling / you have to be quiet, / that’s what Pa always says.” Twenty years ago Philomel published a magical book about a young child who goes out with her father to find a great horned owl one snowy night. Although other publishers turned down the book for being “too quiet,” Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr’s Owl Moon won the 1988 Caldecott Medal. A twentieth anniversary edition was released last year with a new cover and letters from the author and illustrator.

While she was growing up in New York City, Jane Yolen’s knowledge of birds began and ended with pigeons. Luckily, her interest and knowledge expanded, and she has chosen to write about birds and other creatures of nature in many of her more than 200 books for children and teens. While many of her books have become staples of classroom reading and activities,
Owl Moon stands out as a classic. Combining personal narrative, poetry, and the beauty of nature,
Owl Moon is rich in curricular opportunities but also offers a cozy, quiet story for sharing. The images, evoked from both the words and the illustrations, are so powerful that even children who don’t live in snowy areas enjoy the journey. I recently had a chance to talk with Yolen about
Owl Moon and her writing career in general.

JL: Like you, many children grow up in cities, away from nature. How can city kids learn about nature and begin to appreciate its beauty?

YOLEN: Even in cities, there are parks, birds, animals, worms, rocks, sky, wind, sun, and seasons. I would invest in some good guidebooks, such as the Audubon books. Go out with a partner, carry a flashlight, a magnifying glass, plastic baggies for samples of feathers, rocks, leaves, etc., a notebook and pen, and the guidebooks. And then walk about—and look. If you do not look, you cannot see!

JL: You come from a family that is rich in words. How did that heritage influence your writing? What other factors or people have influenced your career?

YOLEN: My parents were both writers—and readers. My father was a reporter and a publicity man. My mother wrote short stories and made crossword puzzles. My parents’ closest friends were writers, too, so growing up I thought all adults were writers. I knew that some adults were teachers, librarians, dentists, bus drivers, and storekeepers. I saw them at their work every day. But I assumed that at night, they all went home and wrote. After all, that’s what my parents and their friends did. Therefore I knew with absolute certainty that whatever else I would do in life, I would be a writer when I grew up. I also had teachers who valued my writing. I didn’t win all the awards, but I got better and better at my writing because I knew that writing was something one had to do every day, exercising the writing muscle, in order to make it in the world as an author.

JL: How did you get started writing about nature and science?

YOLEN: I drifted into it from poetry and then got a BIG push when I met my husband, David Stemple. David grew up in West Virginia, and his playground had been the woods. He hunted, fished, ran trap lines, and went bird watching. He knew the names of things: birds, trees, animals, and he could identify tracks.

On one of our early dates, we spent the weekend in Montauk. As we came up over a dune, he said, “If we are very quiet as we go over, we may see a deer.” As we crested the dune and peered over, we surprised a doe who lifted her white tail and leaped away from us. I want some of that magic, I thought. Writing about nature has done that for me.

JL: Why do you think Owl Moon
has become a classic?

YOLEN: It is a sort of true story about David taking our daughter, Heidi, out owling. So it has all the closeness and wonder of the actual situation. Owling is an important part of our family history. But the book succeeds because it is also a quiet, gentle, heartwarming story, a long poem really. And I think the child’s voice is true, or at least as true as I could make it.

JL: Why do you think that children who are living in such a noisy, busy world connect with Owl Moon
so strongly?

YOLEN: The same reason I responded to the magic of the deer leaping away over the dunes. We are awed by the magic of the real world. It literally takes the breath away.

JL: Owl Moon is poetry, but it is also based in science. How conscious are you of the science behind your writing?

YOLEN: It’s natural science. And I had a husband who was a scientist, so I could not get away with anything less than perfect!

JL: The great horned owl is a very robust species, but many owls are endangered. Are you concerned that in another 20 years children will only see owls in books like Owl Moon

YOLEN: I am hoping that
Owl Moon’s success can, in fact, lead people (with children bringing adults along) to try saving as many owl species as possible.

JL: Can you talk about how you collaborate with your son, Jason Stemple?

YOLEN: We start with Jason’s photos, and if I think there is a book there, he goes out and shoots more on the same subject. But those books are different from everything else I write because they start backward, with the artwork first.

JL: You write in many styles and for a wide range of ages. Do you have a favorite type of book to write? What do you like to read?

YOLEN: I actually love to write whatever I am working on at the time. My favorites are picture books, poetry, fantasy, and historical novels, and also nonfiction. You will never see me writing hard science (because I don’t understand it) or Gossip Girls (because I don’t like that kind of book). For pleasure reading, I enjoy mysteries (especially British), fantasy, poetry, and biography.

JL: The range of your writing is extensive. Is there a type of book or subject that challenges you?

YOLEN: Every new book is a challenge. The challenges range from length, or subject matter, or prose/poetry style. They range from depth, width, and whether I have the time to do a really good job. There are a couple of books I am still wary of tackling because I don’t think I’m good enough . . . yet.

JL: Your work has won many awards. Is there one award that is particularly special or meaningful for you?

YOLEN: I won the Skylark Award from the New England Science Fiction Association. The award is a magnifying glass on a wooden stand. It was on display on the table in front of the picture window in my kitchen for several days after I won it. The February sun came in, focused through the magnifying glass, and set my good coat on fire. So you see, awards can be hazardous to your health!

The best awards (or rewards) are the letters I get from kids and grown-ups who love my books. My favorite said, “Your books will live forever. I hope you live to 99 or 100, but who cares.” Who cares indeed. Probably my children and grandchildren and my insurance man. Other than that, it’s the writing that I hope does live, if not forever, certainly for a very long time.

Jeanette Larson is a children’s literature consultant and adjunct instructor for Texas Woman’s University’s School of Library & Information Studies.