A lifetime of books

  • Children’s book author Jane Yolen. FILE PHOTO

  • A book shelf in Jane Yolen's Hatfield home where she keeps the 400 books she has published over her 60 year career. Contributed photo/Heidi Stemple—

  • A bookcase in Jane Yolen’s Hatfield home where she keeps the 400 books she has published over her 60-year career. Contributed photo/Heidi Stemple

  • A book shelf in Jane Yolen's Hatfield home where she keeps the 400 books she has published over her 60 year career. Contributed photo/Heidi Stemple—

  • A book shelf in Jane Yolen's Hatfield home where she keeps the 400 books she has published over her 60 year career. Contributed photo/Heidi Stemple—

  • A book shelf in Jane Yolen’s Hatfield home where she keeps the 400 books she has published over her 60-year career. Contributed photo/Heidi Stemple

  • Jane Yolen. Contributed photo—

  • Jane Yolen. Contributed photo/JASON STEMPLE

  • Jane Yolen. Contributed photo—

  • “How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?” by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Contributed photo

  • "Owl Moon" by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by John Schoenherr. Contributed photo

  • “A Kite For Moon” by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Contributed photo—

  • “Bear Outside” by Jane Yolen, her 400th published book. Illustrated by Jen Corace. It’s scheduled for publication March 2. Contributed photo

  • “The Devil’s Arithmetic” by Jane Yolen. Contributed photo

  • “The Emperor and the Kite” by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Ed Young. Contributed photo

Staff Writer
Published: 2/27/2021 3:35:31 PM

Four hundred: That’s how many books Hatfield author Jane Yolen has published.
“I remember writing each of those books. I don’t remember exactly everything, but that has as much to do with that I’m 82,” she said, noting the bookcase where she keeps her published work “fills up one whole wall of a room in my house.” The bookcase is so large that “I don’t have a wide enough lens” to capture it all in one photographic image, she quipped.

To achieve 400, Jane Yolen has published an average of about six books annually for about 60 years. A few times, she’s published a dozen in one year.

“Most of them are either books of poetry or children’s picture books, which means they’re short, but it doesn’t mean they’ll come out that fast,” Jane Yolen said.

Her latest book, “Bear Outside,” which is illustrated by Jen Corace, is scheduled to be published March 2. It’s a children’s story that tells the tale of “a little girl who believes she is wearing a bear outside to make her strong, powerful, unafraid,” Jane Yolen said. At its core, it’s about “how we can use imagination to make ourselves feel safe, or powerful, not threatened in any way.”

Among the Hatfield author’s publications are notable titles like “The Devil's Arithmetic,” a Holocaust novella, children’s books “Owl Moon,” which won a Caldecott Medal for its illustrations by John Schoenherr, “How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?” and “The Emperor and the Kite,” which is a Caldecott Medal Honor Book.

Over the course of her career, Jane Yolen has received many literary accolades and awards — including six honorary doctorates, the 1989 National Jewish Book Award, the 2009 World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the 2017 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. She also holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, although she considers herself to be a writer and not an educator.

Immersed in writing

In much of her work, Jane Yolen draws from life and experiences from her childhood.

Growing up in Manhattan, she recalled that her mother, Isabelle Berlin Yolen, a psychiatric social worker, penned short stories and freelanced as a crossword puzzle designer. Her father, Will Yolen, a Ukrainian Jew who immigrated to the United States with his family, left home at 16 to be a cub reporter.

“He and his younger brothers — there were eight of them — came over when (he was) 6,” Jane Yolen said. “He was always the go-getter of the family — charming, small.”

When she and her brother, Steven Yolen (who also became a journalist) were young, their father worked as a police reporter at the New Haven Register. And as an Army lieutenant during World War II, he managed the American Broadcasting Station in Europe, a radio station stood up by the U.S. Office of War Information and the British BBC to counter Nazi propaganda.

Theirs was a house immersed in the literary world.

Her parents were dedicated writers (her father published six books in his lifetime), and “All their friends were writers,” Jane Yolen said. “They knew Hemingway. My dad was the designated ‘make sure drunk James Thurber got home.’ I thought real people held jobs during the day and then went home during the night (to write). Bus drivers, taxi drivers all day long, but since grownups were writers, I was sure they went home at night and wrote.”

For a number of years, her father served as head of The Overseas Press Club in New York City, “Then, he left journalism in order to bring up his family,” Jane Yolen said. He was hired as a departmental vice president at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, which she described as “the largest public relations firm in the world at that point.”

A business proposition inspired him to take up kite flying. That, in turn, set him down a path to become “international kite flying champion,” Jane Yolen said. “He got stories about himself in all sorts of magazines — the Ford Times — and he made himself president of the (33,000-member) International Kitefliers Association.”

The hobby took root when one of Will Yolen’s eight brothers (who managed the wind tunnels at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia) “called up my dad and said that one of the guys who was working with him, (Francis Rogallo), a fine scientist and mathematician, had invented a flying kite,” Jane Yolen recalled. “He made it out of mylar, so that when it hit the walls, it crumpled and then reset itself.”

Thinking of the kite’s potential business prospects, Will Yolen took it for a flight. He was hooked. 

A New York Times article dubbed Will Yolen “the amateur kite flying champion,” Jane Yolen recalled. Then he received a letter in the mail from the Maharaja of Bharatpur (leader of India’s Pradesh Province), the self-proclaimed “eastern kite flying champion,” challenging Will Yolen to a fly-off for the international title.

“He did not take my mother on the trip. He took Red Smith ... the great (New York Times) sports writer of the day,” Jane Yolen said. “Red sent back by teletype all these great stories of my father beating the maharaja.”

An article published in the Chicago Tribune in 1985 noted his kite-flying duel with the maharaja lasted four hours. The article also notes that Will Yolen’s “kite-flying prowess has been recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley's Believe It Or Not,” and that his other exhibitions “included flying a kite while riding a camel in Egypt and flying a kite carrying the word ‘detente’ Russian and English over Red Square in Moscow.”

It was through her father’s interest in kite flying that Jane Yolen received her first literary break: “My father loved to sign contracts; he loved to sign books. But he hated to write. So he hired me,” Jane Yolen said. The very first book she wrote, “The Young Sportsman’s Guide to Kite Flying,” was ghostwritten under her father’s name.

She has since published a number of other books centered around kites including “The Emperor and the Kite,” “A Kite for Moon” and “World on a String: The Story of Kites.”

The first book she penned under her own name, “Pirates in Petticoats,” a nonfiction book about women pirates, was published in 1963, following her graduation from Smith College in Northampton, where she earned a degree in English literature.

She was 22 years old.

For the most part since then, apart from living in Conway for a few years and another stint in Boston, Yolen has written from her home in Hatfield. 

Spanning genres

While many of her books are intended for children, Jane Yolen is a dynamic author whose work spans various genres. She’s also an accomplished poet. In addition to the many publishing projects she’s working on at any given time — she has about 130 unsold manuscripts — Jane Yolen writes one poem each day for about 1,000 subscribers.

Some eventually make it into an anthology.

Because Jane Yolen writes in so many genres, she might better be defined by what she is not: “I do not write modern young adult novels, where everyone is breaking into triangles — that’s not me. I have written some mystery novels. I’m not a writer of much horror stuff … And I don’t write drippy love stories,” Jane Yolen said. “I used to say, ‘I don’t do sports books,’ but I have written three sports books for children, and my very first book was about kites.”

A few years ago, she recalled being asked to speak on a panel hosted by Forbes about writing historical novels. At first, Jane Yolen said she was a little bit hesitant to call herself a chapter book author; then she started adding up how many she’s written.

“I stopped counting at 60,” she said. “Some of them were for adults, some of them were for young adults. They were all novels.”

A consistentapproach to writing

It takes tremendous dedication to write as many books as Jane Yolen has. In this, she credits an overarching writing philosophy that drives her daily work: “BIC,” or “butt in chair”: “This is what I tell my students: I have a muse. And if she comes by when I’m not at my desk, she gives my ideas to someone else,” she said.

To that end, Jane Yolen takes a disciplined approach to writing. Every morning, she dresses in business attire, eats breakfast and sits down at a desk in her second -floor home office.

“It’s an under-the-eaves kind of place. It overlooks the back of my property here in Hatfield. It’s on the quiet side, away from the road. It has two desks, a little refrigerator. It has a two-door place for manuscripts. It’s got a nice chair and some bookcases. And, it has a big old wonderful dictionary on one of those old-fashioned dictionary stands,” she said. “I probably spend, depending on what I’m working on, six to eight hours a day working.”

But while her routine is steady, inspiration comes and goes.

“Sometimes, I have more ideas than I know what to do with. Other times, I stare at the ceiling,” she said. On those days, Jane Yolen says she goes for a walk or  watches television with the intention of coming up with five ideas. Often, they’re derived from simple observations that prompt questions — like a stone on a fence post: “Who put it there? Was it put there by a squirrel?  Was it put there by a child  playing Hansel and Gretel? Did a bird drop it there? Did the wind blow it there? There are five ideas for a book,” Jane Yolen said.

Passing the baton

Just as her parents instilled in her a passion for the literary arts, Jane Yolen — whose first husband, David Stemple, died 16 years ago; she has since remarried — has passed the literary baton to her three children, Heidi, Adam and Jason Stemple, and grandchildren, Maddison Stemple-Piatt and Ariel Stemple. Heidi Stemple (who was the inspiration for “Owl Moon”) has written nearly 30 books, mostly for children, including a few co-written with her mother, like “A Kite for Moon”; her son, Adam Stemple, has authored about a dozen fantasy novels and another 10 or so young adult fiction books; Jason Stemple, a photographer, has published numerous nature books. Her granddaughter, Ariel Stemple, has published a children’s book and another, Maddison Stemple-Piatt, has one scheduled for publication titled “Nana Dances” that she co-wrote with her grandmother when she was 10 years old.

Now that she's reached 400 books, Jane Yolen has set her sights on another goal: “My eye is on 500, but I may not live to see it,” Yolen said. “I have another 20, maybe 30 books that are under contract and will be coming out in the next two or three years. I’m getting close.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.

How to connect

Jane Yolen’s books can be purchased both online and from local independent book sellers such as The Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, World Eye Bookstore in Greenfield and The Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. Her latest book, “Bear Outside,” will be available for purchase March 2. Autographed copies of the book can be purchased by request at book stores that carry her work. For more information, visit janeyolen.com.

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