May 8, 2017
Jane Yolen is one of the wonders of modern writing. She has written and published over 300 books, most — but not all — for children (of all ages). She is a poet and a master of many genres. She is a mentor and teacher to many.
One of the keys to the prolific nature of her writing can be found in her moving memoir in verse, Ekaterinoslav: One Family’s Passage to America, in which she says, in the poem titled Night School, “Nothing stops a Yolen from telling stories.”
And tell stories she does. In preparation for this blog post, I read just a representative sampling. Do you know how difficult it is to restrict oneself to just a representative sampling of Jane Yolen’s books? Especially with the ease of clicking “place hold” on the library’s website? The possibility exists that I went a little overboard. And I was impressed again and again at her facility with words and with story, her ability to go to the heart of the character and of the reader, and bring them together through her words.
I confess my retrospective is heavily weighted toward picture books, for the simple reason that picture books take less time to read. Even so, I was only able to read a fraction of those available to me. I had to limit myself to an even smaller selection of her longer works. I am consoled by the fact that the books will still be there, and there’s always another opportunity to read more. And read more I will.
She writes picture books. Here is just a taste of a few of them. Perhaps it will suffice to show you the broad range of interests this amazing writer has, as well as the many ways she can weave a story or teach a topic.
Owl Moon — Yolen takes you for a walk in the woods alongside the little girl and her Pa. You stand with them along “the line of pine trees, black and pointy against the sky.” You, too, watch “silently with heat in our mouths, the heat of all those words we had not spoken.” You, too, hear the owl call in the moonlit night, and you, too, thrill to its call.
The Stranded Whale — Yolen doesn’t gloss over the realities of life and death in nature. Along with the children who find the whale stranded on the beach, we want to fight to keep it alive. We want to run with our sweaters filled with sea water to keep the great creature’s skin from drying. And we want to cry when the ending is not the happily ever after, frolicking in the ocean forever, ending that we had hoped for. I am grateful that Jane Yolen didn’t skirt around the truth. Children who know that things don’t always work out become strong adults who work to make things better.
Stone Angel — When I picked up this book, I wondered how one can possibly write about the Holocaust in a way that will reach the children who are the audience for a picture book. Jane Yolen knew how. She managed to weave a story of family love, and hope, and courage into a story that introduces the subject of the Holocaust with sensitive realism. As the Boston Globe review says, “The subject material is grown-up, but the handling of it is sensitive and deft, never gruesome, never more than a child can handle.”
Sea Watch: A Book of Poetry — with an economy of words, Yolen vividly portrays such widely varied sea-dwellers as seahorses, grunions, beluga, sea otters, barracuda, and others, giving us insight into their characters, information about their lives, inspiration to save our seas. As well as the evocative poetry, a page of notes at the end tells us more about each one. Ted Lewin’s illustrations just as vividly picture them for our eyes as the poems do for our minds and hearts.
My Uncle Emily — in an imagined incident, Yolen brings to life for us the close relationship between poet Emily Dickinson and her nephew, Gib. Yes, Dickinson preferred to be called Uncle Emily, for reasons not gone into (and not germane to the story). We get some of the flavor of Dickinson in both story and in the use of snippets of her poetry. In lyrical prose, Yolen brings the poet to life through the eyes of a child. Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter.
You Nest Here With Me — What a lovely, lyrically-written, reassuring, loving lullaby for a little one! Each part/verse/section/ tells about a bird species and how it cares for its young, then ends with the love-filled “you nest here with me.” Written by Yolen and her daughter Heidi E.Y. Stemple and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, it is a joy to read and to experience. Notes at the end of the book give further information on each bird.
Elsie’s Bird — takes us on a journey with young Elsie, from the familiar life by the sea in Boston to the new and uninviting life on the prairie when her father decides to move after her mother’s death. A canary is all that brings her joy in this new life she didn’t ask for, until its escape one day introduces her to the joys of the sounds and sights of the prairie. In January 2014 I featured this picture book as my Perfect Picture Book Friday selection.
Water Music: Poems for Children — Yolen’s poems accompany her son, Jason Stemple’s, photography and beautifully evoke the many moods and forms of water.
Bug Off! Creepy, Crawly Poems — Many kids love bugs, and this collaboration by Yolen and Jason Stemple feeds that love with fabulous close-up photographs and accompanying poems. A paragraph on the same double-page spread provides scientific information about each insect portrayed. I hope my honorary nephews knew this book when they were kids! They’d love it.
Least Things: Poems About Small Natures — Another Yolen/Jason Stemple collaboration takes us into the world of nature and gets us to look at the smallest aspects and residents of the natural world through captivating photography and equally captivating haiku. A spider, a snail, a hummingbird, a tree frog — even a baby (of the human variety) are treated with warmth, knowing eyes, and winning words.
How Do Dinosaurs… — a collaboration by Yolen and illustrator Mark Teague has created a delightful series of books envisioning how dinosaurs do a plethora of things including How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? and How Do Dinosaurs Stay Friends? Through the illustrations that picture a dinosaur in a situation a child would find him- or her-self in, with everything else in the picture being what the child would know, and through simple, lyrical questions, Yolen and Teague set up the negative aspects of each subject (such as “Does a dinosaur slam his tail and pout? Does he throw his teddy bear all about?”) and then gives the contrast that shows the dinosaur/child going to bed willingly and happily — putting the message across in a pleasing and child-friendly way.
Any other writer would have been satisfied with even a fraction of the wonderful picture books she has written — but Jane Yolen wasn’t satisfied.
She writes chapter books and middle grade novels. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to read all the plethora of novels I brought home from the library.
She takes us to the world of knights and dragons in A Plague of Unicorns, and makes us believe in that world that she has created.
B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy), which is a collaboration by Yolen and her son, Adam Stemple, brings to life a golem (the mystical, mythical monster of Jewish lore) created by a bullied middle schooler.
The Hostage Prince and the rest of the Seelie Wars series — Yolen and Adam Stemple creat a fascinating fantasy world of Seelies and Unseelies, elves, trolls, and other fantastical creatures, and made it real for us through the lives of Aspen, a Seelie of royal birth who was given by his father as a hostage of the enemy Unseelies, and Snail, an Unseelie midwife’s apprentice.
If she had only written chapter books and middle grade novels, her readers likely would have been satisfied. But her ideas are too big to be contained. With her son, Adam Stemple, and illustrator Orion Zangara, she has written the graphic novel series Stone Man Mysteries, and thus captures another group of kids in her vast net of words.
If she had only written graphic novels, it would have been enough. But no. There was more in her.
In Young Adult novels like Briar Rose, she makes the Holocaust real to kids whose grandparents may or may not have been old enough to remember those days.
In the memoir in verse I mentioned before, Ekaterinoslav, she brings adults into the net, and paints an evocative picture in verse of life in a Jewish shtetl in Russia, of the terror of wondering if the soldiers would come today? tomorrow?. She takes us on board the ship her ancestors took to travel toward freedom, and we stand with them, waiting, on Ellis Island. She shows us that the struggles were not yet over — are the struggles ever over?
Her heart-wrenching memoir/reflection in verse, Things to Say to a Dead Man, takes us through her personal grief journey as she responds to her husband’s illness, death and her progress through widowhood through searingly, touchingly, totally real poems.
And still, for her it is not enough. She continues to write. “You can’t keep a Yolen from telling stories.” Who knows what still waits to be written, and to be read?
Y is for Yolen. And yes, that is totally satisfying.