Amanda Divine: You seem to have been successful
at everything in your childhood—writing, singing,
debate, basketball, languages.... What made you
decide to focus on writing?
Jane Yolen: Well, I was too short for
either ballet or basketball in anything other
than a school setting, not particularly good at
languages (though I took Latin and Spanish) and
debate had little real world application unless
I decided to become a politician. That left singing
(I was good, just not good enough) and writing.
My parents were writers as were most of their
friends. It seemed that adults were writers. So
I knew that whatever else I did (and I did journalism,
book editing, college teaching) I would write.
And it was so.
Amanda: How did your parents influence
your writing? Did they actively encourage you
in any one direction, or was writing just there
in the background?
Jane Yolen: My parents were writers and
readers, so they modeled very effectively. But
they were also very proud of the writing I did.When
my brother, 3 1/2 years younger, and I wanted
to do a newspaper with articles about the people
in our apartment building, my mother typed out
all the copies.
After I graduated from college, my father helped
me get magazine stories published. (Though he
said of my poetry,"That's nice dear, but you can't
make a living from writing poems.") My mother
used to read my children's book manuscripts and
press copies of my books on her friends. My father
displayed my books but as they were for children,
refused to read them!
Amanda: What kinds of writing did your
Jane Yolen: My father was a journalist,
then a public relations consultant. He was president
of the Overseas Press Club for several years.
My mother wrote short stories and created crossword
puzzles and double crosstics.
Amanda: How did your father help you publish
the magazine stories?
Jane Yolen: He had many connections so
when I pitched story ideas to them, they were
more than open to listen.
Amanda: When were you selling stories
to magazines? Was this before you went to college?
Jane Yolen: First sale was when I was
in college, to (of all things) Popular Mechanics.
Next sale was to either The Ford Times
or This Week—can't remember which. I may
have been a junior in college at the time.
Amanda: What type of story did you sell
to Popular Mechanics? Did you have any
particular interest in the magazine?
Jane Yolen: I had absolutely no interest
in the magazine. It was a story on my father who
was International Kite Flying Champion, and making
Amanda: What kind of writing did you study
Jane Yolen: Mostly poetry. Won all the
poetry awards senior year. I did one course in
playwriting, one in short fiction. And I worked
for the Press Board (was head of it my senior
year) writing articles about the school and students
for hometown papers and magazines. Also won the
journalism award. And wrote the lyrics for the
Amanda: Were you planning to write professionally
in both journalistic and poetic fields, or did
one have a stronger pull than the other? Or perhaps
you didn't even look at them all that differently...
Jane Yolen: I always thought of journalism
for the pocketbook and poetry for the heart. Much
to my surprise these days I [can] make a living
at poetry. Children's and adult poetry. I was
a lousy journalist. Or at least I hated interviewing
Amanda: What did your teachers prefer?
Did they encourage writing that would make money?
Jane Yolen: My teachers taught literature.
My writing teachers at college let me write poetry
and we never discussed money. Ditto the one course
after college in writing children's books.
Amanda: They let you write poetry...Was
that not a respected field back then?
Jane Yolen: I could write all the poetry
I wanted to, but couldn't graduate with Latin
honors then without writing a critical thesis
paper. I chose to write a book of poetry.
Amanda: How did you get your editing job
after college? Did you move to New York having
already accepted the position?
Jane Yolen: I kept an eye on the ads,
and got a job with Saturday Review next, but it
was an awful job. I was working in the production
department, hating it, hating my boss, and was
the last in a long line of young women who worked
there a few months and got fired. Meanwhile, I
had been writing magazine articles and taking
a course in writing for children. I was fired,
and got a job in book publishing, working first
as an editorial asst, then asst editor for Gold
In that first year with them, I sold
my first two (children's) books, got engaged,
decided I wanted to learn more about children's
books. Left that job for an Associate Editor position
at a children's book packager: Rutledge Books,
part of Ridge Press. After a year there, where
I learned an enormous lot, I was able to get a
job as Assistant Editor of children's books at
A.A.Knopf, got married, worked there for almost
three years. Meanwhile I'd sold five more books,
and left to travel around Europe for a year with
my husband. Got pregnant in Europe and we came
back to the States where I became a freelance
writer for good.
Amanda: At the Saturday Review, was it
social atmosphere that you hated, or did you dislike
the actual production work?
Jane Yolen: The work itself was interesting,
though not playing to any of my strengths. My
boss was a horror.
Amanda: What did you learn in the class
on children's books? Is that the only course you
took before getting published?
Jane Yolen: Only course in writing children's
books I ever took. It was a very good course in
technique taught by Mina Lewiton at the New School.
Amanda: Were you able to publish anything
you had written there, or was the class really
just a starter for you?
Jane Yolen: I sold one book BEFORE taking
her class, and one—See This Little Line—I
wrote IN her class.
Amanda: Sounds like a good class! Are
those the two you sold while working at Gold Medal
Jane Yolen: Yes, though I quickly decided
after book one that I wanted to learn more about
children's books and got the job with Rutledge
Books. So the first book came out when I was working
Amanda: You're obviously quite successful
now, but how were your books received in your
early days of children's books? I would imagine
that seven books in four years or so was not too
bad a feeling...
Jane Yolen: Things began to really take
off with my eighth (or so) book which came out
in 1967, The Emperor & The Kite, which
was a Caldecott Honor Book.
Amanda: What was it about children's books
that first interested you?
Jane Yolen: Three things first interested
me in children's books: Story was important, accessible
poetry was important, and child readers had an
unapologetic and intact sense of wonder.
Amanda: Did you think books already on
the market were meeting those goals, or was there
a definite need for you to fill?
Jane Yolen: It was a very different time
in publishing and good writing trumped all. No
celebrity books, no big box stores, 85-90% of
children's books being sold into schools and libraries.
Amanda: How have your interests in children's
books changed, or are those three things still
important to you?
Jane Yolen: I am still a literary writer
at heart, that is I pay no attention to fads and
little to any audience except that of my own heart.
But I am capable of writing and being interested
in writing a lot of different things, and that
is what has given me my long career.
Amanda: What do you think lessened the
importance of good writing? Was it just money
Jane Yolen: The industry has changed;
the publishing model has changed. Major international
companies now own trade publishers and are trying
to make them big money makers. The publishers
from long ago knew that book sales are often slow,
literary writers sometimes years finding or developing
their audience. Now it's one book and you're out.
Amanda: The best young adult writing out
there is not really what's most popular, and a
lot of what's selling seems very reminiscent of
books already published. I've read about your
skepticism of the Harry Potter and Goosebumps
books for similar reasons... Does the fact that
kids are reading outweigh what they're reading?
Jane Yolen: It doesn't outweigh it. Might
as well say that at least kids eating at MacDonald's
are putting food in their bellies. Well, sure,
if they had no other places to eat open to them
it would outweigh it. But in perspective, a lot
of the kids "reading" Harry Potter or Goosebumps
are not real lifetime readers. Not critical and
passionate readers, except of that one thing.
I would love to believe that all those newly-engaged
readers that Rowling and Stine have captured and
captivated will go on to read things that stretch
them even more. That they will go on to, say,
Philip Pullman and Diana Wynne Jones and Terry
Pratchett and Robin McKinley and the like. But
I have my doubts. I think if they go on to anything,
it's usually lightweight secondary books like
Eragon. But I have been called an elitist, and
I suppose I have to admit to that.
Amanda: The thing about the McDonald's
analogy is that many kids are basically starving
when it comes to reading. What do you think it
takes to create that lifelong reader?
Jane Yolen: I think happy exposure to
books, books being available at all levels and
kinds, and a less over-programmed life. That said,
of my three grown children who had all of the
above, two are passionate lifelong readers, and
one is not.
Amanda: Do you think this is just a cycle
of kids not reading, or are technology and electronics
pushing books out?
Jane Yolen: I think there is SO much going
on these days, so many loud entertainments on
offer, that the idea of quietly sitting and reading
has fallen behind.
Amanda: What have been your favorite things
about a life of writing?
Jane Yolen: Joke answer: Working in my
jammies. Serious answer: Knowing that my work
has affected lives.