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Jane Yolen is one of the most prolific contemporary writers of children s stories. Since 1963, she has written hundreds of books, including poetry collections, realistic stories, animal tales, ABC books, and fantasies. Her special talents, however, lie in the writing of literary folktales, noted for their beauty of language and imagery and their abstract, philosophic mode.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Multi-Talented in School, Yolen Chooses Writing
Jane Yolen was born in New York City but, because of the Second World War, spent two years in Virginia, living with her grandparents while her father worked in England for the government. After the war, the family moved back to New York and lived there until Jane was a teenager. Her parents gave her a strong literary bent—her father, who wrote books and radio scripts, came from a line of Russian/Ukrainian storytellers. Her mother wrote short stories and created crossword puzzles, and both parents read to Yolen as soon as she was old enough to listen. She learned to read before starting school at New York’s PS 93.
Yolen studied ballet for eight years, played fantasy games in Central Park, and loved music, especially folk songs. While in the sixth grade, she scored highly on a test and was accepted at Hunter, a school for gifted girls. At Hunter, she wrote her eighth-grade social studies paper in rhyme and eventually wrote her first two books (unpublished), a nonfiction one on pirates and a seventeen-page novel about the pioneer West.
In the summers of her twelfth and thirteenth years, Yolen attended a Quaker camp in Vermont, where she first became acquainted with pacifism and storytelling. Between high school and college she spent a summer working in an American Friends Service Committee work camp in Yellow Springs, Ohio. These experiences led to an interest in Quaker beliefs. Her religious horizons were also broadened in her teenage years when she was introduced to Catholicism by a friend. Many rituals in her fairy tales reflect this exposure; she writes in her autobiographical sketch: ”In The Magic Three of Solatia, the ceremony of Thrittem is a kind of bar mitzvah crossed with a silent Quaker meeting. In Cards of Grief, I worked in storytelling, seders, and the Mass, along with Communion, Confession, and the Viaticum.”
When Yolen was thirteen, her family moved to West-port, Connecticut, where she attended Staples High School. Although she was captain of the girls’ basketball team, served on the newspaper staff, was active in the jazz, Spanish, and Latin clubs, won the school’s English prize, and performed with the choir, her greatest inspiration during these years came from the woman whom she always called a cousin, the sister of one of her aunts-by-marriage. Her name was Honey Knopp, and she really introduced Yolen to Quakerism and pacifism. She and her husband, Burt, also hosted music festivals, called hootenannies, and helped Yolen realize another, more poetic side of her character. The folk music she was exposed to has also influenced her work, and she writes music to accompany many of her stories.
From Publishing House to Publishing Her Own Books
Yolen attended Smith College, developing her writing skills there, and having her stories published in magazines and newspapers. She had hoped to be a journalist but found herself too emotional to do cold, pitiless interviews. However, she won a journalism award at Smith as well as many poetry prizes. She even earned money at college by writing poetry and singing folk songs. After graduation, eager to see if she could be a successful writer, Yolen moved to Greenwich Village and began to work for various publishers in New York City. In 1962 she started a job with Alfred A. Knopf as an assistant editor of children’s books. She had already started writing books for children on her own. Her first effort, Pirates in Petticoats, was published in 1963. In 1968 she researched, wrote, and published a book called World on a String: The Story of Kites for her father, a kite enthusiast.
In 1962 Yolen married David Stemple, a computer programmer and photographer. Her book The Girl Who Loved the Wind (1972) is dedicated to him and celebrates their meeting. After five years of marriage, the couple ordered a Volkswagen camper and went adventuring in Europe, where they toured for nine months. Yolen recalls that during this time they climbed a mountain in Greece and worked in an orange grove in Israel, then back in the United States, she ”mushed” on a dog sled in Alaska and went rafting down the Colorado River. Yolen and her husband have three children.
As her children grew older, Yolen’s output broadened from children’s books to include young adult and adult fiction; her first book for adults, Cards of Grief (1984), was a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club. Interestingly, she does not see a sharp distinction between books for children and books for adults.
Continuing to write, turning out one or more books a year, Yolen believes that constant composition prevents one from turning stale. Though she has written realistic stories and fantasies, her major interest is in the literary folktale, for she believes that a child, like an adult, ”needs a mythology.” She also believes that effective language is an important requisite for a good book: she has written that ”an excellent book is a powerful book, an excellent writer is one who uses words powerfully.” Yolen taught children’s literature at Smith College and is a frequent lecturer at conferences throughout the country, as well as a book reviewer. In 1981, she received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Our Lady of the Elms College, Chicopee, Massachusetts. She was elected president of the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1986.
Works in Literary Context
Yolen is probably best known for her literary folk and fairy tales, drawing on elements of old stories to illustrate modern themes. She rebuilds, and in some cases creates from fragments, mythologies that apply to modern times while maintaining a timeless sense of wonder and beauty. In particular, Yolen draws on the long tradition of reinterpreting and embellishing the legend of King Arthur in her Merlin Trilogy. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1485) codified much of the popular portions of the legend of Arthur and Merlin. Other popular books in this tradition include The Once and Future King (1958) by T. H. White and The Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Wordplay and Metaphor
Yolen has written several Beginning-to-Read books, in which she typically reveals her fascination for words. The Giants’ Farm (1977) and Spider Jane (1978) are two such books. In these, as well as in others of the same type, Yolen tries not to oversimplify the language and works to provide stories that will amuse and interest beginning readers. She deplores what she calls ”Coffee Break Books,” which she considers ”simple-minded non-books” that are turned out ”in short order.” Yolen’s own stories involve much wordplay and metaphor; they delight because of the intriguing combinations of sounds.
Works in Critical Context
Yolen’s many writings include fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and plays for young adults and children. For her creations ranging from ABC books to texts on kite flying to stories about vampires and novels about Merlin, she has won many awards.
The Wild Hunt
In The Wild Hunt (1995) two boys, Jerold and Gerund, both read about and pursue the title quest in what a Kirkus Reviews writer calls ”parallel realities.” This structurally complex tale turns on a ritual enacted between the Horned King and his wife, the White Goddess: she must choose a hero (Jerold), whom the King must name and capture. Some reviewers found the multilayered chapters too abstract, but Joan Zahn-leiter of Magpies found the structure ”tantalising” and evidence of ”Yolen’s superb skills in writing fantasy.” Frances Bradburn in Booklist described it as an ”intense novella, which suggests a violence that only barely materializes. Despite its deceptively simple format, the story is a complex, yet entertaining melding of a variety of European myths, legends, and folklore.” Bradburn also commented on the book’s format: ”An intriguing chapter format—Chapter One, Chapter One-Sort of, Chapter One-Almost, Chapter Two, etc.—harks back to the uneasy boundaries between reality and perception much as they are in Through the Looking Glass.”
The Merlin Trilogy
Yolen’s The Merlin Trilogy (2004) (Passager, Hobby, and Merlin) was assessed as ”an enjoyable introduction to Arthurian fantasy,” by Ann A. Flowers in Horn Book. In Passager, the first book, the eight-year-old Merlin, living on his own in the forest as a wild child after being abandoned, is “captured” by a kindly falconer, who slowly reintroduces the boy to language and civilized behavior. School Library Journals Susan L. Rogers believes this slender book would be equally effective in attracting reluctant readers and in delighting others with its ”rich language and poetic phrasing.” In the second book, Hobby, Merlin’s adventures continue after his adopted family dies in a fire and he must leave to make his own way. Among those he encounters is Ambrosius, whose deceptive magic does not appeal to him. Indeed, as Flowers puts it in her Horn Book review, Merlin ”realizes that only truth will serve him and his dreams in the future.
Queen’s Own Fool
At times, critics find Yolen’s historical work straying into the simplicity of her children s work, as Jane Resh Thomas did in her review of Queen’s Own Fool (2000), a novel about Queen Mary of Scotland, told through the eyes of her female jester:
Although the story bursts with romance and intrigue, the authors, Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris, never overcome the daunting hazards inherent in setting a novel in the maelstrom of dynastic Reformation politics. While acknowledging the folly of Mary’s romantic choices, the authors excuse her and simplify history in furthering her legend. Anne, St. John, however, in Horn Book, took a different view. She wrote,
The two authors have woven fiction and historical fact into a seamless tapestry. The details of Mary s life are accurate, and most of the characters are based on real people. By choosing to have one of the queen’s female fools—about whom few facts are known—narrate the story, Yolen and Harris have imbued history with personality.
- Yolen, Jane. Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie, and Folktale in the Literature of Childhood. New York: Philomel. 1981.
- Estes, Cheri. Review of Here There Be Unicorns. School Library Journal (Jan 1995): 110.
- Flowers, Ann A. Review of Passager. Horn Book (July/ Aug 1996): 466.
- Rogers, Susan L. Review of Passager. School Library Journal (May 1996): 118-19.
- Scanlon, Donna L. Review of Here There Be Witches. School Library Journal (Dec 1995): 110.
- Sherman, Chris. Review of Here There Be Unicorns. Booklist (Nov 1, 1994): 492-93.
- Yolen, Jane. Retrieved December 12, 2008, from http://www.janeyolen.com.
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