Children's Authors/Jane Yolen

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Biographical Information[edit | edit source]

Jane Yolen, born in 1939, was raised mainly in New York City. She is a first generation American . Her father immigrated to the U.S. from the Ukraine when he was only 4. Her mother's family immigrated from Lithuania when she was also a child. Her father fought in World War II and was sent home a hero due to an injury. A passion for writing was evident in Jane's family. Her father was a journalist and her mother wrote short stories, although they were never published. A gold star student, Jane wrote her first poem in preschool, which she still reads to young students today. Click here to hear her read this poem. In first grade she produced a class musical. She and her brother, Steve, even wrote a newspaper for their apartment building, which their mother helped them to type and distribute. Jane wrote throughout her school career, writing poetry in college that was published in small journals. Her first book, Pirates in Petticoats, was published on her 22nd birthday.

Jane brings many of her life experiences into her stories. Books such as Naming Liberty, Honkers, and Harvest Home clearly reflect Yolen's Jewish background as well as the immigration of her family to the U.S. Jane's husband, David, was often called "The man who knew everything" and was the inspiration behind her book My Father Knows the Names of Things. Soft House, a story about a sister and brother building a blanket fort, could very well be based off of the real relationship between Jane and her younger brother. The characters in Owl Moon are based off her daughter, Heidi, and her deceased husband, David.

Jane has written over 300 books including folktales, fairytales, science fiction, poetry, informational books, picture books, young adult novels, and more. Her writing has been honored in many different forms including: the Caldecott Medal, Nebula Awards, the Rhysling, an Asimov’s Magazine Reader’s Poll award, World Fantasy Award, a National Book Award nomination, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, a Golden Kite Award, the Skylark Award, Jewish Book Award, two Christopher Medals, the Association of Jewish Libraries Award, the Charlotte Award, the Garden State Award, the Golden Sower Award, among many others. Jane's books are often referred to in Journals such as Adolescent and Adult Literacy and on "Reader's Choice" lists.

Jane currently divides her time between Massachusetts and Scotland. When Yolen's husband, David, was on sabbatical in Scotland they fell in love with the country and ended up buying the house they were renting.

Here are some pieces of advice that Jane Yolen wanted to give young readers and writers.

"People--and often kids--make the mistake of thinking that once (a story's) on the page, it's done, but that's only the beginning. I constantly reshape and revision my work. I dream it again, imagine it again--that's the exciting part of writing."

"Impossible events can become exciting fantasy stories."

"We all have experiences that are strange, magical, and wondrous."

You can learn more about Jane Yolen and her books at

Books of Interest[edit | edit source]

The Scarecrow's Dance Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (2009)

"An autumn eve, the moon was high. As yellow as a black cat's eye." Each page of this book contains two beautifully written poetic stanzas that tell a story of a scarecrow. The poetic use of language gives this story a musical quality. The words are carefully chosen in order to give each stanza a rhythm and rhyme, like a melody of a song. Beginning with the very first stanza, quoted above, Yolen paints a story with her words through the use of figurative language devices. The personification of the scarecrow dancing through the night and stopping to listen to the prayer of the young boy who lives on the farm, helps the reader connect to the character of the scarecrow. The use of simile to compare objects like "As yellow as the black cat's eye" and "He danced by barn as red as blood" provide the vivid details that make the amazing illustrations come to life. With this book Yolen creates a story that is musical to the ear, making it a fun story to both read aloud and listen to, while Bagram Ibatoulline creates images that are pleasing to the eye. These beautiful illustrations draw the reader into the story. Any reader would be instantly engaged.

Soft House Illustrated by Wendy Anderson (2005)

What do you like to do on a rainy day? In Soft House, Yolen tells the story of a brother and sister who are trying to fight boredom on a rainy day. The relationship between the character, Alison Isabelle, and her younger brother, Davey, seems to be very true to life through the use of well-written dialogue that one may hear in any household between a brother and a sister. A back and forth argument such as "You can't count either. Can. Can't. Can!" The mother calling from the kitchen, "Alison Isabelle, what are you doing to your little brother?" Alison Isabelle responds with "NOTHING!" These interactions make the story come to life. Although the story is short, we also get to see Alison Isabelle learn something important about being an older sister. This unexpected insight comes when she realizes that "you can't be scared when you have a little brother to take care of." Anyone who has ever been young with nothing to do on a rainy day, or who has a younger brother or sister that they take care of, would engage and connect with this book.

My Father Knows the Names of Things Illustrated by Stephane Jorisch (2010)

"My father knows the names of things. Each bird that sings, their nicknames too. He knows the names of dogs and cheese and seven words that all mean blue." This excerpt from the book gives the reader a feel for the creative rhyme and rhythm that is created through the use of Yolen's simple but precise word choices. The use of poetry gives the story a musical feel while the dedication page is very touchingly dedicated to the memory of Yolen's deceased husband David Stemple "The man who knew everything." This is a loving and living memory of someone who is dear to the Yolen family and a poignant reminder, to any reader who has ever lost a loved one, that people live on in the memories of the people left behind. The musical language combined with the colorful illustrations by Stephanie Jorisch make this story very inviting and engaging for readers.

Naming Liberty Illustrated by Jim Burke (2008)

This is a story about the dream of freedom. It is both the story of a young Jewish girl who dreams of coming to America, and of a Frenchman who dreams of creating a symbol of freedom to give to the United States. Yolen does a magnificent job weaving together these two stories side by side on each page, making the ending of this story very powerful and moving. It is full of well- written dialogue that captures the dreams and hopes of immigrants coming to America to reconnect with loved ones who have already come before them. "Aron and Jakob say 'Write to us about pretty girls and dances and parties.' I whisper, 'Just write.'" Unexpected and often understated thoughts are also present throughout this story such as "But large dreams take time." Another example from the book being, "It is a long way from here to our liberty." This is not only a fictional story about immigration to America, it is the real story of the creation of the Statue of Liberty. The end of the book contains a page entitled "What is true about this book?" This page gives the true inspiration and details behind this heartfelt and moving story. This story is invigorating to all people who live in America because it is one of many stories about how and why many different people, from many different places, have come to live together in freedom.

Encounter Illustrated by David Shannon (1992)

In stark contrast to Naming Liberty, Encounter is a story about immigration of European people to America as seen through the eyes of the Taino Natives' point of view. I cannot do justice to how well-written this book is without a few examples straight from the book such as "…and I watched how the sky strangers touched our golden nose rings and our golden armbands but not the flesh of our faces or arms. I watched their chief smile. It was a serpent’s smile – no lips and all teeth." This is a great example of the understated premises throughout the book. Columbus is referred to only as "their chief" and the desire for Columbus and his men to obtain the Taino's gold, is represented beautifully with the metaphor of Columbus' smile being that of a serpents "no lips and all teeth." Another example of an understated premise is the loss of Native American culture upon the arrival of European explorers, expressed in this excerpt, "So it was we lost our lands to the strangers from the sky. We gave our souls to their gods. We took their speech into our mouths, forgetting our own." With this powerful conclusion also comes the unexpected insight of how an entire culture of people lost their culture. With so many students in the United States coming from Latin America, this is a story that will capture their interest as well as some of their history.

Briar Rose (2002) and The Devil's Arithmetic (1988)

A review of Jane Yolen's work would not be complete without a reference to these two novels. The tragedies and horrors that Jewish people faced during the Holocaust is a topic that must be meaningful to Yolen on a personal level-she being Jewish. In fact the research that went into writing these two novels was such an emotional experience for Yolen that she had expressed not having an interest in writing any other books about the Holocaust. Briar Rose is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. The comparison between the kingdom being put to sleep under a powerful spell in Sleeping Beauty and the Jewish people being "put to sleep" in the gas chambers of a real castle concentration camp, known as Chelmno is deeply moving. The use of this metaphor to tell the real life horror paralleled with a children's fairy tale is one of the many reasons why Yolen's writing is so great and this story is so incredible. A word of warning, Briar Rose is not a story for children; it was originally written as an adult novel and, therefore, contains adult content. It has appeared on many banned books lists. This is an indication of how important the issues are that Yolen addresses in this novel and is precisely why it would be so engaging and important for older students to read. Controversy is always intriguing and engaging. The Devil's Arithmetic was a novel intended for young adults. In fact, Yolen uses the apathetic nature of a teenager to tell a story of a young girl who travels back in time to realize the horrors of the Holocaust first hand. The vivid descriptions of concentration camps add historical accuracy, but can be very disturbing in some parts. The way that Yolen is also able to connect past events to the main characters current life delivers the important message that the past is important to honor and remember so that it is not repeated. Yolen's gift for writing was rewarded with this novel when she received the National Jewish Book Award. It was also nominated for the Nebula Award for both the book and movie version. It has clearly touched the hearts of the many people who have read it and I believe that it would do the same for those who have not read it yet.

I am leaving out Owl Moon here for two reasons. First, it is one of her most popular books and I wanted to focus on books that are not as widely known. Second, it is an award winning book and is worth reading and drawing your own conclusions.

Comparing and Contrasting Books[edit | edit source]

The books that I would like to spend a little more time comparing and contrasting are Encounter to Naming Liberty and Briar Rose to The Devil's Arithmetic.

I believe that reading these books in conjunction with each other was a great learning experience for me. They both told the story of America from two very different but equally important perspectives. In comparison, they both tell the story of Americans and the hardships that people have faced in the process. In contrast, these stories differ in many ways as well. In Naming Liberty, the story of immigration is about hope and gaining something: freedom. In Encounter, the story is about the loss of culture, and therefore, freedom. Naming Liberty is about immigrants who willingly came to America for a better life and Encounter is about what happened to the people who were already living in America when Europeans came. Both stories are about a better life that was found in America, but for only one group of people.

The comparisons between Briar Rose and The Devil's Arithmetic are also easy to compare. They both are stories about the Holocaust. They both have women as the main characters. They both contain vivid and accurate details about the horrors of concentration camps. It is where these two stories differ that I believe is really what is important. Briar Rose is told through the use of a comparison to the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. The women do not come out of this story alive. The theme of this story is purely about the tragedies that occurred during the Holocaust and the politics behind it. It does not only focus on the racism that the Jewish people faced, but also the way the homosexual people were subjected to the same cruel and deadly treatment. The Devil's Arithmetic contains a theme that is more about the importance of remembering and honoring history. It is about asking people to remember events that are not pleasant, but that are important. The main character in this story does survive, and returns to her own time with a better understanding of the horrors that people faced just like those told in Briar Rose.

Author's Style and Recurrent Themes[edit | edit source]

With so many different books that have been published for so many different audiences, it is hard to say what Jane Yolen's style is. It is her style to be both poetic and passionate in one story, while being completely silly and off the wall in another. It is her style to tell stories about real events and people, yet it is also her sty/e to tell stories about animals. There will always be precise vocabulary in her well chosen words, and insights into life that anyone can identify with and relate to. Some of these common themes that are found in Yolen's books are: multicultural perspectives, relationships, growing-up, nature, historical events, religion, independent women, and music. No matter what she is writing or who she is writing it for, another thing that will also be found in Yolen's writing is a powerful lesson to be learned.

References[edit | edit source]

"Young Adults Choices for 1998". Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy >.Vol. 42, No. 3, Nov., 1998. Page 232

"All About Adolescent Literacy." Retrieved on April 19, 2011 from:

"Biography." Retrieved on April 19, 2011 from:

"The Teacher Geek." Retrieved on April 20, 2011 from:

"A Book Review and Discussion with Jane Yolen, Author." Retrieved on April 20, 2011 from:

"Reading and Language." Retrtieved on April 20, 2011 from:

Yolen, Jane (2009 ). The Scarecrow's Dance: New York, NY: Simon and Schuster

Yolen, Jane (2005). Soft House: Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press

Yolen, Jane (2010): My Father Knows the Names of Things: New York, NY: Simons and Schuster

Yolen, Jane (2008): Naming Liberty: New York, NY: Philomel Books

Yolen, Jane (1992): Encounter: Sandiego, CA: Harcourt Brace

Yolen, Jane (1992): Briar Rose: New York, NY: A Tor Book

Yolen, Jane (1988): The Devil's Arithmetic: New York, NY: Viking