Jane Yolen: a literary legend visits Mount Holyoke

BY SARAH CAVAR '20 

“Passion. Perseverance. Publishing.”This was how Jane Yolen opened her talk on Feb. 23, the second in a series hosted by Mount Holyoke College’s English department. Yolen, a Smith alum, is petite in stature, with a voice that is soft yet firm. Sitting beside a table piled with just a small selection of her 365-book oevre, Yolen commented that “you can read a book of [hers] a day for a year,” before quickly amending that that wouldn’t be true next year, which is a leap year. This drew laughter from the audience, ingratiating them to Yolen’s enchanting personality.

After having been a prolific author for decades, Yolen’s advice for aspiring writers was practical and illustrated by anecdotes from her own experience in the literary world. Beginning with “passion,” she explained that some writers must “open a vein” to get words on a page. Of her many passions, such as politics — “which I’m not supposed to talk about” — and her family, writing is always what first comes to mind.

Her passion alone is not what gets her books into the world. Persistence, she explained, is as necessary as it is rewarding for a writer. Persistence was required as she spent more than a decade laboring over “Owl Moon,” which she struggled to write to her satisfaction. Yolen wrote “What To Do With a Box” (published on Feb. 1, 2017) almost thirty years before its publication; such “concept books” had fallen out of vogue when she initially wrote it. Fortunately, Yolen frequently picks through her unpublished files, sometimes selecting manuscripts such as this one to pitch to publishers once more.

Yolen was happy to give her audience advice on navigating the publishing world. However, perhaps most salient was her unique way of “publishing” a previously unshared manuscript. “Publication,” Yolen explained, “comes from the old word, meaning ‘to make public.’ So if I stand in front of you and read a book to you, in essence, I have published it.” She proceeded to read the manuscript aloud, a whimsical story about how and why God created animals such as dogs, possums, cats and crows. Much to the audience’s dismay, Yolen explained that the manuscript would likely never be published in the traditional sense: it was too sacrilegious for a religious publishing house and too religious to be in a public school library. Yet she encouraged those to whom she had “published” it to share it with their family and friends, so it could still reach a wider audience.

Yolen’s appreciation and respect for her readers is immense, but she is continually surprised and humbled by readers’ reactions to her stories. Her “How Do Dinosaurs” series of children’s books have helped kids across the country. They have affected the lives of autistic children and their caregivers, who use the books to help their children accomplish challenging tasks. Her book “How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon?” once so profoundly affected a young hospitalized boy that he asked Yolen how to share copies of the book with other children in the hospital. Yolen had one-hundred copies sent to the hospital; she sent the boy a hardcover copy of the book and his very own stuffed dinosaur. Yolen never once expected her books to have such an impact on readers, but is grateful to have shared her passion with so many.

Yolen is a decorated author, recently given the Damon Knight Grandmaster Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an annual honor which recognizes living writers for their excellent contributions to the genre. Even after decades in the writing business, however, Yolen has not grown stagnant. She uses each accolade as motivation to practice her three-word motto: “Revise, revision, reinvent.” “I like sets of three,” she said with a laugh, “because I write fairytales.”

Yolen is one of several authors to be hosted by the Mount Holyoke College English department. Subsequent events will be held on March 9, April 6, and April 13.

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