Author Jane Yolen’s sense of wonder and love of folk culture imbue all her work with magic. To date, she has produced approximately three hundred books addressed to a wide audience, from preschool to adults. While they include children’s books, fantasy, science fiction, realistic fiction, mysteries, animal tales, historical fiction, humorous stories, songs, poetry and even informational books on such subjects as kites, Shakers, the Quakers, and the environment, Yolen is particularly well known for her command of fantasy, folklore and myth. Folklore, according to Yolen, is the universal human language, a “perfect second skin. From under its hide, we can see all the shimmering, shadowy uncertainties of the world.”
Yolen, who has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century, also teaches writing and literature and is on the Board of Directors of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). A noted storyteller in the oral tradition, she was a founding member of the Western New England Storytellers Guild, has been a frequent reviewer of children’s literature, was for a time an editor with her own imprint and is a discerning and prolific anthologist.
Born on February 11, 1939 in New York, Yolen was the first child of Will Hyatt and Isabelle (Berlin) Yolen. In her entry in Something About the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), Yolen claimed, “My father’s family were merchants and storytellers (some called them well-off liars!). My mother’s family were intellectuals. I seem to have gotten a bit of both, though not enough of either.”
Not so. Yolen sees her stories and poems as somehow rooted in her sense of family and self. Her childhood was made lively by her father’s adventurous life in public relations, which took her from New York City to California where her father did publicity for Warner Films, and back again. An international kite flying champion, Will Yolen inspired his daughter’s books World on a String (1968), an informational book, and The Emperor and the Kite (1983), a Caldecott Honor Book with papercut illustrations by Ed Young. His painful absence from the family during World War II is reflected in All Those Secrets of the World (1993) and Miz Berlin Walks (1997), books Yolen could not write until she was in her fifties.
Encouraged by her mother’s interest in writing and composing word puzzles, by first grade Yolen was on her way to becoming an omnivorous reader. Raised on tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood, she devoured fantasy and magic, history and adventure, but still had time for music and ballet. After elementary school she won admittance to Hunter, a school for highly gifted girls. There, she continued writing and became more deeply involved with dance and songwriting. She says that among her later books were two inspired by songs: Dream Weaver and Other Tales (1989) by a bad rock song, and Greyling (1991) by a folk song. Her own lyrics frequently appear in her books and she has written many song books, two musical plays and some opera. Some of her songs and song lyrics for folksingers, rock groups and composers have been recorded and a number of her stories are about musicians.
Attending a Quaker summer camp when she was twelve and thirteen made a great impression on Yolen, bringing her a lifelong interest in the Quakers and pacifism. After the family moved to Connecticut, Yolen went to public schools and although active in a Jewish youth group became intrigued by the rituals of different religions, an interest that she often weaves into her fantasy tales, as in The Magic Three of Solatia (1974) and Cards of Grief (1984), a story also impacted by her father’s serious illness. Her hidden, meditative, poetic side was encouraged by a sensitive cousin-in-law, Honey Knopp, whose influence she says can be seen in The Minstral and the Mountain (1967), The Hundredth Dove (1977) and The Gift of Sarah Barker (1981), among others.
Yolen received a B.A. from Smith College in 1960 and in 1976 an M.Ed. from the University of Massachusetts, where she also completed course work for a doctorate in children’s literature. On graduation from Smith, she worked at various editorial jobs in New York before trying her hand as a freelance writer. After she married David W. Stemple (a computer scientist and ornithologist) in 1962, they lived in New York and traveled extensively in Europe, before David became a professor at the University of Massachusetts. The couple moved north just before the birth of their first child, Heidi Elisabet (b. 1966). Two sons followed, Adam Douglas (b. 1968) and Jason Frederic (b. 1970). Still influenced by family events, Yolen wrote her break-out picture book, Owl Moon (1987), a Caldecott Award winner, loosely based on her ornithologist husband’s birding trips with their children. Now grandparents, Yolen and her retired husband divide their time between Hatfield, Massachusetts and a home in Scotland.
Yolen’s versatility is the stuff of legend; she says “I don’t care whether the story is real or fantastical. I tell the story that needs to be told.” Yolen, who writes every day, is noted for creating tales that combine deep psychological insights with a timeless sense of wonder. Her work is rich in images, symbols, allusions, wordplay and metaphors, and her style is both highly polished and easy to read aloud. Among her highly acclaimed works are The Girl Who Loved the Wind (1972); The Girl Who Cried Flowers and Other Tales (1974), winner of the Golden Kite Award; All in the Woodland Early (1978), a concept book that teaches the alphabet through verses and music; the popular “Commander Toad” series, beginning readers that cleverly spoof “Star Trek”-type adventure; Dragon’s Blood: A Fantasy (1982), the first in her “Pit Dragon” series that combines high fantasy with science fiction for young adults; and Favorite Folktales from Around the World (1988), a collection for which she won the World Fantasy Award.
And Twelve Chinese Acrobats (1995), set in a Russian village in 1910, features Lou, a mischief maker, and his brother Wolf, based on Yolen’s father, and has a “Yiddish taste.” But Yolen’s most Jewishly significant work is The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988), a highly acclaimed young adult novel. Combining history with time travel fantasy, the novel transports Hannah Stern, a twelve-year-old girl, from today’s New York to the terrors of a Polish shtetl in 1942, whisking her back as she opens the door for Elijah during her family’s Seder. In accepting the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award, one of several this book earned, Yolen said “There are books one writes because they are a delight … books one writes because one is asked to … books one writes simply because the book must be written. The Devil’s Arithmetic was this last kind.” A Showtime TV film based on this story is now a popular video rental. At an editor’s insistence, Yolen produced a second Holocaust-inspired work, Briar Rose (1992), an adult novel suggested by the actual location of the Chelmno extermination camp in a castle, juxtaposed with the metaphorical story of “Sleeping Beauty.”
Yolen has described her goal for readers in particularly Jewish terms. At an SCBWI Conference in New York, she said, “Reading a good story is like wrestling with angels—you do not expect to win, but you should expect to come away from the experience changed.” When reading Yolen, one does.
The Caldecott Medal (1968, 1988), two Nebula Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy (1997, 1998), The Golden Kite Award from SCBWI (1974, 1975, 1976); Jewish Book Council Award for Children’s Literature and the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award, both for The Devil’s Arithmetic (1989); two Christopher Medals (1977, 2000); three Mythopoeic Society Awards (1985, 1993, 1998), two for adult fantasy and one for children’s fantasy; World Fantasy Award (1987); five Body of Work Awards (1988, 1990, 1994, 1995, 1999) and two honorary doctorates (1998, 2003); the California Young Reader Medal (2001); the National Outdoor Book Award (2002); the National Storytelling Network Oracle Award (2003).
Briar Rose (1992).
Among Angels (1995); A Sip of Aesop (1995); Favorite Folktales from Around the World (1987); Color Me a Rhyme (2000); Dear Mother, Dear Daughter (2001); Jane Yolen’s Songs of Summer (1993); Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls (2000); O Jerusalem: Voices of a Sacred City (1996); Sacred Places (1996).
Child of Faerie (1997); Dove Isabeau (1997); The Emperor and the Kite (1988); Greyling (1968, 1991); How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? (2000); King Longshanks (1998); Miz Berlin Walks (1997); Off We Go (2000); Owl Moon (1987); Piggins and the Royal Wedding (1989); Raising Yodel’s Barn (1998); Tam Lin (1990); Too Old for Naps (1995); Welcome to the Green House (1993); Where Have the Unicorns Gone? (2000).
Commander Toad in Space (1996); Sleeping Ugly (1981, 1999).
Boots and The Seven Leaguers (2000); Encounter (1992); Merlin and the Dragons (1999); The Queen’s Own Fool: A Novel of Mary Queen of Scots (2000); Wizard’s Hall (1999); Young Heroes series.
Armageddon Summer (1998); Children of the Wolf (1993); The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988); Girl in a Cage (2002); Pit Dragon trilogy.
The Fairies’ Ring (1999); Here there be Dragons (1993, first of a series); Milk and Honey: A Year of Jewish Holidays (1996); Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast (2001).
An Unsolved Mystery from History: Mary Celeste (1999); Roanoke Colony (2002); House, House (1998), Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (2000); “Once Upon A Tale.” The New Advocate 1/3 (Summer 1988); Transcript of acceptance speech for Sydney Taylor Book Award. Judaica Librarianship (Spring 1989–Winter 1990): 52–53; Guide to Writing for Children. Writer, Inc.: 1989.
Fuchs, Marcia G. Entry in Twentieth-century Children’s Writers, 3rd edition. Hopkinsville, Kentucky: 1989, 1075–1078.
Sieruta, Peter D. Children’s Books and Their Creators. Edited by Anita Silvey. New York: 1995, 700–701.
Yolen, Jane. “Something About the Author.” In Something about the Author Autobiography Series. Volume 111, Farmington Hills, MI: 2000, 203–225, and Volume 112 (2000): 207–221.
Jane Yolen’s Official Website: http://www.janeyolen.com.
How to cite this page
Frischer, Rita Berman. "Jane Yolen." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 21, 2015) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/yolen-jane>.