Kids Need 'A Mix of Myth and Reality'

Life for children's author Jane Yolen is like the proverbial fisherman and the-fish-that-got-away. There's always another story, another question, another book to be conquered.

"If I ever thought I'd written the perfect book, I'd never write again," confesses this award-winning author of nearly 200 fiction and nonfiction books for children as well as adults. Best known for fairy-tale themes, she's also written poetry and a book on the Holocaust - not to mention, songs for her son's rock band, "Boiled in Lead."

What drives this honorary PhD, mother of three, and full-time editor for Harcourt Brace?

While some might say from her prodigious output, that it is nervous energy, Yolen begs to differ. "A nervous sense of wonder," she laughs. She wonders about all sorts of things, from graveyards to magazine articles, not to mention the stalwart questions of childhood: What if toads fell out of your mouth? And what do space-hopping frogs eat? (Croak-a-cola and French flies, of course.)

Ms. Yolen, who started out as a journalist and a poet, says she writes all the time, everywhere she goes, from her farm in Hatfield, Mass., to her home in Scotland. "I never thought I'd end up writing children's books, but I've always loved folk songs, ballads and tales. They're part of my everyday respiration."

These primal story telling forms are a recurring theme in Yolen's work. They are, she says, "what form the basis of human community." A serious student of folklore, Yolen notes, "Human beings are the story animal. With story, we can look at our past, where we are now, and project into the future."

"Jane is completely literate in the history of kid's literature and from the point of view of many cultures," says Lin Oliver, director and co-founder of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). "She understands what's common in all our mythologies. Because of this, her writing is very primal, and it feels like it addresses the basic needs of children."

Of Yolen's contribution, Oliver says, "She has an intellectual understanding of our commonality that has created a body of work that really stands alone."

Boyds Mill Press editor Joan O'Donnell, who has worked with Yolen for five years says that beyond being a master storyteller, Yolen has a deep appreciation and recognition of other people's work and talent. Observes O'Donnell, "Jane has edited numerous anthologies and through that, brought new authors to children who might not otherwise know about them."

Indeed, a selflessness and pure love of the form seem to go with the field of children's writing.

"It's certainly not for the money," says SCBWI director Oliver, shaking her head ruefully. She points out that Yolen has taught at SCBWI conferences for the past 25 years,

While Yolen's themes tend toward the mythic, she is very concerned about the reality of children's lives today. "I think we're growing them up too quickly. Today they have to deal with death, AIDS, sex, drugs, family disintegration. When I was growing up in New York, nobody ever knew anyone who'd died. Now, my older kids both know someone who's been murdered by the time they were 18. We may have gained something, but we've also lost something."

Says O'Donnell, "[Yolen's] timeless themes and mythologic references leave room for the child's imagination."

"Her books leave room for the child to grow and to think, what if?" O'Donnell adds with a soft laugh. Kids, especially today, need a welcome break from reality-based material."

Yolen says, "I don't labor over doing a relevant topic," but she adds that her books still reflect the issues that are on her mind, and mentions her Holocaust-themed book, "The Devil's Arithmetic."

"That book, by the way, was burned in a hibachi on the steps of the Kansas City Board of Education just two years ago," Yolen says, by way of noting that some realities are too much for some communities.

Which brings up another of Yolen's concerns - the state of children's literature today.

"Publishers are filling us up with what I call bathroom literature - you read it quickly and toss it out," she explains, pointing to wildly successful horror books such as R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series.

Yolen says that she is more of the school of intimation and suggestion, musing that children, like adults, need the challenge of good literature. "Good books demand something back," unlike the disposable, gore-filled horror books that are all the rage today, she adds.

What about the kids who don't like to read? "Read with them," says Yolen, "regardless of their age. All kids love a good story."

Besides, she adds, "It turns out that kids who understand [the concept of a] story, have a better understanding of language systems and consequential actions."

"[Yolen's] work will endure," if for no other reason than that she offers the reader so much, O'Donnell says. "Her work is always fresh because she has her finger in so many pies."

With a net so wide, it's just a matter of time before another fish gets away.

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