Transcript from an interview with Jane Yolen

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Jane Yolen. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Jane Yolen

Bus, bus, wait for us!

I was writing from the time I was in elementary school, but much of it was pretty terrible. I love to recite my first poem to kids when I talk to them – because it was so bad that I tell them that clearly they're writing better poems than that. But you keep writing and working and working and writing, and you get better after a time. It's like any kind of muscle that you keep exercising. It gets bigger and better.

I could recite that poem to you right now. It goes:

Bus, bus, wait for us.
We are going to school, and we know the rule.
We were going to zoo, but the teacher got sick. Boo-hoo.
So, instead we went to pick berries, but could only find cherries.
The end.

That is truly awful! But I was in preschool, and I could rhyme. I had no scansion, and there wasn't much of an arc to the poem, or metaphor. But I could rhyme, and that was at least a place for me to start.

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One at a time

I have over 250 books out. I know that sounds like a lot of books, but I remember writing them, each one at a time. There are picture books, and there are rhymed books, and there are alphabet books, and there are counting rhymes, and there are board books, and there is middle-grade fiction, and there's nonfiction, and there's young adult fiction. There are music books, and there are adult books, and there are pedagogical books. And there are books of essays, and there are books on how to write. And the only books that interest me right now are the books I'm working on.

So, I've won some awards, and I've made some money. And that's all of no real interest. It's practical interest, but it's no interest to me, because what I'm really interested in right now and passionate about are the books that I'm writing now.

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More than Disney

Folklore is one of those subjects that is so broad, and it's a little bit like the blind man and the elephant. In trying to describe what folklore is, if I yank on the tail, I say, "Folklore is cultural history." And if I feel the trunk, I might say, "Folktales are the stories that we've told all through the generations, and we shouldn't lose them." You could go on and name various parts of that elephant.

For me, folktales begin as great stories. And they've been so recognized as great stories, that people have continued to tell them and retell them and reshape them to fit their lives long past the times of their earliest tellings.

In America today, the greatest fairytale teller has been Disney. I hate Disney, but by "great" I mean it has influenced and has shaped those stories in ways that make people think they're the only way that those stories can be told – which, of course, is errant nonsense. But if a child reads or watches Sleeping Beauty and then goes to Disneyland or Disney World and meets Sleeping Beauty, or Snow White, or Beauty and the Beast, sees them on ice, and sees the little Disney books – that becomes the only Beauty and the Beast, or Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty that they'll accept. And so all those hundreds of years of those stories being told by different tellers is really in danger of being lost to us, because Disney has been such an influential and great storyteller. And I really bemoan that fact.

And one of the things that I've done for years is try to re-couch or retell those stories in other ways, so that children can see that there's more to these stories than Walt Disney.

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Mightier than the sword

Mightier than the Sword came about because, after I had done a book called Not One Damsel in Distress, which was world folklore about strong, young women, I had people saying to me, "But what about the boys?" So, I put together Mightier than the Sword, which is all about folktales from around the world in which boys manage to win whatever – win the princess, or win the kingdom, or win the respect of their elders, or win the respect of their community – but not by picking up a sword, not by destroying; but sometimes using their wits, or using their intelligence, or having good friends, because they've been a good friend.

And those were harder to find than the strong, young women stories. There are fewer of them. Many stories that begin with, "Once there was a young boy, and he was smart, and though his older or younger brothers weren't…" And he manages to get up to the dragon, and at which point he takes out his sword and cuts off the dragon's head. And of course I read hundreds of these stories, and I kept finding they went up to the moment of the denouement, and then he took out his sword and cut off the dragon's head. So, it was harder to find stories that went all the way through with him not picking up the sword.

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What if…?

The "what if" question is the only question in fiction. Everything proceeds from that. You might start out with a landscape. You might start out with a character. You might start out with a plot point. But once you say, "What if?" that's where it all starts. Without understanding that, you have no story. It's as simple as that…

And the reason I never, ever, ever get writer's block is that I work on more than one thing at the same time. And so if something is blocking over here, I turn to this. And if that one doesn't work, I turn to the next one.

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Creative writing in schools

I think that there are two problems with the way writing is done in schools. One is the assumption that you can give an assignment, and anyone can then blurt out onto the page enough in a 20-minute period, or a 15-minute period, or half hour – whatever the period us. I can't do that. So, you give kids a topic, and you give them a time. And within that topic and that time, you're saying, "Do something creative." For most kids, that's enough to stop them right there.

I would rather have kids have journals that they can take home and write on when they feel like it. Writing in a schoolroom, under the teacher's eye, is a horrible way to write. I know very few professional writers who, under those conditions, could write anything worth anything.

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I've done a lot of professional storytelling. It's a very different kind of sharing of stories than it is writing a book, or even reading a book to someone, because what's in the book might as well be written in stone. There it is. It doesn't change. When you're telling a story to an audience, you watch their face. You change what you're saying to fit the audience, or you incorporate something within the audience into the story as you're going. And so the story gets longer or shorter because of the audience. When you're writing, the story gets longer or shorter because of the story. It's a very different thing.

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The missing lavaliere

I use the words that need to be used. And sometimes I have to fight for them. I did a series of books about a pig butler called Piggins. In the first book, he finds that the diamond lavaliere is missing. And my editor said, "No kid will know what 'lavaliere' is."

I said, "then they'll learn it."

And you know what happened? Every school that I went to that had been reading Piggins, the kids' favorite word was "lavaliere." So, I think that you use the words that need to be used. If they're big and the kids don't understand them, they'll either get it in context, or they'll ask someone, or they'll look it up.

Kids who never hear good words, who are never get stretched by them, are not going to be word lovers. So, at least in our books, let's give them great words.

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"There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island." — Walt Disney