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Always A Writer

Prolific author coming to Arlington.

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Jane Yolen

<p><b>JANE YOLEN</b> is the award-winning author of nearly 300 books. Her stories range from historical fiction about the life of Johnny Appleseed to a semi-autobiographical book about her family’s emigration to the U.S. from Europe. A New York City native who is currently based out of Western Massachusetts, Yolen will be giving the keynote address later this month at the meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in Arlington. In an interview with the Arlington Connection, Yolen spoke about how to write a children’s book and how a certain teenage wizard has altered the children’s book industry.

<p><b>How did you start writing?</b>

<p>Both of my parents were writers. My father was a journalist and my mother was a short story writer. She only sold one short story in her life but she used to write crossword puzzles too. So they were both writers and I just made an assumption when I was young that all grown ups were writers. For the longest time, I thought that that’s what I would be doing when I would grow up. And it turns out that I was right. Who knew?

<p><b>Why did you decide to go into children’s books?</b>

<p>It was sort of an accident. When I started I was a journalist and poet, journalism to make money and a poet for my heart. But it turns out I was not a particularly good journalist. I wasn’t good at interviewing people. So I got into book editorial work. I took a children’s book writing course and I sold my first two books. After that, that’s what I became most interested in.

<p><b>What’s the key to writing a children’s book?</b>

<p>For me there are several things. First of all, any writers today have to be constantly reinventing themselves. Unless you hit it big with your first or second book, you don’t’ have a large enough audience to sustain you. And if that genre falls by the wayside, as genres do in writing all the time, if that’s the only thing you know how to do you’re going to have to get another job. The writers who have lasted as long as I have, I’ve been publishing regularly since 1963, are people who reinvent themselves.

<p><b>What makes children’s books different from adult books?</b>

<p>It’s somewhat about the audience, obviously, although a lot of people who are adults read children’s books. There are certain topics that you used to not be able to touch but they seem to be touched all the time in children’s books these days. Everything from farts to bestiality to books on poop. Everything’s in children’s books now. There are practically no topics that are untouchable at this point. But I think that the best children’s writers are still somehow keenly in touch with their own childhood. Not someone else’s childhood, not their children’s or their grandchildren’s. Some of the best writers for children that I know never had children, never were married, never interested in that. But their sense of childhood is enormous.

<p><b>You wrote a book called “Naming Liberty” about a Ukrainian Jewish family much like your father’s family. Was that an autobiographical book?</b>

<p>My father’s family came over around 1910. This one is a little earlier. But my father’s family did send the older boy first and then the next two girls. The other four children came over with the mother and father two or three years after that. In that sense it’s the same.

<p><b>So you were really drawing on your family history.</b>

<p>Yeah but not entirely. I also did a lot of research because they haven’t talked a whole lot and they’re all dead now anyway. They didn’t talk a lot about the trip over. So I used the trip as research.

<p><b>What do you see as the future of children’s books now that there’s been this huge success with Harry Potter?</b>

<p>I have no idea. If I knew that I would be a rich woman. Harry Potter came out of nowhere. There had been so many fantasy novels before that using exactly the same tropes, exactly the same situations. Eight years before Harry Potter I wrote a book called “Wizard’s Hole” and it had a boy name Henry and Henry goes to wizard school. He has best friends and he has a girl and there’s a wicked wizard who used to be a part of the school and now he’s trying to take it over and kill people. That was already in the air. Those things had already existed. We don’t know why something becomes the most popular book in the history of writing … Those things are incalculable. It’s like the hula-hoop.

<p><b>How has the Harry Potter phenomenon changed the children’s book industry? Is it easier to get books published now?</b>

<p>No … The one change I see is that they no longer worry about the length of the book. That used to be a big thing, that children don’t read long books … That and the idea that people are trying to come into the field and make a hell of a lot of money. They are going to be very badly abused because the phenomenon of what she did is just that, a phenomenon. To try to say “I’m going to write a series of children’s books and make more money than the Queen of England,” is ludicrous. Most children’s book writers make less than $10,000 a year for their writing.