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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Photo by Jan Sturmann

Jane Yolan

May 22, 2003

HATFIELD - You could say that writing books is a family business for the Yolan-Stemples.

True, the paterfamilias, David Stemple, is really chairman of the computer science department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But he did play a starring role in "Owl Moon," one of wife Jane Yolen's most acclaimed works for children.

Also, in retirement, he helps keep the various strands of the family's bookish endeavors intertwined as web master (see Around the house, he is known as "he who speaks to computers." An amateur ornithologist, he is also author of "High Ridge Gobbler: A Story of the American Wild Turkey."

Nonetheless, "the prolific cornerstone of our literary family," as daughter Heidi calls her, is Jane Yolen.

A glassed-in bookcase in the 1897 farmhouse where Jane and David raised three children holds one each of Yolen's 250 published books. That doesn't include anthologies and the like. She has 30 books currently under contract, and says her favorite one has always been "the one I am working on now."

"Or the seven she is working on now," Heidi chimes in. "She makes stuff up, that's why she gets the big bucks." Heidi, now 37, is the little girl in "Owl Moon," taken by her father into the woods on a winter night to talk to and then briefly capture a great horned owl in the ray of a flashlight.

Yolen's day starts at 5:30 a.m. when she hobbles up the narrow staircase to the finished attic where she writes.

"I'm in the `cortisone in the knee/I may have to have a partial knee replacement in November' stage," said Yolen, 64. Her office above the eaves has windows overlooking fields the Stemples rent to local farmers for a nominal fee to keep in cucumber production. An exposed red brick chimney runs through it, and every available wall is lined with books, except for the one displaying her many awards and another with original illustrations.

The first order of business is answering her e-mail, "which is kind of like priming the pump." Then she turns to one of her current projects until she reaches a sticking point, and then to a different one. Among those is a collection of essays called "Take Joy: A Book for Writers" (Kalmbach, due out this spring).

Last fall, Heidi moved back to the homestead with her two children, Glendon Alexandria and Maddison Jane. She had been collaborating with her mother long distance for eight years after earlier careers as a parole officer and private detective in South Carolina and Florida. With her propensity for sleuthing, it is appropriate that her titles include a series on "unsolved mysteries from history," such as the fates of the lost colony at Roanoke and Amelia Earhart.

Yolen's elder son, Adam, is a member of the Minneapolis-based punk-folk band Boiled in Lead. He has collaborated with Yolen on several books including a Mother Goose song book and one on animal songs. Younger son Jason is a photographer, and his photos of such things as ice, water, snow, and colors have provided grist for Yolen's poetic prose.

"It's easier than giving them money," said Yolen of her collaborations with her children. That doesn't mean she can't be a task master. "My children, when they write with me, call it `going to writer's college. I really feel that if you are going to write, especially for kids, you have to be at the top of your game and be honest, poetic, yet direct. I don't allow them to be sloppy. Sloppiness in the house is okay, sloppiness in your work, never."

In January 2002, an MRI turned up an inoperable tumor in David Stemple's skull. As her husband went into radiation treatment, "life felt out of control," Yolen said. At the end of each day, she retreated to the attic office to write a sonnet. "It is such a rigid form that it imposes structure; it empowered me because then I had control," said Yolen of the 14-line poems with a strict rhyme scheme.

She ended up writing 43 sonnets during the 43-day radiation regime. "Some of the poems are funny and some of the poems are just a cry for help," said Yolen. Heidi sobbed when she read them. David, whose cancer is now in remission, has yet to read them.

Susan Stamberg of National Public Radio, an elementary school classmate of Yolen's in New York City, got wind of the sonnets, interviewed Yolen, and had her read three of them on the air. "Within hours, e-mails started coming in from all over the country," recalled Yolen, as did an offer to publish them. "The Radiation Sonnets" (Algonquin) is due out this fall.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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