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Interview with Jane Yolen: On Prose Stylists, Myth Writing, and Children's Illustrated Books

August 15, 2015       Meaningful Life
Interview with Jane Yolen
On Prose Stylists, Myth Writing
and Children's Illustrated Books

 “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
--C.S. Lewis

Neil Gaiman, a fan favorite, rockstar author among Filipinos is just one fan who, among thousands of admirers, considers our latest interviewed author to be the Hans Christian Andersen of America.

Jane Yolen may not be the most recognizable YA novelist or children's book author amidst the deluge of books for kids out there right now, but her work has inspired many people, including Neil Gaiman, who had her write the introduction to the first chapter collection of The Books of Magic for DC comics (a story about a boy wizard: not unlike Harry Potter which came out a few years after).

One of her older novels, Wizard's Hall, about a boy wizard and a school for magic has even been cited as the true inspiration for J.K, Rowling's Harry Potter series although Jane Yolen was gracious enough to downplay copycat insinuations by saying these tropes are a common thread in all of fantasy storytelling.

Jane Yolen’s books and stories have won many impressive literary awards: the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, the World Fantasy Award, the World Fantasy Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and more.  Yolen's work is some of the best reading for children, as resource for teachers, writers, storytellers, and lovers of children’s literature. Her author website contains very useful links to resources for educational purposes and writers. 

Reach-unlimited is honored to interview this amazing author and hope more Filipino readers discover her.  Especially kids.  In an age when dystopia YA novels are the rage, Jane writes myths and fairy tale retellings like no other. Her most recent work is focused on children's illustrated books, but our favorite Jane Yolen's stories will always be the fairy tale retellings.  Tales that weave magic just like their forebears and keep us inspired that this language and storytelling style will never go out of style.

We get to ask Jane about prose stylists like her, Neil and Madeleine L'Engle and how this manner of writing is hooking readers again.

REACH: Thank you Jane for granting us this awesome interview! After reading a blurb in Sandman about your work and your foreword to one of Neil's work, we found one of your short story anthologies: Dragonfield and other Stories and Briar Rose.

Like Neil, you are one of the few authors who can really scribe prose stylist storytelling, not only in myth retellings but also in any kind of story. How would novice writers wield this kind of storytelling to get the most bang out of it, for creating stories and for hooking readers with an unforgettable scene. Why does it work really well for some writers like you and Neil Gaiman, and even Frances Hardinge and China Mieville?

Jane Yolen:  First, I’d caution that the would-be writer of such tales needs to get out of the Disney (or even the Pixar) mode and go back to the original tales. You will find them darker, stranger, less finished (as in parts are missing) and more full of life than the cartoon versions.

In fact, read as many versions of the old story you want to retell as possible. There’s no excuse for not finding fairy tale and folk collections. Haunt old bookstores, libraries, especially university libraries, find them on line. But also take care that--if it’s a fairly new collection--you aren’t using material that’s been added by the author of the collection. Because then you may find yourself in copyright hell.

All this before you ever try and write your story. Research, research, research.

REACH: From YA books, you've dived into children's illustrated books and got some good work done. Children's illustrated books might be one of the most competitive genres for good authors to get published in. What makes for a good children's illustrated book for you? What makes for a children's book the market is looking for right now?

Jane Yolen: If I knew that, I’d be a millionaire! I think trying to play catch up with the market is almost impossible. Just when you think you have it sussed, it changes. Years ago, William Jovanovich of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, told me that publishing goes in seven year cycles, so unless you are in that first wave, you will miss the boat because it can take (on average) ten years to get a book sold, edited, illustrated, and published.

Even I—with over 350 books already out there, have some books that have taken an even longer trip to publication. Case in point: two picture books I have coming out this Fall—THE STRANDED WHALE (Candlewick) went to the first editor who saw it, a new illustrator (meaning she was free to start THEN, took a year to illustrate it. So it came out only two years after I finished writing it. The other one—SING A SONG OF SEASON-- I wrote back in the ‘80s, and it went out and came back with regularity.

I put it away, took it out again about fifteen years later, rewrote it, sent it out again. Again no one wanted it. Then came the millennium, and I started publishing with a lovely small press called Creative Editions, so small they can’t do more than one book from me every two years. I rewrote the piece again, The editor loved it. They found an amazing illustrator. And the first reviews are incredibly glowing.

So again—who knows?

REACH: You are one of the better resource persons for MYTH writing and their magic as stories. Best of all is that you share your knowledge about myth writing in your website and in links to resources where writers can get good advice. For you as a myth writer, Is storytelling a more valuable skill over literary writing, the myths seem to be more timeless and evocative as storytelling and pulp as opposed to having writing always have to MEAN something (like be an allegory for something) like creative writing teachers push good writing to be?

Original versions of fairy tales are darker and may not have
a happy ending but these are still amazing stories.

Jane Yolen: When I do what you call MYTH WRITING, three things are important to me. The storytelling must be strong (I also do oral storytelling) so the book has to serve the ear as well as the eye). But each sentence needs to have the power, condensed and lyric as the lines in a poem. And of course the story has to have a deeper meaning. But then I think all books have to have the same.

REACH: YA novels are blasting off like kids can't get enough of them. The trend seems to lean towards dystopian stories and anti-establishment heroes and underdogs. The 'magic schoale' theme is still popular with The School of Good and Evil making a big impression among fans. What do you make of the huge popularity of YA fiction, and why even grown-ups are grabbing books meant for teens?

Jane Yolen: As kids, we all wanted things to be simple. We wanted that old dyad: good/evil. As adults we tend to live in the gray spaces. But sometimes what I have called “the pornography of innocence”—words like Love, Hate, Good, Evil,Truth, Honor, Loyalty etc.—lay claim to our story love whatever age we find ourselves. Some readers look down their noses and call those kind of stories naïve, or babyish. But the rest of us feel the wonder.

Your older work, the fairy tale retellings are the ones most Filipinos are more familiar with, given that there is a huge fanbase of Neil Gaiman here in the Far East. Dragonfield and other Stories, and Briar Rose are some of our personal favorites for comfort reads. Filipino readers are fond of fairy tales and mythic prose stylist stories, but the good books usually aren't restocked in the chain bookstores once they sell out. How would a local publisher get a deal with you to reprint these books or translate them into the Filipino language?

Jane Yolen: Contact my agent for foreign rights, Jonathan Lyons at

Image from                   
Image copyright:  Jason Stemple

Thank you Jane, and we hope that many Filipino readers get to know more of your amazing body of work and some local publishers take the chance to get your work translated into Filipino so that more readers who cannot read the English register as well get to enjoy your stories in our native language.  You may find most of her books available in online booksellers like which has its own Jane Yolen page.  Or at local chain booksellers in Manila who still keep stock of her latest work.  For fans who would like to get some of the best advice about writing, teaching, children's illustrated books, YA writing, myth writing and fairy tales, check out her author website at


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