When I was in first grade, my teacher read us “Owl Moon” — Jane Yolen’s sparse poem of a story about a little girl and her dad walking through snowy fields and woods around a New England farm, looking for owls.
“That child is my daughter. The man is my late husband. He taught us all to bird. I’m the worst birder of the family,” Yolen tells me with a chuckle from her Hatfield home — the setting of that Caldecott Medal winner — where she’s lived since 1971.
“I grew up in New York City; I thought birds were either pigeons, or they didn’t exist. Then I met this West Virginian computer scientist,” she says of her late husband David Stemple.
Yolen, 82, has dozens of awards and 400 books under her belt. She’s written books with all three of her kids, and two of her grandchildren over the years. Her 400th, “Bear Outside,” a charmer about a little girl who feels stronger by imagining she’s inside a protective bear, releases March 2.
Born in New York City, Yolen spent her high school years in Westport, Conn. A 1960 graduate of Smith College, she later earned her master’s from UMass-Amherst.
I recently caught up with Yolen — who, with her husband Peter B. Tacy, splits her time between Massachusetts and Scotland — to look back at 400 books.
Q: So this is your 400th book. That’s incredible.
A: Yes! As surprising to you as it is to me.
Q: What sparked the idea for this latest book?
A: I was looking at various artists for another bear book I’d done, “A Bear Sat on my Porch Today” — which actually happened — and I found this wonderful artist Jen Corace. I saw [her] picture of this child looking out of the mouth of a bear, not afraid, but like, “Ah. Now I’m in control.” And I started writing a book that went with that. And years later, I sold it.
Q: Does that happen often, that you write something that gets published years later?
A: Let me put it this way: I just sold a book with my granddaughter who is 25. We wrote the book when she was 10. Sometimes things take a long time.
Q: Wow. So the book with your granddaughter will be number 401?
A: I have about 5 books coming out after this — so 405. Or 408, something like that [laughs.] I’ve already sold about 30 books. Some are not going to be illustrated for another two or three years. I would say I have books in contract now up through 2025.
Q: Growing up, I loved your books on nature. Does Hatfield inspire you?
A: I walk out by the Connecticut River and [ideas are] all over. You may see a fox. When a fox jumps up and down onto its prey, it looks like a parenthesis — there’s a story right there. No matter where you go, you’re going to find a story. You just have to pay attention.
Q: You must get loads of responses to “Owl Moon” alone.
A: You know who contacts me most these days? Raptor rehabilitators. They call me up and say, “We’re going to do this [program] with “Owl Moon” or “On Eagle Cove” or another of my bird books. There’s a raptor rehabilitator in Virginia called the Owl Moon Raptor Center.
It’s a gift that keeps giving. It’s why I love being in the children’s book field. Children come to books brand new. It’s books that teach them what they like, what they want to learn. For me, that’s the sweet spot.
Q: What was it like selling your first book, “Pirates in Petticoats”?
A: I sold my first two books at the same time. I was 22, living in New York City. I ran down the street to the Overseas Press Club. My father [a freelance journalist] was president at that point. They were all at lunch, I was probably the only woman. I said, “Daddy! I sold my first two books!” He turned to the men and said “Drinks are are on me!
I grew up around writers. My father was friends with Hemingway, Thurber. I thought all grown-ups were writers. I tried being a journalist. I worked one summer for the Bridgeport Sunday Herald. It turned out I’m a lousy journalist because I make things up. [laughs]
Q: You write that this new book is “for my daughter, Heidi, who has always worn her bear on the outside and is afraid of nothing.”
A: It’s for any girl. I write a lot of books of girl empowerment, some of them artfully disguised, and this is certainly one of them.
Q: Looking back at your books, which stand out as favorites?
A: “Owl Moon” is always going to be a favorite. The [”How Do Dinosaurs…” series] because they’ve sold millions of copies, and put all my kids and grandchildren through college. [laughs]
Q: You’ve done so many school visits. Do any special moments stand out?
A: A couple of us were asked to go down to Sandy Hook, not the school where it happened, but close to that. I was talking to the 8th graders. I racked my brain. What am I going to read? These are kids who had younger brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors [affected.] I read a portion from “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” my holocaust novel. Our heroine says, “Why don’t we fight?” and the other little girl says “What do we fight with? We have no guns. We have no knives.” And the other girl says to her, “Every day we’re alive, we’re heroes. I’m a hero, you’re a hero, we are all heroes here.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.