Birds, books and fatherhood: An interview with Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen isn’t perhaps a name that is as familiar to us as some other children’s authors, though her books certainly are. Owl Moon is as powerful as it is unique, the story of a father taking his daughter owling one cold winter night. “It is gentle yet adventurous,” says Yolen, “quiet yet full of sound.” The father in that book is remarkable for being unlike so many of the fathers we find in children’s books. He’s strong, kind, knowledgeable, respected for all the right reasons. He spends time with this daughter, making a bit of magic by introducing her to aspects of the natural world. More recently Yolen wrote My Father Knows the Names of Things, again with a father character who is someone we would like to be ourselves. In her own life, though, fatherhood has been as complicated as it is in anyones. Her father largely ignored her, which perhaps is one of the reasons that she found, in her husband David Stemple, someone who was in nearly all ways the exact opposite: caring, kind, approachable, strong, helpful, supportive. When we read those strong male characters in her books, it’s David that we’re seeing represented there. I reached Yolen her at her home in Massachusetts.

1988_Owl_MoonYou have said that the character of Pa in Owl Moon is based on your husband. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your husband and the kind of father he was. Did he really go owling and talk with owls? Jane Yolen: David was born and brought up in the West Virginia mountains and knew woods and woodcraft from a young boy. Birds became a special favorite of his. He moved to NY after college to work for IBM where we met. He taught me everything I know about the woods and then he taught our children. They are all good birders and Heidi — our daughter who is the child in the book — now leads Audubon Christmas owl counts. As a college professor with much discreet time in-between classes and research, David was a hands-on father from the beginning and we had a wonderful 44 year marriage till his (much too early) death at age 69.

Have you ever made a conscious decision to cast the fathers in these books and others in a different way than we see elsewhere? Or is it more that you are drawing on, and reflecting, on your own experience of your father and your husband and the things that you felt they did well? (Or something else entirely … )

JY: My own father was a distant, difficult man, whose outward face was life-of-the-party but who rarely interacted with me except to criticize. He played baseball with my brother (four years younger) but thought I should be mentored only by my mother, and so I was. Luckily she was the smarter, more educated, and more compassionate of the two of them. Unluckily, she died at age 59 of cancer. If you could say one thing to all young fathers, one piece of advice when just starting out, what might it be?

“Value the talents they all have, the work they do. AND TELL THEM THAT.”

JY: Love your babies, toddlers, school age kids, teens (though that is harder) and don’t be afraid to tell them so.Value the talents they all have, the work they do, AND TELL THEM THAT. Be hands on, show them things you like that they might like, take a child to work to see what it is you do when you are away from them. Be involved with your children. And for goodness sakes, read to them.

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