If author Heidi Stemple ever wants to forge a new career outside of the “family business,” she would make a great school librarian, as she proved at the recent MSLA conference when she and her mom Jane Yolen stepped in for speaker Donalyn Miller. Like a skilled librarian, Heidi is a connector who loves and promotes children’s literature, and who willingly and enthusiastically shares her knowledge and resources with others. Fortunately for Massachusetts school librarians in attendance, emails from Heidi helped to secure the dazzling line-up of authors who attended the conference. Also fun for attendees was the surprise treat of hearing the mother-daughter banter between Yolen and Stemple during their impromptu but excellent awards dinner speech. This unexpected opportunity to learn about the creative juggernaut that is the Yolen-Stemple clan was one of the highlights of the conference.
Heidi grew up in Western MA, in a home and school environment that valued and nurtured artistic expression through all sorts of creative pursuits. She and her brothers were encouraged to keep journals of their outdoor adventures, they wrote collections of poetry, and they composed “fantastical” field guides filled with imaginary animals. Heidi made pottery, sewed, and made use of the art room in her home.
Given her creative childhood, it is no surprise that today Heidi is an author and frequent collaborator with her mom, Jane Yolen, but she did not always want to be an author. She had a successful career in criminal justice before deciding to return to the writing fold in Massachusetts, where she now lives and works.
Perhaps her years doing a “regular” job prepared her for the more prosaic aspects of a writing career such as deadlines, bottom lines, branding, and print runs. As she noted in her MSLA keynote, having success as an author depends on three important qualities: passion, perseverance, and patience. She says, “In fact, most of us would prefer that lovely cottage in the woods with no one to bother us but our characters,” but the reality of the writing life is that it takes a lot of hard work to make the “magic” happen. As she readily admits, “The magic is hard work.”
Heidi’s collaborative writing process with her mom, Jane Yolen, involves a back-and-forth exchange of ideas and lots of discussion. As they explained during their conference speech, they are both good editors, and they are both good at taking criticism and direction. They have written 20 books together, including a new book, Animal Stories, for National Geographic, that was also written with Heidi’s two brothers. Describing the collaborative process, Heidi says, “Our voice together is a third voice that is similar to our separate voices in some aspects but [is] also new.”
Heidi has written for all ages, including adult readers, although she says her favorite genre to write is picture books. She calls herself “an equal opportunity writer” who lets the story dictate the form, so she follows wherever the story takes her. She is currently working on a solo manuscript, with a couple more projects in the works. Heidi says that she does not “make much distinction between working alone or with a collaborator.” It’s “all writing,” and she loves the process, either working alone, or working with others.
Heidi notes that in this current school climate of teaching to the test, and with parents worrying about “their offspring having ‘real’ jobs,” she is careful to convey during her school visits that “a creative job is a job,” and should be recognized as such. She also believes that whether a student becomes “a dentist, or a lawyer, or a construction worker,” people should “keep being creative” in whatever career they choose. Her sound advice is, “Find what you love and do it always.”
Heidi shares her knowledge and passion for writing and books through school visits that can be arranged through her website, HeidiEYStemple.com. She says, “My wish is, of course, for creativity to be fostered in all children. In school, but also at home.” Heidi speaks to students firsthand about the creative process and the sometimes circuitous path that an idea takes to become a book, and that a person sometimes takes to find their real passion in life—in her case, making the journey from corrections officer to private investigator to author.
Just as a private investigator follows clues and notices details, an author draws inspiration from a variety of sources. As Heidi notes, authors get their ideas from “everywhere—real life, research,” as well as from hints dropped by editors looking for certain types of books. Heidi’s latest book, You Nest Here With Me, a collaboration with Jane Yolen, reflects the connection of the Stemple family to birds and birding. Heidi Stemple, the little girl from Owl Moon, has grown up, has joined the family storytelling business, and is now building a creative legacy of her own.
Karen Sekiguchi is the K-5 librarian for the Danvers Public Schools.