Once upon a time, the school librarians of Massachusetts gathered in a great hall, all waiting to meet the legendary Book Whisperer. Unfortunately, it came to pass that the Book Whisperer was trapped in the far-off land of the Philadelphia International Airport (“At least there’s a bookstore and a Legal Seafood,” came word from Twitter). With that, the wise MSLA Executive Board sprang into action and worked their magic to conjure mother-and-daughter giants of children’s literature, Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple. (This was not even the day’s first miracle, Heidi having already pulled off the trick of being in two places at one time with a surprise appearance at the at the lower grades author showcase while on the panel for the upper grades.) Despite having been with the librarians since early afternoon, our story’s heroines were undaunted, staying on through dinner, the annual meeting, and awards presentation, to save the day with an inspired and entirely extemporaneous keynote address.
That’s how it happened that, while we missed Donalyn Miller, those who attended the MSLA 2015 Conference dinner had the best consolation prize a roomful of school librarians could wish for. For those of you who couldn’t be there, snuggle up now and enjoy a few of the stories Jane and Heidi shared with us.
The Family Business
And so. Once upon a time, there was a mother and daughter, and they wrote many beautiful books for children and young adults and grownups to enjoy together. But this story really begins even earlier, as Jane and Heidi explained how each came to join what is truly a family business.
Jane’s grandfather was a natural storyteller, sitting by the fire in his inn in the old country and regaling audiences in Yiddish with the most amazing stories, cribbed from Shakespeare and the Bible (of course, the Bard was himself a consummate thief, and as we were reminded, the best storytellers are terrific liars). Her father was a journalist, publishing executive, and the self-proclaimed kite-flying champion of the Western Hemisphere, whose adventures included being a police reporter and spinning misinformation for the secret radio in London during World War II. Her mother was the author of published crossword puzzles and unpublished short stories. Jane’s older son writes books of music; the younger is a photographer.
Parent-child collaboration is itself part of the family tradition. Her father, Will Yolen, “loved to sign contracts and checks and books … but didn’t like to write.” So it came to pass that the first book of the hundreds Jane has published was The Young Sportsman’s Guide to Kite Flying, ghost-written for her dad for $250 and no royalties.
Still, her firstborn daughter had to be “hauled kicking and screaming into the family business.”
The Kid in Owl Moon
“I am completely the opposite of my mom in the way I came into this,” explained Heidi. Though written into her mother’s books as the daugher in Owl Moon and other characters, Heidi took a more circuitous route to becoming an author. Though an avid reader and writer (with great models at home, of course!), she was too shy as a child to get up and speak in front of an audience. Her early career as a professional writer began in college when (in a story she promised she does not tell in school visits), she set up a cottage industry writing papers for other students. “I was good enough I could charge by the letter grade,” she explained with all due modesty. Still, Heidi was a parole officer, a private investigator, and a bartender, apparently exhausting all options before joining her mother to write a story for the collection Great Writers & Kids Write Spooky Stories. Since then they have collaborated on on more than 20 books together, with more on the way.
For those who are wondering, “the kid in Owl Moon,” as she put it, still goes owling annually, and even uses some of her late father David Stemple’s recordings. One year she called 66 owls.
What a Writer Needs
Our next story is a kind of list: the things a writer needs.
Jane began: “First, an idea. It helps.” But, she clarified, you don’t have to be an expert. It can be something you’re interested in, something “so familiar to you you’ve never explored it before, [or] something so important to you you’ve never dared crack it open before.”
You’ll also need patience. Ideas have to “roast, bubble, cook … to get to the point they are palatable.”
Then there’s the all-important BIC. That’s “bottom in chair,” of course.
Next, a question: you have to ask, “What if?” It’s the question “all storytellers ask,” Jane explained. “What if a father and a daughter go out owling on a moonlit night? What if a girl goes back in time to … the Holocaust?”
A writer also needs a sense of self (“that no one else is going to tell the story the way you will”) and a love of story (“or what are you doing writing it?”). And finally, writers need readers, to make their stories live. The reader may even find a different story than the one the writer thought she put down.
What’s missing from the list? Talent. Talent is cheap, Jane explained. Everyone has some. It’s the rest of it that takes the hard work.
Heidi added three things: passion, perseverance, and patience. To which her mother responded, “I said patience!” Clearly, however, it was worth repeating, as the next and last story they told was 12 years in the making.
Good Night, Nestlings!
Then it was time to read the librarians their final bedtime story, the just-released You Nest Here With Me, an ornithological lullaby about pigeons, catbirds, wrens, and grackles. This book, Jane and Heidi explained, went through editors, publishers, and rewrites to the point of being unrecognizable to its authors and back again, then waited three more years for the perfect illustrator in Melissa Sweet.
Jane and Heidi read, as the sleepy, grateful librarians listened on:
Swallows nest above barn doors,
Plovers nest on sandy shores,
Eagles nest upon high tors,
But you nest here with me
In a metaphor that seemed apt not just for a child’s bedtime routine but (since, as we know, the reader will find her own meaning) maybe even the role of literature and libraries in the lives of young people:
Like baby bird, your nest can be
Anywhere there’s you and me
And in parting, mother and daughter concluded, “Good night, nestlings!”
Stacy Kitsis is the librarian at Arlington High School