The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple
WOW!! I get to interview not one, but TWO of my favorite authors today. Okay, locking up the "fangirl" part of myself. But, boy are you all in for a treat! I am so honored that the amazing, super duo of children's literature, Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple, stopped by for a chat.
Just in case you don't know who they are:
Jane Yolen, declared the “The Hans Christian Anderson of American children’s literature” by Newsweek, has written almost 400 books. Jane is one of the most versatile authors I know. She has written picture books, leveled readers, chapter books, middle grade, young adult, and adult books. Her books released just in 2020 include: How Do Dinosaurs Show Good Manners? (Blue Sky Press 10/20); The Midnight Circus (Tachyon Pub. 10/1); Rum Pum Pum (Holiday House 9/15); Plymouth Rocks!: The Stone-Cold Truth (Charlesbridge 9/8); On Eagle Cove (On Bird Hill and Beyond) (Cornell Lab Pub. Group 9/5); Testing the Waters (School of Fish) (Simon Spotlight 8/25); Knowing the Name of a Bird (Creative Editions 8/18); Rocking the Tide (School of Fish) (Simon Spotlight 6/30); Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings (Henry Holt & Co. 2/4); and Miriam at the River (Kar-Ben Pub. 2/4).
Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Jane's equally talented daughter, is the author of almost 35 books—many of them co-authored with her mother and even with her brothers, including Fly With Me: A Celebration of Birds through Pictures, Poems, and Stories (Nat Geo Kids 2018) and Animal Stories: Heartwarming True Tales from the Animal Kingdom (Nat Geo Kids 2014). One of her solo books, Counting Birds: The Idea That Helped Save Our Feathered Friends (Quarto 2018) was on the NSTA Best STEM and Outstanding Science Lists, as well as winning the Riverby and Northern Lights book awards, and was a Green Earth Award honor book. It combines her two favorite things—books and birds. She's also written a concept picture book - One If By Land: A Massachusetts Number Book (America by the Numbers 2006), and part of a nonfiction series - Witch Haunts (Scary Places 2016).
Their newest picture book collaboration, I Am the Storm, makes landfall Tomorrow!
Welcome Jane & Heidi, I am so honored to have you here to talk about your writing and your newest picture book.
ME: First off, how have you each been staying creative? Has your routine or the location that write changed? What are some of the things you’ve done to “prime the well”?
HEIDI: I have been trying to be realistic about my ability to be creative during this weird time. Some days I am super ready to write, and other days I need to just listen to an audio book and sew (I’ve made hundreds of masks for teachers). I’ve written a bunch of poems which help me process and sort out my anxieties. But, I have also been, sporadically, pretty productive, writing a handful of picture book manuscripts, an early reader, a young graphic novel script, several novelty/board books and the beginning of a novel in verse. Obviously, not all of these will sell, but, I was determined not to let the gift of time go to waste. I have always said, “if I just had more time…” Well, I got it. Not how I wanted it—but I have tried to make the most of it.
To be honest, I am an empty nester. So, my work life hasn’t changed too much. But, I miss conferences and book festivals and the places where creative people gather. That has always been an important part of feeding my creative soul. [Heidi, I totally agree with you! And your masks are beautiful treasures.]
JANE: I so love the writing process and the revising process (though NOT the computer process!!!) that I get up each morning eager to do more and more and more.
At 81 I have more ideas and more starts of things than I can possibly finish.
However, that does not mean the ideas are equal. It does not mean I sell everything I finish. It just means I am gloriously writing every day that I can manage it. [Jane, you are my hero!]
I don't know about everyone else, but I am impressed. How do you come up with ideas for your individual, or shared, books? And when you write together, how do you decide which ideas to pursue?
JANE: I am always alert to things I see, smell, taste, read about, hear about, dream about. WORRY ABOUT. There are ideas everywhere! Some things seem to be bigger than I am, need a second eye and voice. I share those—with my three kids, with my fiancée, with my friends who are writers to see if someone wants to join me on that enterprise.
HEIDI: As my mom says—ideas are everywhere. I woke up this morning with a new one. It probably will never become a book, but, I’ll sit with it for a while to see.
We are working on a story together right now. That idea was my mom’s. She started it and sent it to me. I broke it down and we have started building it back up. I am, often, not sure about an idea she comes up with, but it doesn’t usually take too long to get me onboard. I think, sometimes, the most fun (and sometimes most irritating) part, is trying to get our ideas to come together. There is a moment in any collaboration when my idea and her idea for the direction of a book become one—we stop casting around for that middle ground and just settle into it. It’s the moment we quit writing in “Heidi’s voice” and “Jane’s voice” and it becomes the story voice.
What I wouldn't give to be a "fly on the wall" during one of those sessions. Would you say there is a common thread in your individual and/or joint books?
HEIDI: OK—this is a silly answer, but besides the obvious, which for me, is nature, I have to say the common thread in my books is me. I told you it was silly. But, really, authors may write tons of different types of books on a bunch of different subjects (and for my mom that’s almost 400 books but this holds true for her, too) and the only (and most important) common thread is the author—her curiosity about a subject or the need to pursue a story wherever it takes her. Counting Birds which is a nonfiction picture book about the beginning of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count is from the same brain that co-wrote I Am The Storm which is about children owning their own power in the face of frightening natural events. I have always been interested in the Bird Count, but the opportunity to write about weather was handed to us and we took it from there—built the curiosity from the ground up.
JANE: Heidi has nailed it. We are as a family (the boys write, too!) curious about things. We need to tinker under the hood. We want to find out the creature’s story. The girl’s or boy’s story. The dragon’s story. The story about the Audubon Bird Count or the way to sit out a storm. We are story dowsers, taking that little stick in hand and finding the story in the ground, the well, the bird wing, the owl flight.
Hard to word that better. I love the image of an author with (or as) a diving rod, looking for a story. What was your inspiration for writing I Am the Storm?
HEIDI: Every book has its own origin story. This one began when our amazing editor Cecily Keiser, called us to ask if we could write her a book about kids and weather. We said, “Sure! Give us a week for a draft.” We wrote a first draft in that first day.
JANE: Well, to be honest, we wrote the first lines of the first draft on the first day. We had the idea full blown by the second day. We had a full draft in a week and a full pretty final revised draft in a month which was still a month earlier than Cecily asked for. We spent the next months tinkering with Cecily and her wonderful assistant both before and after the sketches were in. And we had a celebratory lunch where Heidi and I gave everyone bracelets that said 'I Am the Storm' to ourselves and them, and called ourselves the Storm Sisters thereafter.
HEIDI: Funny, I remember the first draft being that day after we told her not to expect it soon… and the bracelets were sent in the mail. We always remember things differently—which is called STORY.
Funny how memories can be as divergent as eyewitness testimony! How long did it take for you to come up with refrain “as ____ always do” and the slight tweak at the end?
HEIDI: Ha! That ending took forever! The artists (the uber talented husband/wife team called 'The Brave Union' but whose real names are Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell) were already halfway done with the art, and we were still trying to get the wording just right on that ending. We thought we had it 100 times, but it actually took a meeting in NYC with the editor, her assistant Gabi, and the two of us sitting around a boardroom table talking it out.
JANE: Maybe Heidi’s correct. I forget. At 81 I am allowed to forget. And since (as my children often point out) I am a fantasist, I will leave Heidi to give you the answer to this. But remember that storytellers are professional liars. [HA!]
HEIDI: I actually wrote it down to prove the final wording was MINE!! Though, honestly, just because the final tweak was mine, it was TRULY a collaborative process. All books are—touched by many hands. [I think your former career is peeking through, Heidi.]
Good thing you two aren't competitive. [*Smiling*] What was the most difficult aspect of I Am the Storm? How long did it take to go from idea spark to a submittable manuscript? And to tie the four storms and families into one storm?
JANE: Honestly, it was not hard. The story began writing itself at once, and it developed a pattern quickly. Cecily had given us the four storms. We two know (and actually teach) picture book formats, so we had our parameters. We are both poets so the language fell easily into the lyrical (which is why Cecily asked us originally.) She followed. Managed to tie a string to the tail of that tornado and kept running after it till we were done.
HEIDI: Actually (you know where I am going with this) I remember it very differently. We actually chose the storms. Started with the four, then, tried rewriting it with only one. Cecily nudged us back to the four. It’s true that we found the voice quickly—it’s a very Jane/Heidi voice—and I give Cecily credit for knowing that the voice she wanted was what we would create. I would say the most difficult part of writing the book was the timetable. Cecily needed it fast. We always say “yes!” to questions that begin “can you…” even when we have no idea if we really can. We can both write books quickly—but on command? No, not always. So, that timetable was always in the back of my mind. In fact, a lot of the revision took place in Scotland where I visited my mom on a vacation. Writer’s vacations always involve revision for some reason. Ha!
I think you both make a formidable & talented team. Here's an 'easier' question, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
JANE: Small child—three books: The Story of Ferdinand by Munroe Leaf, Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats and The Pleasant Pirate by John B.L. Goodwin, illus. Warren Chappell.
HEIDI: My 3 favorite books as a kid were Pumpkin Moonshine by Tasha Tutor, Cindy’s Snowdrops by Doris Orgel, illus. Ati Forberg, and Corgiville Fair by Tasha Tudor. Honestly, there are SO MANY amazing books I love more now. But, those were my very favorite as a kid.
JANE: You adored the Babar books, too. And Where The Wild Things Are.
What's that saying, "Once a Mom ..." ? I love how the Howdeshell’s showed just enough of the strength & power of nature, without being overly terrifying. Did anything in the illustrations surprise you? What is your favorite illustration in the book?
Text © Jane Yolen & Heidi E.Y. Stemple. Image © Kristen & Kevin Howdeshell, 2020.
JANE: I love the use of a variety of families and the strength in the children. And their landscapes are to die for. The boy at the end being calm as the sea before him (and even the gull) is calm, too just makes me happy.
Text © Jane Yolen & Heidi E.Y. Stemple. Image © Kristen & Kevin Howdeshell, 2020.
HEIDI: I love the strength that they brought to both nature and the kids. I think, with a children’s book about things that happen with dark skies, there is always a challenge about how to use light vs. dark. And, I think they used that to their advantage page after page in each illustration. You just have to look at the cover, which is about 2/3 midnight purple, to see the magic they made with the slices of color and light. It’s hard to choose a favorite spread because they are all amazing, but, I am obsessed with the child standing on the full-page downed tree. The power in that spread makes me unbelievably happy. And, the text reads “Nature is strong and powerful. But, I am strong and powerful, too.” It gives me the chills.
[Maybe it's the bird joining her, but I see a little 'Heidi' in her.]
Their spreads are phenomenal; such interesting textures and tiny details in each one. With book releases spanning the Covid quarantine period, do you have any advice for authors facing launches or virtual author presentations?
JANE: Learn to Zoom. And Reddit. If I could, you can, too. [*grinning*]
HEIDI: This is quite the conundrum, right? This book is accidently topical. More topical than I would like it to be. And, I think it is a book that will be helpful for many children more today than ever. Book promotion is about trying to reach the audience that would love or need your book. I think targeting the audience is key—not just tossing it out to everyone and hoping it finds its intended readers. But, figuring out how to launch a book--this book-- during Covid—if we figure it out, we’ll let you know!
Please do! I think your gift of a gorgeous Heidi-made, storm themed mask to the first 50 who preorder the book is ingenious. [Note - they're mostly sold out as of 10/25] Is there something you want your readers to know about I Am the Storm?
HEIDI: I would like everyone to know that we are really committed to its message. It is really is ok to be scared. We are ALL scared and talking about it with kids won’t make them more scared. Hopefully, it will open many conversations.
© Jane Yolen & Heidi EY Stemple, 2020.
I think you will succeed! It's a great book for discussing preparations and emotions around unpredictable/unexpected events of all kinds. Are there any projects you are working on individually, or jointly, that you can share a tidbit with us? (Any chance of another family project?)
JANE: We are talking to Cecily about one. Shhhhh.
Always ready to do another. My goal is to write books that children enjoy even as they learn, even as they are being supported, even as they are being awarded. I want to write books for every child, in every situation, giving them strength for the journey ahead, and a safe path to home.
I have several books coming out in the next year, including one about Ben Franklin’s son & the first lending library in America, and about Mrs. Noah and her doves, one about a giant who is an island, How Does A Dinosaur Say Goodbye. Bear Outside which is about a girl who wears a bear outside as she takes control of her life—and the bear’s, Nana Dances (written with Heidi’s daughter Maddison) and a middle grade novel that begins where Moby-Dick left off. And I am working on a dozen other things, and one new book with Heidi.
HEIDI: I’m working on a bunch of things including a novel in verse, and several picture books. And, we are working on a picture book together right now, which my mom mentioned. I really am trying to use this time, in quarantine and quasi-quarantine to my best advantage. To write those things that I have been noodling around with for a long time and to try new things writing-wise.
I am so excited to see these books. Is there one thing you can’t do without?
JANE: Chocolate and my fiancée. They can often be seen together. [*Laughing* And congratulations!]
HEIDI: What I need at my desk when I am researching, writing, and revising: Chai latte, a view of green, binoculars, post it notes, and a picture my friend Nina Victor Crittenden drew for me. Oh, just ONE thing. Then maybe I choose a chai latte. [Your list is perfect! *smiling*]
Last question , what is your favorite animal? Or one that you are currently enamored with? Why?
JANE: Elephants right now. I have a book waiting to be illustrated.
Heidi: Screech owl. Always. [Aww, heart tug!]
Thank you, Jane and Heidi for stopping by and sharing with us. Even though we were separated by coasts & computers, this felt like we were chatting in your living room. It was a real pleasure.
Be sure to come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book (#PPBF) post on I Am The Storm.
To find out more about Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple, or get in touch with them:
Jane Yolen -
Heidi E.Y. Stemple -