LIANE HANSEN, host:
Jane Yolen is one of the most published writers in the United States. She's been called America's Hans Christian Andersen. The author is best known for her picture books for children and novels for young adults.
As Jill Kaufman from member station WFCR reports, Yolen hit a milestone this year: her 300th book was published.
JILL KAUFMAN: Jane Yolen lives in Hatfield, Massachusetts, a rural town of tobacco crops and booming barns and thick woods lining the banks of the Connecticut River. When the natural world figures into Yolen's stories, you can see where she gets some of her inspiration.
(Soundbite of door opening)
KAUFMAN: Like a good book, Yolen's house is something you can get lost in.
Ms. JANE YOLEN (Author): Hey.
Ms. YOLEN: Come on. That's my daughter Heidi, with whom I've written 15 books.
KAUFMAN: Lately, instead of climbing the winding stairs to her office, Yolen likes to write here in this room just off the entryway. She has officially 300 published books under her belt and counting, but she's not the one keeping the tally. She writes historical fiction, much of it based in the time of King Arthur. She writes non-fiction, fantasy, science fiction. Her book, "The Devil's Arithmetic," was made into a movie starring Kirsten Dunst. And not least of all, Yolen writes children's picture books.
Ms. YOLEN: I think picture books should stretch children. I think they should be full of wonderful, amazing words.
KAUFMAN: But, she says, more and more, her publishers tell her she's too literary. Several years ago, she wrote a series of books with the character of Piggins, a pig butler who solves mysteries. The story starts with the disappearance of a diamond lavaliere.
Ms. YOLEN: Well, the editor first said I think we better just say necklace. I think lavaliere's too big a word for kids this age. But we held the fort. We said, yes, absolutely, it's going to lavaliere. And when Jane Dyer, the illustrator, and I went on a book tour together, every school we went to, the kids had voted that lavaliere was their favorite new word.
KAUFMAN: Yolen's books are among the many used in Deborah Felix's kindergarten classroom at the Fort River Elementary School in Amherst, Massachusetts. About 20 kindergartners settle down on the floor as Felix gets ready to read.
Ms. DEBORAH FELIX (Kindergarten Teacher, Fort River Elementary School): All right. Do you know what we're going to read today? "Owl Moon.
KAUFMAN: Yolen wrote "Owl Moon" in 1987. It was illustrated by John Schoenher.
Ms. FELIX: What do you notice about this picture?
Unidentified Child #1: There's an owl in the sky.
Ms. FELIX: There is an owl. Do you remember what kind of owl we thought it might be?
Unidentified Child #1: Snow owl?
Ms. FELIX: I don't think it was a snowy owl.
Unidentified Child #2: A great horned owl.
Ms. FELIX: A great horned owl. That's right.
Unidentified Child #3: I was going to say that.
Ms. FELIX: All right. So, let's get started. (Reading) It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime when pa and I went owling.
KAUFMAN: Felix is using "Owl Moon" to finish up a unit on trees. She stops every few seconds to point out metaphors like snow whiter than milk in a cereal bowl, or big words liked shrugged. And here comes the kids' favorite part:
Ms. FELIX: (Reading) We reached the line of pine trees, black and pointy against the sky. And pa held up his hand and I stopped right where I was and waited. What do you think they're waiting for?
Unidentified Group: An owl.
Ms. FELIX: An owl, exactly. He looked up as if searching the stars, as if reaching a map up there, and the moon made his face into a silver mask and then he called. Who's going to make it first? The dad.
(Soundbite of class making owl sounds)
Ms. FELIX: Oh listen.
KAUFMAN: "Owl Moon" won the most prestigious of children's book awards - the Caldecott. But if anything has made Yolen and the illustrator, Mark Teague, household names it's their series on how dinosaurs do a variety of things like say I love you, eat food, or go to sleep. The writing is markedly different than all Yolen's other work - not as literary, but lots of rhyming with clauses like does a dinosaur slam his tail and pout? Does he throw his teddy bear all about?
Millions have sold and Yolen says this is what pays the bills. And if Yolen, in her 30-year career, had to stick to one type of writing, she says she might as well have worked in a factory.
Ms. ANITA SILVEY (Editor, Horn Book Magazine): She's one of those writers that I hold up, particularly for young writers today, to encourage them to believe they can work in many different forms.
KAUFMAN: Anita Silvey was a longtime editor at Horn Book magazine, the so-called bible of children's literature. She's the author of numerous compendiums listing great books for young readers. She says Yolen is among a handful of writers who've made lasting contributions to children's literature. But Yolen says her greatest hope is to share a sense of what matters most in life -honesty.
Ms. YOLEN: Standing up for the underdog, being heroic in the small sense, if not the large sense. And I don't care if it's a fantasy novel where people are doing great deeds or a small book like "Elsie's Bird," where she does a very heroic thing.
KAUFMAN: Without giving away the ending, to save her bird from death, young Elsie runs courageously into the grasses of a vast prairie, a place she previously feared. And "Elsie's Bird" is what Yolen finally decided would be her official 300th book.
Ms. YOLEN: (Reading) Elsie was a Boston girl. From the time she was a little child, hair in pigtails, she knew the cozy harbor where gulls screamed at fishing boats, where the fish merchants called fresh cod, fresh.
KAUFMAN: For NPR News, I'm Jill Kaufman in western Massachusetts.
Ms. YOLEN: (Reading) She would run along the lazy curves of the busy streets listening to the clop of horses' hooves on stone cobble. She played...
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