The Bird Whisperers: Inside the wild and wonder-filled world of Jane Yolen

  • Children's book author Jane Yolen visits with illustrator Bob Marstall in the dining room of her Hatfield home. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

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    Quilt, detail. "Children made this quilt for me. Each panel is from one of my books." - Children's book author Jane Yolen. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A tea set and bottles of Scotch (for guests). Yolen doesn’t drink alcohol but lives in Scotland for part of the year. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • An illustration in children's book author Jane Yolen's home. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dragons in the attic writing room of children's book author Jane Yolen.

  • The attic writing room of children's book author Jane Yolen GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Illustrator Bob Marstall visits with children's book author Jane Yolen in the kitchen of her Hatfield home. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Children made this quilt for me. Each panel is from one of my books,” Yolen says. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Illustrator Bob Marstall visits with children's book author Jane Yolen in the kitchen of her Hatfield home. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Illustrator Bob Marstall visits with children's book author Jane Yolen in the kitchen of her Hatfield home. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Illustrator Bob Marstall, pictured above, visits with Yolen in the kitchen of her Hatfield home. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A portrait of Yolen’s late husband, David Stemple, as Don Quixote GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The author, a “choco-holic,” also has a bit of a tea habit. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Illustrator Bob Marstall is a frequent collaborator on author Jane Yolen's children's books. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • An early illustration by children's book author Jane Yolen's son. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Children's book author Jane Yolen, right, and illustrator Bob Marstall are interviewed in the kitchen of her Hatfield home. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Children's book author Jane Yolen, right, and illustrator Bob Marstall are interviewed in the kitchen of her Hatfield home. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Yolen and Marstall are working on a third book for their Cornell series.

  • Children's book author Jane Yolen has tea in the kitchen of her Hatfield home. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • At right, Yolen depicted in caricature as an owl. She loves raptors.

  • Children’s book author Jane Yolen in what she calls the television room, a favorite writing spot that gives her space to put up her feet and use her laptop (with the TV off) GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • From Greek mythology, a chimera: part lion, part eagle, part serpent GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Illiustration, left, by Ruth Sanderson, in the home of children's book author Jane Yolen. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

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    Children's book author Jane Yolen takes a call in the "television room" of her Hatfield home, a favorite writing spot that gives her room to spread out her things and use her laptop. "I hardly ever watch television, unless my grandkids are around." —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A wall of family photographs in Yolen’s Hatfield home GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Gazette Staff
Published: 6/2/2017 9:24:40 AM

At 78, Jane Yolen might just be the most prolific children’s author in the Valley. To date, the New York Times best-selling author has written 366 books—enough to read one a day for a year, “even Leap Day,” says Yolen, who is perhaps best known for writing the meditative children’s book “Owl Moon.” 

Fittingly, her Hatfield house is a bookworm’s heaven, filled with copies of her own books and loaded with original art by illustrators she has worked with, many of them local, including Jane Dyer, Barry Moser and Eric Carle. “We knew him early on when our children were little,” she says of Carle.

In recent years, Yolen has teamed up with Easthampton illustrator Bob Marstall to create a new series of children’s books for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Their first collaboration for the Cornell Lab Publishing Group, “On Bird Hill,” came out last year and follows a boy and his dog on a walk as they discover a just-hatched bird in a nest. And this past April, Yolen and Marstall released a sequel, “On Duck Pond,” which captures the cacophony of a duck invasion in an otherwise quiet New England town.

While the illustrations for “On Duck Pond” are more scientific, Marstall’s style for “On Bird Hill” could be described as “free-range.” “I did doodles for decades, since I was little,” says Marstall. “—And he hid them,” Yolen interrupts. “I didn’t show them to anybody because they weren’t ‘art,’ ” Marstall continues. “About four years ago, I worked up my courage and showed them to Jane, and she loved them.” Yolen eventually used one of those doodles as the inspiration for “On Bird Hill,” which is also loosely based on the nursery rhyme, “The Green Grass Grew All Around.” “Two hours later, she sent the first draft,” Marstall says.

Now Marstall is working on the pictures for their third book in the series, “On Gull Beach.” Last week, he popped over to Yolen’s house for some tea, her beverage of choice. She spends part of the year in St. Andrews, Scotland, which also explains the bottles of Scotch. “Funny thing is, she doesn’t drink at all,” Marstall says. “That’s for guests,” she explains.

Sorry we can’t offer you some. But below, Yolen shares her influences and inspirations.

Morning routine: “I’m an early morning person. When I get up, first thing, I check my email. Still in bed. I write a poem every day. I have 971 subscribers to my poem list. And a lot of times I end up selling those poems to magazines or journals. I don’t make any claims about their being great poems. I did one a few days ago that’s about Lake Hitchcock. It was named after Edward Hitchcock who was not only the third president of Amherst College, but he was a geology professor. You know, it’s hard to get writers to do anything really exciting. We’re not like athletes. Somebody said, ‘Why don’t they do a documentary on your day?’ I said ‘Drinking tea and sitting with a laptop?’ ”

Laptop sticker: “ ‘Nevertheless, she persisted.’ I am a fan of a number of progressives, but I could not resist that.”

Writing spot: “The television room, mostly. As you can see, I kind of spread out. I had a huge back operation and while my back is fine, I need to be somewhere where I can put my feet up and have the laptop in my lap. The books in this room are all history. I have a bunch of things about Benjamin Franklin because I’ve been working on a picture book for kids about Benjamin Franklin. I hardly ever watch television, unless my grandkids are around.”

But when you do watch TV? “I love watching the Great British Bake Off. I like watching MasterChef—I don’t cook. I listen to all the things that they do and I think, ‘How do they know that stuff?’ It sounds awful. It always surprises me that people get so passionate about it. I’m going, ‘Yeah, give me yogurt.’ ”

Food for thought: “Carrots. I try to stay away from cookies and crackers. I’m a choco-holic, that’s my downfall. Dark. Don’t send me any.” 

Drink of choice: “I live part-time in Scotland, and I love teas; in fact, I bring my own British decaf tea, Typhoo, wherever I go because everyone uses Lipton. It’s just ordinary British tea. You can get three full cups out of it, whereas Lipton you barely get one that looks like ... I don’t even want to say what it looks like.”

Exercise of choice: “I do a daily walk, when it’s not raining or snowing. There’s a two-mile cycle that you can do and never get off the sidewalk. Sometimes I go along the Connecticut for about a mile, and then I come back. It’s good for the fitbit.”

Fantastic beast: “That’s a chimera. A chimera is from Greek mythology and is part lion, part eagle, and part serpent. And if you look them in the eye, you’ll turn to stone, so yeah, don’t look.”

Portrait of David: “That’s my David up there. [Artist] Rebecca Guay’s husband [Matthew Mitchell] is a portraitist, and he wanted to do a Don Quixote. This was after David had both chemo and radiation; he was looking pretty ragged, but he did the pose, and he looks like he’s got his face looking out to the infinite. He died eleven years ago.” 

The beauty of birdsong: “My husband was actually a computer scientist at UMass, but he had always been a birder. When he retired, he became a bird recordist. He had gone to Cornell, given them all of his recordings, and pro-bono, made them their very first database for all their bird stuff. It just changed everything for them. That was about 20 years ago. But when he was dying, he was on a hospital bed in that room where I now work, and three or four of the guys from Cornell came over and wired a microphone so that he could hear birdsong every day. Isn’t that beautiful?”

Owl collection: “It all started with ‘Owl Moon.’ My daughter now lives in Owl Cottage, which is right next door. David was the premier owler in this part of Massachusetts, and for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, he led the team around Hatfield and got more owls in Hatfield than anybody. After he died, Heidi started doing it, and she now has a group called the OMG—the Owl Moon Gang. They go from midnight until seven in the morning, and they live-blog it. The most David got was 33 owls in one night. A couple years ago, she got 67. She’s now a better owler than he ever was.” 

Do you know how to do bird whistles or duck calls? “My husband did, and Heidi knows how to do owl calls. But honestly, these days, almost everybody uses an app, from Cornell.”

Backyard birds: “Well, we’ve got eagles and owls and red-tailed hawks. We’ve got turkeys, little songbirds. We’ve got jays and cardinals. Now we have bears, so. We have one female with three little ones.” 

Mother-daughter bond: “Heidi and I teach a picture-book boot camp for students. We take up to 10 students who are already published; five of them stay here, and five of them stay at the old mill and the B&B a few doors down.”

Do you play piano? “Very badly. Folk music, mostly. But I am in a band. It’s called Three Ravens. I’m actually the fourth. I write the lyrics. And I put the band together. So far we’ve played in Amherst, we played somewhere up in New Hampshire. The three ravens go and play a lot without me. And occasionally I go and I read poetry.”

Wooden ducks: “Some of those are old duck decoys and some of them my husband made.”

A room of one’s own: “[Upstairs] each room has its own character. The poetry room is called the Emily Dickinson room. Mira Bartok, who is an artist and a writer in New Salem, made that [portrait of Dickinson] and gave it to me as a present. They’re not all Dickinson books. Those are all poetry books, but there is a shelf of Dickinson books.”

Favorite Emily Dickinson poem: “ ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Success in Circuit lies.’ I can’t do the rest by heart, but those two lines just grab me all the time.” 

Prized fan art: “Children made this quilt for me. Each panel is from one of my books. This is ‘A Little Mouse’s Birthday,’ this is ‘Letting Swift River Go,’ this is ‘Sky Dog.’ They were in elementary school.” 

Attic writing room: “Isn’t it nice? I used to sit at this desk and write. And I’m dying to come back here. Not only could I spread out more, but I could go and take a quick nap or just let my back rest.” 

Where do you read? “Everywhere. On my exercise bike, in bed at night or anywhere I happen to be where I just have a book in my hand. Sometimes I’ll have three or four books going at the same time. But I do more reading when I’m in Scotland because I have less interruptions: Not that many people know that I’m a writer, or care.”

Which captures your imagination more, dragons or dinosaurs? “Boys are more into dinosaurs and girls seem to be more—if you want to be sexist about it—into unicorns. But you know, I’m a whatever’s-under-my-fingers at the time, that’s what I’m into. 

Kids love your “How Do Dinosaurs ... ” books; why a whole series? “One of my editors, who I’d worked with on other things, called up and she said, ‘My son is three, he loves dinosaurs, and he hates going to sleep at night; can you do something for him?’ So I said, ‘Yes I can.’ I thought it was going to be a one-off … the 12th big book will be coming out next year, but there are board books, scratch-and-sniff ... They’re talking about a television series. The thing that’s so wonderful about dinosaurs is that every time I open a paper, they’ve discovered a newer, bigger, nastier one. I love the fact that now we’re thinking of them not just as scaled creatures, but they keep finding all kinds of feathers.”

Do you have an idea file? “I have many idea files. I have books in various steps: Some of them are completed and I haven’t found a publisher for them yet; some I completed but I didn’t like them; some I haven’t completed yet; and some I just have some notes for. I told my children that after I’m gone they can say to the publishers, ‘We just found mother’s last manuscript!’ — and they’re good for 40 years.”

Do you ever get ideas from dreams? “I woke up from a dream years ago with the entire first chapter of a book in my mind. I had no idea what it would be, and the book ended up being called ‘Wizard’s Hall.’ It was published eight years before ‘Harry Potter’ came out.”

Beloved children’s book by another author: “Well, ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ Barbara Cooney was always a favorite, her ‘Miss Rumphius,’ especially.”

Book on your shelf that it’s time to chuck: “ ‘The Xerox Intermediate Dictionary.’ Would you believe we’ve already culled this once, recently? And I didn’t take that out.”

Book on your shelf that you haven’t read that you feel guilty about: “I’m right now reading a book I really was looking forward to reading, and I find it very difficult going. It’s called ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife.’ I love Diane Ackerman’s poems — she’s a brilliant poet — and this feels like every note that she took in her research had to find a place. When you’re doing research, you have to find a way to make it sound like it’s either someone thinking it or speaking it, but it shouldn’t sound like an info dump.”

Book of yours you wish more people had read: “Oh, God, I have so many of those. You know, for all the books that I’ve had that were best-selling or Caldecott winners or whatever winners, I must have 40 or 50 books that I loved so much, and they just disappeared.”

New projects on the horizon: “Well, I just wrote a big Holocaust novel—it’s my third, it’s coming out next year. ‘If I ever write another Holocaust novel,’ I’ve told all my friends, ‘shoot me.’ ” 

What do you do when you have writer’s block? “What’s that?”  

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