Book Bag: A mother-and-daughter writing team

  • Jane Yolen, left, and Heidi Stemple

Friday, December 01, 2017

Does the family that writes together stay together?

In the case of Jane Yolen and her daughter, Heidi Stemple, it does.

Yolen, the prolific children’s book author and poet from Hatfield, says she knew she always wanted to be a writer. But following in her mother’s footprints wasn’t something Stemple initially cared to do; earlier in her life, she worked as a probation officer, a private detective and in other fields.

But for two decades now, mother and daughter have been writing children’s books together (and writing on their own). It’s a collaboration both have come to cherish, and they’ll talk about it at Northamton’s Forbes Library on Saturday at 2 p.m. in a presentation open to all.

They’ll talk in particular about the books they’ve written in recent years about birds, how they develop their ideas, and what it’s like to be a writer. They’ll be reading from some of their work and making a slide presentation as well.

Compared to her mother, Stemple joked during a recent joint call with Yolen, “I’m just a piker … but I’ve come to love what I do, and to work with my mom.”

Stemple explains that about 20 years ago, she was about to take a job as a counselor at a battered women’s shelter in Florida when she discovered she was pregnant. Feeling she couldn’t take on the job under those circumstances, she at first felt at a loss as to what to do — until Yolen invited her to come back to Hatfield and write a book with her.

“All three of my kids grew up with this sense that writing was really hard work,” said Yolen. “They’d see me getting ready to hunker down and they’d say ‘She’s in that room again.’ They didn’t see the joy that was also a big part of it.” 

To her surprise — at least at first — Stemple discovered that aspect, too.

“I knew I was an OK writer. I’d written verse and nonfiction before,” she said. “What I found in addition to that was that my mom and I were writing about all these little pieces of our lives… I really liked it.”

So do Yolen’s sons, Adam Stemple and Jason Stemple (the latter is primarily a photographer), both of whom have published books; Adam has written two with his mother.

Yolen and her daughter find different ways to shape their books, from swapping ideas while driving together, sending each other emails with their latest thoughts or discussing who will do the bulk of any research needed for a particular topic (they live next door to each other in Hatfield).

Yolen says she also likes to put her ideas down on paper before hashing out a new story with Stemple: “It’s easier for me a lot of times to write it down than to try and explain it.” 

The two have partnered on numerous picture books for young readers, as well as stories for older children, including a series on unresolved mysteries and strange events from history such as the Salem Witch Trials.

A more recent collaboration was “You Nest Here With Me,” a 2015 story about how a mother readies her young daughter for bed by telling her where and how lots of avian critters — catbirds, hawks, owls, pigeons, sparrows — settle in for the evening. All those birds find comfort in their homes, the mother tells her little girl, just like “you nest here with me.”

Yolen, who since then has published two new picture books on birds — “On Bird Hill” and “On Duck Pond” — says the focus on flying creatures is no accident. Her late husband, David Stemple, was an avid birder, an interest he passed on to the whole family.

In fact, Yolen’s 1987 book “Owl Moon,” which won a Caldecott Award for illustrator John Schoenherr and has been translated into several languages, was based partly on owling trips David Stemple took with Heidi when she was a girl.

Yolen and Stemple have another joint title on birds, to be published by National Geographic Books, that’s due out next year.

And at their Saturday reading at Forbes, which takes place in the library’s Calvin Coolidge Room, Yolen and Stemple hope they can coax the audience into doing some bird calls with them.

“The kids are always up for that,” said Stemple. “The adults? Well, that depends. We’ll see how we want to play it.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Jane Yolen’s website is janeyolen.com; Heidi Stemple’s website is heidieystemple.com.