Happy Birthday Jane Yolen!

Jane YolenJane Yolen was my first introduction to science fiction. I know it sounds strange that the woman known as “the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century” would ever be known for her science fiction.

When I was in seventh grade, I discovered sci-fi and fantasy. I had loved my copy of Robin McKinley’s “The Hero and the Crown” (my first paperback edition, purchased new, which dates me, is still a treasured possession) to pieces and was hungry for more like it.

I went to the school library and found all the books about dragons and fantastical creatures. Jane Yolen’s “Dragon’s Blood” found its way into my hands. I read it, loved it, sadly returned it to the library, and lost it to memory for years, until putting the pieces back together again a few years later when I was looking at Ms. Yolen’s list of works and saw the title once more.

“Oh, Jane Yolen wrote that?!?”

I was elated to find out who the author was of a favorite old, almost-forgotten book. I even stumbled on a copy in a used book store that was the exact same edition I had read over twenty years ago. 

I had remembered the dragon, and the cover, but when I cracked the book open, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was actually science fiction! With many of fantasy’s trappings, Ms. Yolen decided, much like Anne McCaffery did in her Pern novels, to place the story on another world, rather than another realm.

She didn’t have to do that, of course. She could have just created another basic fantasy world and gotten on with the story, but something about that choice stuck with me all those years. It’s something that sticks with me as a writer today. When given the option, I’ll set my stories on another planet, somewhere off in space.

In addition to this older influence, she’s also responsible for writing one of my favorite short stories. “Sister Emily’s Lightship” is a the tale of Emily Dickinson and her dog encountering something more alien than any of them had ever seen before. Once more the folklorist and fantasist charmed me with science fiction. I discovered the story, and the collection of short fiction that shares its title, when I was immersing myself in reading a story a day for a year. The whole collection was fab, of course, and opened me up to some interesting possibilities in what fiction can look like.

She’s written stories, books, essays, edited folk tale collections, and has an ongoing daily poetry email list. I would call her a national treasure, though I don’t think that she would consider herself one. She manages to still be humble and grounded as an author, and generous with her advice. She has tweeted about rejection slips she’s gotten, even at her level and standing in her career, and has a generous section of advice to writers on her extensive website.

Which brings me to my third Jane Yolen influence moment. I have one book among an ocean of volumes of writing advice that stands out: Ms. Yolen’s “Take Joy”. Unlike many writers who feel you must “open a vein” in order to be a “real writer”, she tosses out all that dreck and uplifts. Her views on enjoying the work, embracing the challenge of it and allowing dread to influence her stories, is a balm in a sea of advice and quotations that make writing seem akin to torture.

“Save the blood and pain for real life, where tourniquets and ibuprofen can have some chance of helping. Do not be afraid to grab hold of the experience with both hands and take joy.”

And so I do try to follow her lead, making my own writing a joyful experience, a worthwhile treat for myself when the days are long. And I’m grateful for the subtle web of influence her own joy of writing has brought me through her tales.

Jane Yolen, Happy Birthday!