Friday, November 19, 2010

An Interview with Jane Yolen & Heidi Stemple

Earlier this week I reviewed The Barefoot Book of Dance Stories, which is a wonderful new collection of dance folktales from around the world. I also featured the companion book to Dance Stories (The Barefoot Book of Ballet Stories). Today, I want to end the week with a particularly special treat... 

Children's author Jane Yolen has been referred to as the "Hans Christian Anderson of America" and the "Aesop of the 20th century," among many other wonderful names I'm sure. She's a poet, a storyteller, a teacher of children's literature, and more. My three-year-old and five-year-old know her best for How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? and the many other books in that fun rhyming series. Others might know her best for Owl Moon, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1988. But with more than 300 books under her belt, she is famous in a variety of genres.

Owl Moon is about a little girl and her father, who go owling together late one winter night. Well, the little girl in that story was inspired by Jane Yolen's very own daughter, Heidi Stemple. Today, Heidi is all grown up and is an accomplished author and speaker herself. Among her writing credits are One If By Land (a counting book filled with fun facts from Massachusetts) and several books she has co-written with her mother. 

I feel so lucky to have been able to catch up with both Jane and Heidi to chat about The Barefoot Book of Dance Stories, which is their most recent collaboration. I am honored that they were willing to answer my questions over email, and I'm happy to be able to share their responses here. Enjoy!


What was it like working together on this book?

Jane: As mother and daughter who live next door to one another, we love doing this kind of work. Partly, it deepens an already deep and loving relationship, gives us a variety more things to talk about, and also pays the bills! But another wonderful addition to those is the fact that we are both learning and growing together, finding new stuff to tickle the shared imagination and engage the minds.

Heidi: We have written a dozen (maybe more) books together. So, it is a regular way to work for us. We generally work separately on sections and pass them back and forth to edit and polish each other's work. A lot of people tell me they couldn't work with their mother...but, I really enjoy working with my mom. She's a great collaborator. When we wrote this book (about six years ago--sometimes it takes a while to "make" a book), we actually lived in the same house. 


How did you narrow your focus to just eight dances and cultures?

Jane: We were looking for interesting dances and had to find stories that included dance. The first was much easier than the second. I have a HUGE folklore library myself, but we also researched books at Smith College's dance library (as well as the main library) and at St Andrews University in Scotland, near where I live four months of the year.

Heidi: We had a couple more in there that got dropped. This happened in the ballet book, too. We did try to find as many different kinds of dance and as many different cultures as we could fit in. I think the end result is a well-rounded book. In the beginning, we made a list of all the dance stories we found and started narrowing it down from there.


Do you have a favorite dance story from the book? 

Jane: My favorite is the Scottish "Tam O'Shanter" and I had to fight to keep it in. The editor kept trying to delete it and I kept sticking it back in!

Heidi: I have stumbled into making dance costumes and, in my role as a costumer, I am in love with the illustrations in this book. My favorite is the flamenco dress (page 46), especially since I just finished making a costume for a variation of Carmen. So today, my favorite story is the flamenco, for costuming reasons. Tomorrow, it will probably be something else. It is the connections to my own life that make a story resonate. As an author I am no different than a reader. We are all drawn closer into a story by those connections.


How did your own dance experiences influence the book's creation?

Maddison dancing in the
costume Heidi recently made

© Janine Norton
Jane: I spent my childhood at Balanchine's School of American Ballet in New York and after that at M. Volodine's Ballet Miniature in Westport, Connecticut. I did more dance (modern) at Smith College and always loved folk dancing, which I did once a week up at Columbia University when I was working in New York as an editor after college. A year and a half ago, when I turned 70, I took swing dance lessons. Yes, I love dancing. Now I watch my granddaughter Maddison, who dances both at her high school and at Amherst Ballet. She's a much better dancer than I ever was. And sometimes we even dance together.

Heidi: Oddly enough, with this book (and the book of ballet stories before it), it was really the other way around for me. My life was influenced by the books. Early on, my mom was a great ballet enthusiast. I liked it in a general way, but didn't have a big connection to dance at the time. Then Amherst Ballet staged the book of ballet stories with us as narrators. My daughter Maddison, who was a nine-year-old dancer at the time, fell in love with being on stage (in her role as a dancing squid). We have been a dancing family ever since!


Many thanks again to Jane and Heidi for this interview, and to Barefoot Books for helping me arrange it. In case you didn't know, I'm giving away a copy of The Barefoot Book of Dance Stories this week. Leave a comment before November 22nd for a chance to win. Full details here

Happy Poetry Friday! Bloggers all around the kidlitosphere are celebrating poetry today--and every Friday. The roundup is being held at Random Noodling this week.


  1. Kerry, what a wonderful interview. And such a delight to learn more about Jane and her daughter Heidi, their connections to dance, and how they work together. I come from a dancing family, too, and I can't wait to read this book. Thank you again.

  2. Great interview, Kerry! Thanks, Heidi and Jane for sharing your words.

  3. What a mother and daughter team! Congrats for the great interview Kerry.

  4. Thanks for all the work you put into sharing this with us, Kerry! And thanks Jane and Heidi for sharing as well!

  5. I am still on cloud nine that I had the chance to do the interview at all. Thanks, all, for your kind words!

  6. Congratulations to Connie Walsh Brown, the winner of my first giveaway! (Connie, please leave your mailing address in a comment so Barefoot Books can mail the book to you.)

    Thank you again to everyone who participated in the giveaway. It was a lot of fun for me, and I hope you will all return to my blog to read about more dance picture books. I'm also hoping to add more posts about integrating dance and children's literature in general.

    Happy reading, and happy dancing!!


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