Jane Yolen has been called America’s Hans Christian Anderson and the modern Aesop. This positions her as a successor to two imaginative storytellers; Anderson who created charming, often bittersweet, stories that were original to him but had the resonance of folk tales, and Aesop, the ancient Greek slave who wrote stories which usually contain talking animals and wrap up a serious message in a delightful, fanciful tale.
Indeed, Yolen has a deep interest in fables and folklore. She is the author of a classic investigation of the power of myth, Touch Magic. In it she talks about how fairy tales play a vital role in giving us a common context to relate people and events to, how they provide us with ideas and with wisdom and how they can help us dream our own dreams and shape our lives. In short, she believes that great stories can help us touch magic.
Yolen herself is a writer with the magic touch. She has written fiction for grown ups and a lot of poetry, but she is best known as a writer for younger readers. Even here her work ranges from allegories of major historical tragedies to reshaped legends to amusing, effervescent books for very young readers.
Her Pit Dragon Chronicles series is set on a planet with a rigid caste system where dragons are kept for food and for fighting in the ‘pit’. Owners of victorious dragons gain prestige and power. But over the course of these books, young Jakkin discovers that dragons are not just dumb beasts, they may be more intelligent than human beings. His discovery and his friendship with the dragon he steals from a nursery will cause far-reaching changes.
Sister Light Sister Dark is about an order of female magic workers. The story focuses on white-haired Jenna, who can call forth her ‘dark sister’, Skada, and work magic that is more powerful than they have seen elsewhere. Over the course of the book, she learns how to control her powers and find her own destiny in a fascinating world of peril and wonder.
Briar Rose is rooted in our world, and in the world of fairy tale. It is about an old grandmother’s bedtime story, and her granddaughter’s journey to find the truth behind it in her grandmother’s past as one of the survivors of Nazi Germany’s campaign to wipe out Jews and other people whom they considered sub-human or evil. It is an unusual, challenging book which shows us the horrors of history but also the power of storytelling and the promise of a happy ever after.
I’ve reviewed the young Merlin trilogy before; it is a magical retelling of the myth of Merlin the wizard. It packs an amazing cargo of wonder, legend and magic into a very small parcel.
Her books for younger children include the whimsical but oddly practical Dinosaur series, with titles like How do dinosaurs clean their rooms?, How do dinosaurs say good night?, How do dinosaurs count to ten?
Not only does Yolen write her own book, she co-writes books with others, and puts together anthologies of stories for readers of various ages. She even currently sends a regular daily poem by email to subscribers all over the world!
So the variety of her work is very vast. No matter what age you are, if you like warm, magical books that are full of the wonders and dangers of this world and the world of imagination, you are sure to find a Jane Yolen book that is just right for you.
It happens to be Yolen’s birthday on February 11, so how about celebrating by trying out one of her stories? It might just be your new favourite story!