Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Elsie's Bird Blog Event Day Three - An interview with Jane Yolen

For the third and final part of this blog event I have an interview with Jane Yolen about her fabulous book Elsie's Bird.

Marya: Where did the idea for this story come from?

© Jason Stemple
Jane: I was in the doctor's office some time ago and reading the Smithsonian Magazine. There was an article about women going west, carrying with them canaries in cages. It struck a cord. But the book had about a five-year gestation period and was originally about a woman who meets a young farmer and marries him and goes west with him. My editor asked me to rethink it with a child at the center. And after the requisite kicking and screaming and holding my breath until I turned blue, I tried it - and the book
worked so much better, I immediately claimed it was my ideal. (No I didn't, the editor Patti Gauch was a genius at such small suggestions and I truly mourn her retirement.)

Marya: The story takes a sad turn when Elsie struggles with the isolation that she feels on the farm in Nebraska. How did you get inside her head and heart? How did you find out what it was like to be a child who moved from a city to a sod house on a prairie? 
Jane: Once the child was off to that new place, I became her. The voice I heard was my childhood voice in my head.

Marya: How do you think children who have never seen a prairie will identify with Elsie? 
Jane: I think they identify with the fear of new places, the loss of family and familiar things, the need to be brave when a pet is in danger. The prairie in the book stands for all the scary new things that really often have their own beauty once we are willing to surrender to them. It could just as easily be a new city, a new country, a new school. New things are scary. They seem unnatural. Children go into new situations all the time.

Marya: To me this story is very much about finding ones sense of home in a new place. How do you think adults can help children to adjust to a new place? 
Jane: First I think you have to let  child identify the fear of the new. Remind them of all the new things they have done before in their lives - getting born, moving house, a new school, visiting someone they've never met before, going to the doctor, taking a test. All those things are new - and can become something fabulous. Don't tell them they are silly or stupid to feel that way. Acknowledge their fears, and even your own fears. And then help them find the beauty, those things which make this new place  beautiful.

Marya: I enjoy reading stories about what it was like to move to the American frontier. Over the years, my copies of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books have traveled from place to place with me. Is this a part of history that you have a particular interest in? If so why?
Jane: I lived the first thirteen years of my life more or less in New York City and suddenly we moved to Connecticut. No preparation, thrown into the deep end of the pool. After college I went back to New York to work. Then my husband and I traveled around Europe and the Middle East for almost a year and moved to Massachusetts when we came back. One New York friend mused puzzingly, "How can you stand all that green?" Well, I am a born-again New Englander now. And a part time Caledonian, living in Scotland about four months a year. I love finding new beauty wherever I go. It's not Nebraska, not the prairie that calls me; it's finding the beautiful new.

Marya: Elsie's Bird is your 300th book. How does it feel to have reached this
extraordinary milestone in your career?
Jane: It sounds more extraordinary to other people than it sounds to me. You see, I remember writing all those books, one at a time. I love to write, love to watch stories and poetry leak out of my fingertips onto the keyboard. Nothing makes me happier. (Another kind of finding the new beauty, actually!) They are all dear old friends. Though I have to admit, I love quoting this from Isaac Asimov: "If the doctor told me I had six minutes to live, I'd type a little faster.”

Thank you so much Jane. I am looking forward to seeing what you do next. Here's to many more books to enjoy in the future.

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