Yolen and Coville: The Dynamic Duo


imageThis is the message we sent back and forth to each other for almost a week after meeting with the pair. From butterflies in our stomachs to Chinese food to thunderstorms, this night had it all.

If you don’t know Jane Yolen or Bruce Coville, you need to go and change that right now. Some of the greatest worlds were created by them, in books that we continue to remember years after having read them.

This year at BEA 2014, we approached Ms. Yolen about doing an interview with our website — her face lit up and started talking about feminism and books. After much trial, we were able to settle on a date for the interview: in person, and with Coville along for the ride!

One thing these two authors have in common is that they were both educators (Coville of elementary education, Yolen at Smith College), and we learned from them all night.  They are also both storytellers, so the lessons we learned were riveting and felt special to us.  And so, without further ado, we present to you…

…ten lessons we learned from Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville.

1) Pay attention to your predecessors and never forget what they went through

Throughout the evening, conversation repeatedly centered around how what in history influenced the world we live in today. One of Yolen’s first series of books, the Great Alta Saga, was set primarily in a matriarchal society. We asked her what influenced her choice to create such a world. And in response, she told us a story: “When I came out of college, the idea of the glass ceiling was just forming. I 51384ABJDWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_remember in my twentieth reunion we were all gathered for dinner and the president of our class stood up and she said, ‘I want to introduce you to some of your classmates.’ And then she said, ‘this is so and so, she’s first woman Vice President of Chemical Bank, and this is so and so, she’s the first woman head of neurosurgery at Boston General’ and we went around and these were all women who were the first of wherever it was that they were. And we had, without even thinking about it, benefited by the four years ahead of us, where you had the women who were out there really banging their heads against the glass ceiling, and suddenly we were the class, so I think I was always aware of that.” It was this recognition that sparked Yolen to write books like Cards of Grief and Sister Light, Sister Dark, whole societies based on the importance of women.

2. Reading is a gendered issue

The Daily Geekette exists to give a voice to women within the larger nerd culture. But our larger goal is that we, as women, and all other genders, are seen as equals. That is why we were elated to hear we would get the chance to speak with not just Jane Yolen, but Bruce Coville as well. Coville writes realistic female characters and is a strong advocate for equality (it was perhaps for this reason that Sarah ate his books up off the library shelf as a child). Not only is he a writer, but he was a teacher, and as such, has seen firsthand what the world of young people reading looks like. He presents that, “the reason that reading itself is a gender issue in this country is because it is filtered to kids through women. The first person who reads to you is usually mom at home. The person who teaches you to read is your first or second grade teacher, almost always a woman. The person who buys your books is almost always a female elementary librarian. So kids get the sense that when boys are in third or fourth grade trying to figure out how to be a guy-” to which Yolen concluded, “-you don’t read.”

It is an issue that Kayla, as an educator and a book advocate is acutely aware of and sees every day in the classroom.  When the Maze Runner film came out, her male students all went and saw it, but when handed a copy of the book, they put it down (politely).

3. Power is connected to masculinity

Coville let us in on a secret he’d learned from teaching elementary school: men teaching lower grades are expected to work towards something more, such as becoming a principal, while women who are elementary teachers are not. The hierarchy of society is men at the top, in power, women are middle itlouground, and children are at the bottom, and thus lack power. Women can be teachers for children, can be writers for children, can interact — are expected to interact — with children because of where they sit socially. But men are always expected to ‘reach higher.’ Coville stated, “It is perfectly alright in this culture for a woman to spend a 35 year career teaching second grade. But we secretly think there’s something wrong with a man who wants to do the same thing.”

Yolen continued: “In children’s books of course, women were always such a big part of it. Women editors were huge. There were very few men editors, partially because it was ‘oh, you’re women, you know how to talk to children, therefore we’re going to make you children’s book editor.’ The very first real children’s book editor in America was a woman who had been the president of the company’s secretary. And he said basically, we want to have a children’s book department so we’ve decided you will run it. She’d never even edited anything at that point but it’s okay because it was children’s books. So by the time I came along, children’s books were filled with women editors and there were maybe three or four men editors and they were mostly in the top positions. They were head of the entire department, but the really great children’s book editors were still alive then. You had Ursula Nordstrom, you had that kind of person and now we’ve got a lot of very important men editors and there’s always the sense that if you’re a male editor in children’s books it was because you couldn’t make it in the real literary world.”

Coville pointed out, “Currency in this culture is power. And the people who have power are adult men. The people who don’t have power are kids, and the pivot people are women. Which is why it’s more okay for women to work with kids than men, because working with kids is perceived as giving up power. And giving up power is unacceptable in this culture. That’s why it’s okay for women to wear pants but not for men to wear skirts,” to which Yolen piped in, “Except in Scotland!”

4. Awards are rigged in every media

Yolen brought up the idea that awards are gendered as well: “interestingly though, there’s a majority of the authors and the illustrators who have won major prizes have been men. And a lot of people have been discussing that, and trying to decide if there really is a bias. Are the women librarians who are giving out these prizes, for example, the Newbury and Caldecott, are they seduced by the men? I don’t mean literally, but I51XmF+kLeJL mean just seduced by the idea of these wonderful men who are doing these things.”

When Coville noted that the last few Newbury awards have gone to women,  Yolen argued that is solely because there had been “so much outcry.”  She argued that it’s all about who is on the committee that year and, “if there’s a very powerful voice in the committee, they can sway.”

It makes us wonder about the books that maybe should still be around, but are out of print because of lack of recognition.  There are books we read in our childhood libraries that are impossible to find now.  If they had won the Newbury, possibly these books we grew up with would still be on our shelves.

5. Publishers are all about making money

Inevitably, the conversation turned to Harry Potter — nothing made as huge of an impact on the literary world as those seven books.  Coville recalled a speech he gave to 1000 children’s book writers about writing fantasy, “…I’d used this in a number of smaller speeches.  This was when the Harry Potter fever was at its height.  And I said, ‘Alright, if we’re going to discuss fantasy writing for children in America today, we have to address the rhinoceros in the room.  So to get this out of the way, I’m going to express for you the feeling of every children’s book writer in America about the Harry Potter series.’ So I step aside from the podium, stare at the authors,  and go, ‘WHY NOT ME, GOD, WHY NOT ME?!?!?!?!'”  (While he was saying the last part, Mr. Coville got up from the table and pounded his fists to his chest).  It was one of those things you never think you’ll get to see an author you love do.

Yolen remarked that Harry Potter followed fantasy tropes that had been done before, and Coville brought up that its popularilty might stem from that fact that it has a very high “cool things per page ratio.”  However, the brunt of the conversation focused on the impact the series had.  Mr. Coville suggested that, “For decades, American publishing had been publishing for kids as if they were stupid, instead of as if they were smart.  They kept books short because they didn’t think kids wanted to read. It was like running a bakery for kids who didn’t like cupcakes.” It doesn’t help that books can only cost a certain amount of money at any given time.

image6. People want a good story well told.

The conversation centering around Harry Potter soon turned into a discussion on what people want out of their books. Mr. Coville and Ms. Yolen both faced issues with length, Yolen less so. Mr. Coville commented, “my editors would go ‘ooouuheeeeww’ if I wrote a middlle grade book over 100 pages.” With Harry Potter’s popularity, it forced the book industry to take children’s literature more seriously.

Coville: “There is a price of entry to a story, and once you’ve paid that price, you want to stay there for a longer period of time. It was one of the reasons series books worked too. You’ve already paid the price of entry and you want to go back to that world because you already know how to enter there and be there.”

It was like that for adults as well. The HP series had them reminiscing about their college days, and reading books they felt like reading, rather than books that were “important.”

7. Jane Yolen was the first female speaker at the Andrew Lang Lecture

Yolen is 100% a feminist, and CLEARLY a Geekette!

Yolen: “I got a letter from the head of the University of St. Andrews, asking if I would like to [be the speaker at the lecture in 2012]. I knew that people like Tolkien and other well-known writers had been there, and I thought ‘oh god, I can’t do this!’ And they said, ‘Oh, and you will be the first woman.’ And I went, ‘You are kidding me!! Of course I’ll be there!’ and then I spent the first part of my talk castigating them for having missed this woman and that woman who had all died by this point. And I said, ‘So don’t miss these!’ and I gave them another list! It was interesting to me that they had not, since 1927 — 22 people who had given this lecture — they had not had a woman.”

8. Fairy tales need strong women to help real young women find their voices

Kayla inquired how Yolen chooses the fairy tales to adapt, and if she felt it necessary to put a strong female voice in them.

Yolen: “Well, I think that when I put a strong female voice in, it’s because I’m a strong female.”

Coville: “You’re not kidding, sister!”

Yolen: “And also I had a daughter, and I want to support her. And I know how difficult it is for some women, young women, to find their voices. And you see that over and over again, that’s no secret.

9.Perception and lessons on fairy tales change as you grow

Yolen: “I’m not sure if I find the stories; I think they find me. Many of them that I have recast are stories that I’ve known forever. But I change my ideas about them over the years. When I was little, we lived in New York City. One of the stories that was verySnow in Summer important when I was growing up was Snow White. Now, the reason might not be what you might think: Snow White is warned by the dwarves not to open the door to strangers. One of the things you learn in New York City is that you don’t open the door for strangers! What you do is you look through the peephole. So in my six-year-old, seven-year-old stance, I thought she got what she deserved! And then as I got older, I had this beautiful young daughter, and she got to be a teenager, and boys circling her like sharks in the water, and i was thinking there was nothing I would like better the to have a glass casket! But then, as I started teaching fairy tales more, I started saying to my students, Okay, if you look at the earlier versions of Snow White, the prince not only comes along and sees the girl in the glass casket, he buys her, casket and all, off of the dwarves. Now, you have to ask yourself: what the hell is he gonna do with this girl in the glass casket? She’s dead. Is he gonna put her on the coffee table as a conversation piece? Does he have a museum of dead girls? God forbid we should go to necrophilia. We never learn what happens after she coughs up the apple and wakes up. What happens after they get back to the prince’s palace and they’re married? Now she can talk. He didn’t bargain for a talking girl, he bought a dead girl. And that is fascinating! She’s gonna say things like, ‘Why don’t you ever pick up your socks? Why don’t you put the toilet seat down?’ These things are funny, but there are serious problems with a guy who buys a dead girl, and no one ever talks about it! If you look at fairy tales and try to fit them into a novel in modern days, you have different questions that you want to ask. Sometimes you can be funny about them, sometimes you have to be very serious about them. Sometimes you can make the not-so-terribly-heroic person into someone heroic, and look at the prince who just shows up after 100 years so he doesn’t have to fight through a briar hedge, it just opens for him, he just kisses the girl, and in some versions he rapes her. I think we re-look at stories all the time.”

10. Mothers and teachers shape the world

Yolen: “The women who most influenced me: my mother — she was brilliant, had no idea how beautiful she was, read all the time, and she wrote. I saw her doing this kind of work, and I saw that it didn’t matter to her whether she was selling them or not.  She only sold one story in her life. It was the work, the constancy, and the consistency of her attention to both her work and her children that I loved, and I think that is the groundbase of what I do. The next one was my cousin — she was a Quaker, she gave me my first copy of the Diary of George Fox — who started the Quakers — but it was her political stance, and how good she was, and how she treated people. It was very important to me. And then the third one was an editor of mine who was batty as a bedbug, but said one of the most important things to me ever: she said to me “you have great facility; don’t be beguiled by it.” I write with great joy, I love writing, but I have to make sure I write my best.”

Coville: “Well, I start with my mother, too! Reading was the gift she gave me. And pleasure in theatre, and musical theatre, I adore musical theatre. But the other thing from my mother was she had incredibly high standards for me that I was expected to adhere to. I knew she loved me, but I also knew that no matter what I did it would never be good enough. Which is what pushes me forward, always.” He also mentioned an early teacher of his, whom he realized only later on he copied the teaching style of.

This night was a highlight of our lives — now that might sound a bit dramatic, but honestly, this was incredible. We have so much to write about from this evening that we just couldn’t fit it all in — but we will hold it with us forever. And hey! We even got a group selfie in!


Bonus: The Authors’ Favorite Fairytales!


Little Brother, Little Sister

Iron John

Beauty and the Beast


The Golden Bird

The Seven Swans

Hans My Hedgehog

h416Also, just as a side note: Sarah just discovered that Jane Yolen was the author of Piggins — SHE LOVED THAT BOOK.


2 thoughts on “Yolen and Coville: The Dynamic Duo

  1. I’d like to see an article about those childhood reads that are out of print now because of lack of recognition, if you still remember enough of them 🙂

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