“You can only pay forward. You can’t pay back.” Jane Yolen spoke to writers in 1998 at Highlights for Children’s weeklong writers conference in Chautauqua, NY. This legend in children’s literature has more than 300 published books in every known genre for readers from birth through adults. [Of special interest to writers is her Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft.] My first evidence that she practices what she preaches came during that week. She sat at mealtimes beside and across from beginning and wannabe writers, sharing helpful information and encouragement or everyday chitchat. My breakfast conversation with her included her new grandchild and my new grandson Sam.
Hearsay brought my second knowledge of her practice. Alaskan writer friend Debbie Miller told me about Jane’s insistence that she not get a motel but stay as a houseguest when she was in Jane’s Massachusetts neighborhood to see her daughter’s college basketball games.
My third knowledge came this month in the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators Bulletin. Jane was the second person to become a member of SCBWI and has long used that platform to encourage other writers no matter what stage they were in their careers. Recently, she established an author grant for midlist writers who have struck a snag in publishing additional books.
I could stop with a pretty good picture, but I would leave out an essential portion of her paying forward. I just finished reading her classic The Devil’s Arithmetic, a book not to be missed. Every child and adult who reads the book will take a time travel back with protagonist Hannah to vividly experience the Holocaust.
The book brought memoires of our family visit to Dachau – the youngest illegally at eleven since the rules said one had to be twelve or over to visit. We spent a morning on the grounds of this Holocaust “camp” – seeing the photographs, reading the stories, watching the films, touring the ovens. Just one morning – but it was more than enough. We were one quiet family returning home. Not the most fun trip during our three years stationed in Germany, but probably the one with the greatest impact.
The rule for being twelve to see the “camp” was probably wise, but we would be back in the states before Mark turned twelve. We broke the rule. He needed to see and know. Reading The Devil’s Arithmetic brought the same intense feeling as seeing Dachau. Because of the intensity of the emotion, maturity might also be advised for the book. Perhaps twelve is a good number. No age is too old. In this book of fiction, Jane has paid forward another way with vital truth we should never forget.
On April 12, Jane will receive the well-earned University of Southern Mississippi’s Medallion for her body of work for children at the Children’s Book Festival. I’m guessing her paying forward will continue as usual. That’s who she is.