Jane Yolen, author of the classic The Devil’s Arithmetic, is the renowned author of more than 300 books. Her books, poems and stories have won many awards, including two Nebulas and the Caldecott Medal. I chat with Yolen about her inspiration for The Devil’s Arithmetic, her favorite childhood novels and why so many kids ask her about J.K. Rowling.—Nadine Epstein
What inspired The Devil’s Arithmetic? Did you know any survivors?
I did, but that’s not what started it. I had lunch with one of my editors, who happened to be a rabbi’s wife. She said, “I know you’re Jewish, but you don’t write about anything Jewish—it’s time you start.” I had grown up very non-observant, until I was 13, when I said I wanted to be confirmed. I had never really thought about writing a Jewish book because I didn’t know enough. I said the only two things that would interest me were something biblical or the Holocaust, because I figured I could not write anything about being modern Jewish—what would I talk about? So she said, what about the Holocaust, and I said I could only do it if I could take a character back in time. Because kids today don’t know anything about the Holocaust. The way to explain would be to take a modern kid back into the Holocaust and have him or her ask those questions that a kid today would ask. My editor said, oh, send me something. Once a month I’d get a letter in the mail asking how I was coming on the book. Finally, to stop the letters from coming, I wrote a first chapter, which is essentially the first chapter in the book now. And I said, see, it can’t be done. She said, “This is terrific, here’s a check.” And I was stuck. That’s when I had to just commit myself to it.
How did you prepare to write the book?
I gathered all the materials I could find and I started reading. I must have read for four to six months straight. And I knew that at some point, I was going to have to interview survivors. One of the reasons I stopped being a journalist was that I could not interview people, especially if the stories they had to tell were horrific. So my assistant, Barbara Diamond Golden—who’s now a quite-well-known author of Jewish children’s books—said, I’ll do it. She had questions that I couldn’t find in any of my research, like what color was the ink when the tattoo was inked on your arm.
I loved all the descriptions of the shtetl and the house; how did you learn about shtetl life?
I had several books about the shtetl, and I cobbled together an iconic shtetl from various descriptions. My father and mother’s families had come from small shtetls. My father’s people came from the Ukraine, my mother’s from Latvia, but I never spoke to them about that; they never volunteered that information. The one story that was told to me by a friend, who as a three- to four-year-old was in a labor camp in Poland, a wonderful man named Marek Zamner who became an architect in this country, was about how all the children would run and jump in the mitten pile. It became the metaphoric centerpiece of the camp that my character goes to, but it came out of a real-life situation. People wonder if I made it up, but I didn’t.
Is the arithmetic that you describe in the book based on fact?
Somewhere I read that people were desperate to remember their numbers, because any time an SS man would come and ask your number, you had to recite it. If you didn’t, they’d shoot you. Many used mnemonic devices in the beginning, especially children. There were also the Greek political prisoners who were brought when Greece was taken over, and they had a “G”at the beginning of their number. Somebody mentioned that you never wanted to stand next to somebody with a “G” because they were slow to answer, and if they got shot, you got shot too. It’s this horrible matter of fact thing—don’t stand next to a Greek.
Is there any other book for kids that you also think does a good job explaining the Holocaust?
There are lots of them that are very moving and powerful. But they tell different parts of the elephant. It’s like the blind man and the elephant—you can’t get the entire thing. As I like to tell people, The Devil’s Arithmetic really starts where Anne Frank stopped. Because we don’t hear from Anne once she’s taken away. You also have to read The Upstairs Room, about two children, one of whom was the author, who was hidden in an upstairs room. I wrote Briar Rose, which uses the story of Sleeping Beauty as its main conceit. It starts with a modern girl who tells a very odd version of Sleeping Beauty, which has all the elements of that castle, the wicked fairy in her black uniform and jackboots, clearly a Nazi uniform. And I’m about to work on my third, and I swear to you, my last, Holocaust novel, called House of Candy, using the Hansel and Gretel story, with Chaim and Gitel, who are twins, and it’s about the twin experiments.
I had no idea you were still writing about the Holocaust…
I don’t know why I’m still doing that. When an idea comes to you as a writer and it makes you shiver, it’s the one you have to go with. It’s the raising of those little fine hairs on the back of your neck, and you say, this is an idea and I will be ashamed if I don’t write it. I know it’s hard, but it’s something you have to do. And I balance those books with amusing books so that I have something that I can say, I can pull myself out of this, I can do something amusing.
Years ago, I read your book, Wizard’s Hall, and wrote a piece for The Washington Post Book World about books that J.K. Rowling must have read. Do you think she did?
Since the books didn’t go over to England or Scotland, I’m not sure she ever did. I get letters from kids that say, “I was so mad, you ripped off Harry Potter, and then the teacher told me to look at the copyright page, and are you going to sue her?” I say, these are fantasy tropes, no one’s stealing anything. If you read a lot of fantasy, you’re going to come across these kinds of things. They travel from one person’s book to another.
What were your favorite novels as a child?
Anything by Louisa May Alcott. The Black Stallion, The Island of Stallions, all that stuff. And Bob, Son of Battle, Treasure Island. I was crazy about pirates. Anything about King Arthur. Anything by James Thurber; he wrote three children’s novels: The 13 Clocks, The White Deer and The Wonderful O.
Are there three books that every kid should read today?
I could give you ten. Where the Wild Things Are, Frog and Toad are Friends, maybe Sarah, Plain and Tall, Tuck Everlasting, The White Deer, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz—it’s not well written, but it’s full of wonders. The Once and Future King—and that’s cheating because I think that’s three volumes. The Fellowship of the Ring and Little Women.
What advice do you have for young people who want to be writers?
The first thing is to be a reader. If you’re not reading all the time, you haven’t figured out what’s good writing and bad writing. You have to love words, you have to love stories, you have to love metaphors, you have to love all those things in books. And the second thing is that you have to write every day, because writing is a muscle that has to be exercised every day. Even the premier ballerinas in the New York City Ballet are there every day taking class, doing their bar workouts, because they knew the elasticity of their bodies only happens if they exercise them every day. The same thing with the writer. The elasticity of our creative mind needs to be stretched in some way every day. The third thing I tell kids is don’t let anyone—your parents, your teachers, your friends—tell you that you can’t write. Keep writing. You might be lousy at the beginning; I was lousy at the beginning. But the more you write, the better you’ll get.
I love writing. There are a lot of writers who hate writing. They love having written, but they hate writing. They feel like they’re bleeding onto the page, and I think that’s an awfully messy way to write. If I am unhappy during the process, it usually means that it’s going awry. It means that I’ve taken the wrong road. Writing is full of forks in the road. Sometimes the more interesting story is in what looks to be the wrong fork, but you don’t know that until you’ve gone down that road a ways. But sometimes you take a long walk in the wrong direction and realize you have to backtrack. And I’m not happy when that happens, but I’m still happy to write.