Jane Yolen has written so many books for children that one could read a book of hers a day for an entire year and still have one left over. All three of Yolen’s children, like her, work in the children’s book world. Yolen’s latest novel, Mapping the Bones (Philomel, Mar.), is a retelling of “Hansel and Gretel” set during the Holocaust, as told by two siblings, Chaim and Gittel. Its publication coincides with the 30th anniversary of Yolen’s first novel about the Holocaust, The Devil’s Arithmetic, a book that has become a classic, and is taught in schools across the United States. Mapping the Bones is Yolen’s 365th book, and book 366 is also due in March, a picture book from Chronicle, A Bear Sat on My Porch Today. PW spoke with Yolen by phone at her home in western Massachusetts.
What inspired you to write Mapping the Bones?
I’d done two fairytale novels with Jill Santopolo. She and I were having breakfast in New York City and she was wondering what we were going to do for a next book. I couldn’t think of a well-enough known fairytale that I had any interest in, that hadn’t already been done. I mentioned “Hansel and Gretel” to her, but I wasn’t sure what you could do with it, and I was saying, “It’s got two kids, it’s got a witch, and the oven—” and at that word, oven, things sort of shook with us. She’s Jewish too. So I said, Maybe it’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in the Holocaust,” and it just went from there. I spun out almost the full plot over breakfast.
It took four and a half years to write the book. It turned out to be difficult. It’s in three sections, the way “Hansel and Gretel” is in three sections. In that story, they begin at home and everyone is starving, then they’re in the woods and they’re starving, and in the third part they find the house of candy, they meet the witch, and then the brother pushes the witch in the oven. So the the novel was going to be in three parts: the first is in the Łódź ghetto, the second is when the parents take the children to the forest where they’ll be safe with the partisans, and in the third part, the partisans are killed by the Nazis and the children are sold to a munitions camp.
I kept telling Jill, “I only have one more chapter left to write—no, three more— no, one.” I still hadn’t figured out what to do with the witch and the oven. When I finally figured it out, I had to go back and put back everything that was missing, so when you finally got to the end, it made sense.
Can you talk about why you became interested in the partisans?
Partisans are freedom fighters, and there are two kinds. There is the Jewish kind, and there are the non-Jewish partisans. In Mapping the Bones, except for one man, they are not Jewish. And these are Polish partisans. As I was doing Mapping, I found out that the Poles had the largest number of freedom fighters because there had been a tradition in Poland from before, of people taking to the forest to combat dictators and leaders they felt were unworthy. So I was fascinated with that, because I had never known about it. Larger than the French underground! We have so romanticized the French underground, but Poland’s was even better and bigger and more effective.
How does Mapping the Bones fit into the scope of the many different novels you’ve written over the years? Is it a kind of bookend with The Devil’s Arithmetic?
I told my kids—it’s a joke but it’s serious—if I ever say I’m going to write another Holocaust novel, shoot me where I stand. I was in that world with the research—and it was three totally different research projects for Mapping the Bones: the Łódź Ghetto, the partisans, and then the munitions factory. The research alone for the book was an enormous task. And then trying to write it, and make the characters feel what they are feeling, I was just in a horrible place for four and a half years. And I don’t want to do it again. I’ve done it three times and now I’m done.
Between those two novels, I published Briar Rose, which is also a Holocaust book, but it’s for adults, though it somehow found its way into YA literature. It’s based on the story of “Sleeping Beauty,” but it takes place in Chelmno, a place where the Nazis had a castle and a death camp. People came in, they were recorded by the Nazis, and put into vans. The fumes of the gas were pumped into the vans, so by the time they were driven to this pit they were dead. Thousands of Jews were killed this way. Only four people got through the camp. In my version, there is a woman found in the pits and she is still alive.
The 30th anniversary of The Devil’s Arithmetic is coming up. Can you talk about what motivated you to write it when you did?
I know exactly! As a Jew, I’d written nothing Jewish. I grew up in a totally nonreligious household. If we did anything [religious] it was to go to a Jewish uncle’s house for a Seder. But other than that, we were totally nontraditional.
I’m fascinated with religion. I’d minored in religion at Smith College, and I’d done one novel about Shakers. I was talking to my editor [Deborah Brodie], who was a rabbi’s wife, about what to write, and she said, “Why don’t you write a Jewish novel?” I told her, “I don’t know anything about being Jewish.” She told me it was time I learned, and she wanted to know what about being Jewish interested me. I was a science fiction writer and I said, “What if a girl opens the door for Elijah and finds herself in the Holocaust?” Then I went back and sent her a proposal.
This novel has had a long life with audiences of all ages for 30 years now. Devil is taught in almost every junior high and high school Holocaust class and in Sunday school classes for synagogues. It’s been a movie with Kirsten Dunst, it’s been a play, it was on television. It’s probably one of the books I hear the most about from kids. Normally I hear one of two things—from a Jewish kid, who wants to know why I wrote it, or from a non-Jewish kid who said they didn’t know about the Holocaust until they read the book. I feel like I’ve helped kids remember, or helped raise up a memory for kids from the time of their grandparents, which will soon be the time of their great grandparents—I mean, I grew up during World War II and I am a grandparent now.
What is next for you?
My daughter and I are doing the whole year as the year of book 365 and book 366. At the Eric Carle Museum we’re going to have a two-day celebration. There will be something for friends, something for librarians, and something for kids. I am going to do lots of book festivals and store events, too.
How does it feel to have had such a long career in writing children’s books?
I can’t even believe it myself—the enormity of writing so many books. But of all the novels I’ve written, the Holocaust novels are maybe the ones I’m most proud of.
Mapping of the Bones by Jane Yolen. Philomel, $17.99 Mar. 6 ISBN 978-0-399-25778-0