Thursday, October 12, 2023

Q&A with Jane Yolen and Ariel Stemple


Jane Yolen


Jane Yolen and Ariel Stemple are the authors of the new children's picture book Kiki Kicks. Yolen is the author of more than 400 books, including Owl Moon, and is Stemple's grandmother. Kiki Kicks is Stemple's debut picture book.


Q: What inspired you to collaborate on Kiki Kicks, and what was your writing process like?


JY: Granddaughter Ari was badly bullied in elementary school, so my son and daughter-in-law took them to a local dojo to learn martial arts.  Soon enough, and they were throwing full-grown adults over their shoulders.


I wrote a poem about it that was published in a book of poetry, and that poem became many years later the foundation for the book Ari and I wrote when they were much older. This book!!!

Ariel Stemple


AS: Jane reached out to me about working on turning her poem, Karate Kid, into a picture book. She knew I trained in martial arts and struggled with bullying as a child, and I’d shared some of my work with her over the years.


I was still in college at the time, getting my BFA in creative writing, so I was very excited to work with my grandmother. The whole family works together. She’s worked on books with my father, both of his siblings, and my cousin.


Our writing process involved a lot of back and forth. This book was my first collaboration with Jane, but I’d watched her and my father trade manuscripts over email while they were working on The Seelie Wars trilogy together when I was a teenager. Jane and I exchanged versions of the story until we had something we were happy with.


Writing with family is different; so is writing with someone as established as my grandmother. I think one of the keys to our process was the kind of trust that comes from knowing the person you’re working with very well. We trusted each other to speak, to listen, and to create something that we could both be proud of.


Q: How did you create your character Kiki?


JY: The character is clearly Ari! The art even looks like Ari at that age.


AS: Kiki arose out of both what we were trying to do with the book and with my own experiences training in martial arts when I was young. Her journey was always central to the story we were trying to tell.


Because of how Jane and I wrote the book, I feel like Kiki as a character came about in an organic way. She’s a kid who has a loving family but is still going through something tough, and that makes her feel scared and alone. Kiki has to make her own space and carve her own path to power.


Q: What do you think John Ledda’s illustrations add to the book?


JY: I think they add personality, possibilities, and smiles.


AS: John Ledda brought the character and the story to life. He brought a real sense of movement to the book. His art has a sense of motion that meshed well with a story about martial arts. You can really see the way Kiki’s classmates at the dojo move and how they’re different.


That was a really important moment in the book and was very fun to write, so it was rewarding to see what John Ledda did with that scene in particular.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?


JY: That we do not give in to bullies. We can--as Ari did--learn to be the mountain and as Ari writes in the end, they are a mountain and will not be moved.


AS: I started doing martial arts when I was about 7 or 8 years old. After getting bullied at my old school, I had trouble making friends at my new school due to my social anxiety.


Martial arts was one of the things that helped me gain confidence and find my own kind of personal strength. I hope kids that read the book try to find something that makes them feel powerful.


Q: What are you working on now? Will you work together on another project?


JY: I have about 10 new books coming between now and 2024, some are picture books, some poetry books, and a trilogy of middle grade fantasy novels set in Scotland. As for Ari, they are working on a MFA in writing, something I always wished I had done!


But I hope--and expect--we will work on something else some day soon.


AS: I’m currently in an MFA program, so I’m working on a number of different short stories. Jane and I are working together on another project that I’m excited about.


I enjoy working with my grandmother. It has enabled me to do some work that I’m really proud of and learn from an incredibly successful author.


Q: Anything else we should know?


JY: My 439th book will be coming out next  year. Hoping to hit 500!!!


AS: Martial arts and writing are both amazingly fun and fulfilling, and I’m glad that I was able to share both with you.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jane Yolen.

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