Jane Yolen,
Take Joy: A Book for Writers
(Kalmbach, 2003)

Have you ever noticed that most of the books that try to teach you how to write are by authors you've never heard of? If they truly had the secret to the craft, don't you think their names would be more familiar? Who better, then, to impart some wisdom on writing than Jane Yolen, whose elegant and inspired writings could fill several shelves to overflowing?

Finally, Take Joy appears to set us straight.

Take Joy is a fresh reminder why I love words, both to write and to savor. At a slim but sturdy 175 pages, it ranks easily as the best volume of writing instruction and inspiration I've had the pleasure to read.

Yolen salts her prose liberally with the words of others in her field -- the joy-takers, like herself, as well as the "whiners and whingers" who wear joylessness like a badge. Don't believe them, Jane assures us -- it isn't necessary to sweat or bleed your words onto the page. The process needn't be painful or messy. And she's not afraid to take other writers to task -- good-naturedly, of course -- for making the process more torturous than it needs to be.

The book spends much of its time on fiction, dealing with matters of perspective and plot, beginnings and endings. As for the middle? "I say -- just tell the damn story and be done with it," Yolen explains. She begins a familiar story from multiple points of view, ably demonstrating how voice affects development. She provides a handy alphabet of story writing. She shows how little a story outline can really prove.

Yolen also addresses poetry, a much-maligned genre in the 21st century, and manages to instill a renewed appreciation and interest in verse.

The text of Take Joy is also laced with interludes and anecdotes that are pleasantly conversational in style. This useful book reads less like an instruction manual and more like a letter of advice from a favorite aunt, slightly eccentric but always fun, interesting and -- let's face it -- more successful than you and I.

The author of more than 200 books, Yolen has been dubbed America's Hans Christian Anderson by Newsweek and a modern-day Aesop by the New York Times, both of which also employ some clever writers. Her writings have ranged widely over the fields of children's and adult fiction, folklore and the art of storytelling.

Of course, nothing Yolen writes here is set in stone. Rules are made to be broken, she insists: "Never take any writing teacher's advice as gospel."

OK, so Take Joy isn't gospel. But until the words of a new writing guidebook are inscribed in stone tablets by a bolt of lightning from the sky, this is the closest thing. Thanks, Jane.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 10 April 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.