The Big Idea: Jane Yolen

Cover to Arch of Bone

It’s never too late for surprises, and as Jane Yolen relates in this Big Idea for Arch of Bone, some surprises are absolutely worth the wait.


Here’s a surprise. Take a bookish Jewish girl from New York, one who knew nothing about sailing, whaling, harpoons, but a lot about the city (Manhattan, not the boroughs) and ballet shoes and horses; growing up taking subways and poetry and could recite the “Jabberwocky” with gusto. But around 4th grade someone handed her Moby Dick.  Would you be surprised if I tell you that is just what happened to me, and for the next 30 years or so, I re-read Moby Dick approximately every one to two years. I didn’t reread a lot of books, but this massive, in some ways seemingly seamless and in other ways clearly un-edited book, tolled in me like a bell.

About the time I stopped re-reading it on a regular basis, maybe dropping to once every five years, after I had published about 100 books of my own with major presses, I had a dream. In that dream a young Nantucket boy, Josiah, who lives in the mid 1800s, whose father is first mate on a whaling ship that is already a half a year overdue, whose mother is lying sick abed for quite some time, hears a knock on their cottage door in the early morning. Josiah rushes to open the door, where a weather-beaten stranger stands. It’s a small island, Nantucket, where everyone knows everyone. Josiah does not know this man.

In the dream I am leaning over Josiah’s shoulder. I am not his mother. And I don’t know the man either. “Who are you?” Josiah asks. “Call me Ishmael…” says the man. And I crash out of the dream and think about this gift that has just been given to me. I know who the man is— and I know who Josiah is: first Mate Starbuck’s son. What I don’t know is how to unfold the story.

I wrestled on and off for years with this notion, this not-formed story, which I called in my head Moby Dick v. Robinson Crusoe, for it was problematic. As the boy Josiah is the major character, the book needs to be a middle grade book, i.e., it can’t be as long or as sophisticated or as discursive on as many subjects as Moby Dick. But it was the amount of research necessary that bogged me down. I am, not a sailor, and don’t know the technical stuff….and the book needed a LOT of technical stuff to come alive. Not easy to disguise.

Readers, I put the idea of the book and the dream away.

I published two hundred more books. I ran SFWA. I had grandchildren who were fast growing up. I buried my beloved husband David who died of cancer holding my hand. I went through fifteen years of widowhood NOT thinking about the Moby Dick book. My book count rose to 400. And right as covid was putting us in our places, I re-met a man, Peter Tacy, whom I had dated in college, he at Williams, me at Smith. He was now a widower of five years. He had been in boats all his life, small boats and big boats. Peter was a teacher who taught Moby Dick every year to his Independent School students. He had been Commodore of the Stonington Ct. Yacht Club for two years around the time I was running SFWA. He is funny and brilliant and knows damned near everything, and he loves the Oxford Comma.

 Readers—I married him.

And then I remembered the book idea.

I re-read Moby Dick, we went over charts that Peter found for me, that show how to sail around Nantucket. He taught me weather stuff, wind stuff, how to trim sails. He read the manuscript and made sure the way my boy sails his catboat (Peter even found me pictures of catboats of the period) was realistic. And that’s how Arch of Bone finally got written.

Arch of Bone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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13 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jane Yolen”

  1. What a wonderful story about a story!

    Congratulations! on all the parts of it!

    Reading this was a terrific start of a day that threatened gloomy.

  2. At first I said, “Wow!” as I’ll read anything by Yolen, ever since her stories about teen runaways in the border towns by the fairy realm.

    Then I looked at the arch. I saw one such at Port Hardy, on Canada’s west coast, where my uncle had a harpoon head rusting in the front yard grass, of no value back then. He gave me a baby whale tooth that I took to school for show and tell. And I saw, from in the car, on the road, a sight you’ll never see today: whales being cut up.

  3. I agree, a wonderful post, heart-warming to read on a cold day, or any other for that matter.
    I never could get through more than the opening chapters of Moby Dick, but I’m thinking this story might go on my list. I like to read about nautical adventures, especially if mythical elements are present.

  4. Okay, wow. Compelling Big Idea and I want to read this even though I was never able to read Moby Dick. Thanks for this!

  5. All stories have their time and place to work their way out of us, I guess. Need to remember this the next time I am getting frustrated with having ideas for premises but no plot.
    Jane Yolen is a national treasure. Is there nothing she can’t write about?

  6. Congratulations on every level! I’ve got this one on my TBR pile already, and I’ve been waiting to read it–I was fascinated by Moby Dick as an undergraduate, though I haven’t felt the need to re-read it since.

  7. My spouse and I are huge Moby-Dick fans and love Jane Yolen’s work. Going to get this soon.

  8. Jane! This is absolutely wonderful and I’m torn between excited to read this new/old venture of yours and delighted by the way it came together with Peter. Ahoy!

  9. One of the most moving Big Ideas I’ve read to date and its own short story. Sincere thanks, Jane and John, for the share.

  10. This post is better and more moving than many entire books that I’ve read (and having read many but not most of Jane Yolen’s books, I’d bet the book is great too).

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