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A Book Review and a Discussion with Jane Yolen, Author
By RoseEtta Stone
Review of Jane Yolen's Briar Rose
In "Briar Rose," Jane Yolen uses the tale of "Sleeping Beauty" as a point of reference for a haunting Holocaust mystery - within a romance - within a compelling fairy tale - within a novel which will intrigue young as well as adult readers of all ages.
Who else but a prolific master storyteller like Jane Yolen, whom "Newsweek," her colleagues, readers, and fans refer to, with respectful admiration, as "America's Hans Christian Andersen," has the infinite wisdom, skill, and sensitivity to have created this unusual and poignant novel? To make truths too heinous to accept speak for themselves as facts in a contemporary fairy tale, is an ingeniously subliminal way of imparting a cautionary tale about the Holocaust to teenage readers, and of reinforcing its lessons of man's inhumanity to man, for adult readers.
"Briar Rose" has been challenged for "vocabulary considerations," and banned for its allegedly "implicit" homosexuality. It was also burned in Missouri on the steps of a Board of Education building.
Briar Rose on Amazon.com.
A discussion with Jane Yolen, in which Ms. Yolen talks about writers and storytellers being the "memory of a civilization," censorship, the Holocaust, and homosexuality in the context of her novel, "Briar Rose."
A sampling of books by Jane Yolen:
This is a small sample only of the many books Jane Yolen has written, from picture books to young adult novels, and beyond to books about the craft of writing. Purchase of these books helps to fund this site: find out more.
RoseEtta Stone: I initially learned about "Briar Rose" through a book review which categorized it as a children's book. It's also been referred to as a fairy tale for young adults. Yet I found it in the adult fiction section of my local library. How should "Briar Rose" actually be classified?
JANE YOLEN: "Briar Rose" was written and published as an adult book but has gotten into many high school and college courses as a core text. Because "Briar Rose" has, in fact, been so adopted by young adult readers, it has been reissued by Tor in its new Starscape line of Young Adult books, with a brand new cover (in March 2002).
RES: In the book a fairy tale seems to serve as the basis for a novel, a mystery, and a Holocaust tale. How did you manage to combine all of these diverse elements into one work of fiction?
YOLEN: The book is a novel by definition; it uses the fairy tale motif as both a thematic underpinning and as transitional material. But some (including my editor), would say the book itself is a fairy tale in that it uses fairy tale logic and has a fairy tale at the core since no women actually escaped from Chelmno.
RES: What inspired you to write the story as a novel/fairy tale about the Holocaust?
YOLEN: I had thought about doing a book on the Holocaust for a long time, but quite frankly the idea overwhelmed me. Finally one of my editors who was a rabbi's wife, persuaded me the time had come to confront the task. Writers and storytellers are the memory of a civilization, and we who are alive now really must not forget what happened in that awful time or else we may be doomed to repeat it.
I ended up writing a young adult novel called "The Devil's Arithmetic," (another Holocaust novel). The research and writing of "The Devil's Arithmetic" took me several years. When I was done, I swore to myself I would never write another book on the Holocaust because it was such an emotionally difficult task.
However, I did!
The idea for an adult novel on the subject "Briar Rose," had come to me when I was watching the documentary "Shoah" in which the concentration camp Chelmno was described -- a camp in a castle. Castle, barbed wire, and the gassing of innocent folk. It suggested the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty" in a horrible way. Yet I did not want to get into that awful world once again. It took another editor to persuade me this book needed to be written.
I am glad I have written both the books, glad and proud. Yet I would not want to write either one of them again. Still, as I write in the books I autograph, We Must Remember. And of course, story is one way we humans have of remembering.
RES: Portions of "Briar Rose" containing homosexual content are one of the reasons it's on the banned books lists.
YOLEN: The homosexual content is slight compared to "homosexual" books. That is, there are no real sex scenes, and one bedroom scene that is really about politics, not sex. But I did not make up the pink triangle camps. "Briar Rose" deals pretty directly in one section with the infamous "Pink Triangle camps" in which the Nazis' incarcerated known or suspected homosexuals. In fact the "Prince" character is a gay man -- or so it seems at first.
Because there is a homosexual character in the book, the novel has been banned in some places, and actually burned in Kansas City on the steps of the Board Of Education by a right-wing religious group. I do not believe they read the book.
RES: You must have known while writing the novel that certain people and groups would find segments of the tale provocative, controversial, and offensive. Yet that didn't prevent you from telling your story as you believed it should be told.
YOLEN: I wrote "Briar Rose" as an adult book, and actually gave no thought to readers who might find parts of the book offensive. My attention was entirely on the story. I think someone who finds offensive a book in which a main character is gay or Jewish should not be reading the book in the first place.
RES: The right-wing religious group -- you didn't think they read your book before burning it.
YOLEN: I think most of the time individuals or groups who want to censor or burn books do not read the books. Or do not read them all the way through. Rather they are on an action list of folks who will respond as they are told to do. Reading a book -- and understanding it -- takes time, attention, honesty, clarity, and an open mind. None of these are definitional as far as book censors go. There are many books I do not like and would not recommend to like-minded readers, but I do not condemn them unread. And I do not issue blanket statements that no one else should be allowed to read them. Nor do I advocate throwing them in the trash or burning them.
We are, after all, a nation that values freedom. And freedom to read what one wishes (or to not read) has to be an individual choice.
RES: Aside from censors, did the homosexual passages of the novel elicit any response or reaction from Jewish and/or gay individuals or organizations?
YOLEN: The book had practically no reviews in the Jewish press, though "Devil's Arithmetic" won all the Jewish book awards. But "Briar Rose" was widely reviewed in the gay press. It won several awards (not Jewish, not gay) and still sells briskly. It is currently being translated into (I think) Russian and being considered by German publishers. I think there are other translations.
RES: "Briar Rose" was also challenged due to its vocabulary. What fault did censors find with the language you used?
YOLEN: The only language censors were angry with was in the one bed scene where I think I used something like "short, savage thrusts" which is pretty tame.
RES: Getting back for a moment to other countries and languages that the novel was translated into, were you surprised, and what were your feelings regarding the interest German publishers expressed in "Briar Rose?"
YOLEN: Actually, it was "Devil's Arithmetic," with an Austrian publisher, not a German one, but it was published in the German language, of course. I would have been less surprised by a German publisher. But they do take the history of the Holocaust seriously, especially the generations after those who were actively involved. "Devil's Arithmetic" received a prize given out by the children of Austria.
RES: Your children's book, "Commander Toad In Space" was also banned, but I couldn't learn why. Can you enlighten us? Also, were any of your other books banned, censored, challenged or burned? If so, for what alleged reasons?
YOLEN: Was "Commander Toad" ever censored? Not that I know. But "Dragon's Blood" was -- because the boy "stole" a dragon's egg. And "Devil's Arithmetic" because of the word "Devil" in the title. And "The Stone Silenus" because the boy on the cover has his shirt off and was standing behind a rock so the librarian considered that meant he was naked. (He wasn't, just hiding the important fact in the book of whether or not he had goats' feet and was a faun). And a number of my other books for similar dippy reasons.
*Note: Ms. Yolen's response to my question: "What inspired you to write the story as a novel/fairy tale about the Holocaust" is a direct quote from "The basic component of the letter [she] write[s] to kids (and adults) who ask about Briar Rose."
**Jane Yolen can be reached through her Web Site: http://www.janeyolen.com.
Copyright 2001 by RoseEtta Stone. Site copyright policy
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