Posts Tagged ‘Red River flood’

NYC and the swirling world going round

This is the way the world bounces.


In the good old days when schools and libraries bought many children’s books, editors used to pop on over to Book Expo (where bookstore people saw new books) and to the annual conventions of the International Reading Association and the American Library Association.  Most of the big NY publishers and a host of smaller publishers and other book people exhibit their new books for the thousands of bookstore folks and teachers and librarians who attend those conferences–and authors sign books–and it was a good place for authors to look their editors and agents in the eyes.  I did it often.

Last Vermont College MFA residency, I was the moderator of a panel of editors, and it reminded me that it had been a while since I’d had a chance to talk with any of the editors of any of my books.  Since my most recent novels were the Lanie books for American Girl, a publisher based in Madison, Wisconsin, I was feeling a hole in the middle of my artistic life.  This fall, when a reasonable ticket for NYC crossed my desk (so to speak) I decided it was time for some in-person conversations.  I also had Ethiopia Reads ( supporters I wanted to have coffee with and talk and dream with.

As things turned out, last week had to be the worst time possible to go to NYC.

Hurricane Sandy.  Voting lines.  Snow from a Nor’easter that tantrumed through the city for a day, bringing snow.

But, well, I already had the ticket.  I left falling fall in Portland and headed east.

I’d been planning to stay in my agent’s guest room in Brooklyn, but he had flood refugees staying there, so I stayed with my writer and actor friend, Tigist Selam, in her new Harlem apartment…so new that books were piled on the floor and she didn’t yet have chairs.

The city.  So different from the city where I live now.  I thought I’d see Red Cross workers and the National Guard everywhere, as with the Grand Forks flood clean-up.  But Harlem escaped Sandy’s wrath and I arrived there in the evening, so I had no sense of devastation except in the conversations…stories of people without heat, camped determindly and somewhat grimly in apartments and battered houses.

The evening of Election Day 2012, Tigist and I ate in an Ethiopian restaurant with a young Ethiopian American who arrived in New Jersey as a three-year-old and now volunteers for Ethiopia Reads.  After that, we found a coffee shop down the street–one that had a television–and watched states turn blue and red and listened to the conversations rising and falling all around.

It was a sweet experience…thinking and talking about what makes communities strong and how people can be part of that.  Or not.

The next day, though, some of the people I wanted to see were still without power or had no access to trains and I sat in Tigist’s apartment and mostly worked on my Vermont College packets and read a “powerful, honest, ruefully funny memoir” (so says the New York Times Book Review.)

It wasn’t until Thursday, the day I was scheduled to fly home, that I got to see some of the other people I’d hoped to see.  Tigist helped me navigate the puddled city and then put me on the A subway and told me to listen to announcements.

“Excuse me, please,” a young man announced first.  “I’m sorry to interrupt your ride”–and he proceeded to try to sell us goodies, proceeds to go to philanthropic efforts.  Next was a young woman walking through with a baby and a cardboard sign…and then a Vietnam vet who protested to all of us that New York state has provisions for women and children but not for people like him…and he could really use our help.

Frankly, it reminded me of being in Ethiopia, of the heartbreaking stories everywhere, of all the muddled feelings if your own heart and life are relatively intact.

The promised announcement came.  If we were going to JFK, due to the devastation of the storm and Rockaway, we were to take the train to the last stop, walk to the front of the train, and take the Q-10 bus.  Only I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to walk to the front of the train NOW or after I got off.  My seatmate helped me figure it out (with a little amusement) and wished me luck on my trip.

The Q-10 bus was crammed.  The young woman sitting next to me–with her boyfriend hanging on and swaying over us and asking questions about JFK–was missing her home in California and envious that I was heading to the West Coast.  The old man next to her, with his walker in his lap, discovered that he’d gotten on the wrong bus and was going to have to walk through snow with his walker.  On the train, I didn’t know what to do.  This time, I did.  I leaned over the young woman and asked if he would accept a little money for a taxi.  He would.  We creaky people have to stick together.

The bus stopped.  A bunch of us stood up.  The bus lurched forward and I would have flipped except for the California girl who caught me–she got her muscles swimming, she told me with pride.   They were going to JFK to meet a friend.  No gas for their car, so they’d spent all afternoon on the bus.  The trees around their house fell away and not ON, she said.  They’d be fine.

Across the aisle, a woman from somewhere in Africa with a baby on her back–an oxygen tube in its nose–fretted about catching her plane on time.

As we climbed off at JFK, a young Pakistani employee who’d been on the bus showed all of us where to walk, which elevator to get on, how to get to our terminals.

When the flood hit Grand Forks, ND, we lost one terrific neighborhood.

But we also saw community that springs up around shared disaster, the community that can form anywhere, any time, among the most unlikely of traveling companions.

I came home to messages from Stephanie about the Ethiopia Reads event she and her Grand Rapids, MI team worked so hard on this week to bring art and books to kids in Ethiopia, a place where she goes every year.  We form community everywhere and anywhere with those who share our world and our dreams.

Sometimes, when we’re lucky, that’s the way the world bounces.

Finding peace in the middle of fizzledom

Life fizzles.

Life drizzles.

Life drips.

Just like in my book Rain Romp.

And let’s face it–sometimes when it rains we cannot go out and stomp in the puddles and get our grouchy feelings out.

I’m just home from a speaking trip that honored the 25th year of the Lion and Lamb center at Bluffton University in Ohio, a center that uses children’s literature and art and music and other zingy things to spread the word that we can make peace and have peace even in the middle of fizzledom…which is particularly poignant and relevant given that a flood wiped out the beautiful Lion and Lamb space where I should have been meeting with kids to talk about my books.

Since, of course, I’ve written about surviving flood, seeing the flooded-out rooms made me wince…I looked at the ugly floors, at the beautiful peace symbols and statues all crunched together waiting for their new space, and felt a big OUCH.

But I also felt weirdly uplifted at the reminder…inner peace in the middle of pain.

I needed this message from the universe right about now.  While my sweetie traveling companion and I were in China, he had a health emergency that ended him in the People’s Number One Hospital of…well…it wasn’t totally clear how to end that title, but he ended up in a Chinese government hospital for observation for three days.

It wasn’t quite like an Ethiopian government hospital, but I learned many interesting things about the insides of a Chinese hospital, or at least THIS Chinese hospital.

Here, a nurse is changing the outside part of the blanket that covered the bed.

He got good care and inexpensive care…but there were some pretty startling details.

No food service.

Yes smoking.

Clothes drying on the balcony.

Cat scan stored under the mattress.

An interesting mix of patients in the room.

The hospital had figured out how to have basic communication with people who don’t speak Chinese–using pictures.  The kind elementary librarian from one of the schools where I spoke also scrambled around to find folks who could stay during the day and translate.

At one point, I was told that the last step before dismissal was an MRI and it might take several days to get that.  Angel, our translator for the day, tried to argue the case that my sweetie should get all of his tests–x-ray, MRI, and so on–done at once.  She told me they said no.

But when we ended up at the testing building, it turned out he did get the crucial MRI after all.  I asked Angel what happened, and she said we could thank the woman in blue who pushed him over.  I asked more about her life–what education do those hospital workers have?

Angel said a recruiting company goes to the poor rural areas and finds workers and offers them a job in the city and several weeks of training.  Lucky me the day this woman decided to say yes.  She probably sends her salary–and maybe her kids–back home, Angel told me.  She’s near the bottom of the hospital hierarchy.  But she had the right touch.

My China speaking turned into WAY more adventure than I usually have when I visit international schools (always adventures already), and a lot of it was hard, hard, hard.

But gifts poked up everywhere, too.

And people were there to hold my hand.

On the gray, grouchy days, may we all have such tender care.

May the angels show up to translate and put a cool hand on a hot brow.

When we’re sitting slumped in our chairs, numb and sad, may we see the lion, at least on some days, lie down with the lamb.

Hope and community in the time of floods and road blocks and reading droughts

Last Sunday’s profound thought: the journey is hard.

Maybe there are people for whom life’s path unfolds with gentle warmth and meanders over rolling hills in the sunshine.  For most of us, it’s a foggy grope at best.

A thorn in the foot.

A blister on the heel.

Throat-choking thirst.

Terrible despair–and that’s just the start of a new novel.

Remember when we all hammered out our words on a typewriter?  I stumbled onto this picture and had a heart-twist seeing my dad’s hands and the first cat of my adult life, remembering his words.  (My dad’s, not the cat’s.)

 In Ethiopia, almost every journey was full of uncertainty.  This picture was taken by the educators who traveled as part of the Fulbright-Hayes grant.  The last time I was part of such a picture, traveling with a group of volunteer educators, the bus teetered on the edge of an enormous puddle that looked as if it could gulp us down and not let us emerge until the end of rainy season.   In all the fluttering and twittering and anxiety of the moment, I read a book.

Checked out.

That’s because I used up my quota of road torment and anxiety when I was a kid and have no room for any more.  Every trip from the savannah up into the mountains had discomfort and fear.  As a teenager, I took a public bus from Addis Ababa to Jimma, riding with bumps and ceiling-bumping bounces and squawking chickens and dust and–of course–no public restrooms.

What can we cling to when the path is awful?

Sunday’s wisdom: hope and community.

Last week, the dire headline for my blog came mostly because I was listening to news of Irene as I typed…and thinking about life after disaster.  Sure enough, this blog post by one of my Vermont College MFA students shows how the winds and rains can dump us on our heads.

I won’t ever forget what that disorienting head-dump feels like…nor how hope and community helped me get through a flood.

Hope and community also helped me craft my story of getting through the flood.  My writers’ community still helps me keep stumbling along the artistic road, one hard book after another.

And nowhere has hope and community been more powerful for me than with Ethiopia Reads (, my volunteer effort to share stories with the country of my childhood.

Hope and community is particularly life-saving when the path takes a long, long time.

In the 1920s, Presbyterians started the very first school for girls in Ethiopia.  By the time I was a kid in Addis Ababa, the school already had deep roots, and I spent hours of my city life there, playing horse games behind the row of classrooms with my older sister and her best friend, loving the smell of the bere bere pepper that seeped into all the desks and curtains, listening to the girls as they ran and laughed and chanted the fidel.

In the late ’80s, my brother–a young teacher–took his family to Ethiopia and taught in that school. (That’s his second daughter in the picture, practicing her reading on the school compound.)  My older sister joined him a few years later.

 Last summer, we educators who were part of the Fulbright-Hayes group visited the school to hear a presentation by the art teacher, one of my brother’s friends from those teaching years.  We saw this proud young graduate getting ready for her big ceremony.

We also saw the big, empty room the school had built in hopes of a secondary library–a resource for the girls who attend that school in a place where only 13% of teenage girls are in school.

My brother got a bit of a scolding.  “How is it,” someone asked him, “that you have helped other schools get libraries and not this place where you used to climb the trees when you were a boy?”

Well, it’s tough planting a library.  It takes about $10,000, for one thing, and the shipping of thousands of books.

  That’s a toughness too daunting for most of us to imagine.  When I started volunteering with Ethiopia Reads, people asked me over and over if we had thought about approaching Oprah.  Others recommended the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation and other organizations and people with deep pockets.  Who would think that educators from places like North Dakota and Kansas (like this heroic retired teacher and retired principal) and writers and other artists and kids and ordinary families could do anything?

Well, they can.

Betsey (seen here with donated books that are now in Ethiopia) is one such writer and educator.  Years ago, she designed simple reading materials for Ethiopian children in Southwest Ethiopia when she worked there, overlapping with my family in beautiful Maji.  (I experimented with being an educator in Maji, myself, using my siblings and her children as my students when I was about eleven.)  With others at Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver, she raised the money for the library at that girls’ school.  (They also did a book drive–hard, muscle-stretching work as everyone who has tried one knows.)

Frew, Ethiopia Reads board member, knows.  He has organized dozens of book sales, including one that always happens around Ethiopian New Year this month.  He has involved his son and his son’s friends and the Key Club in Tracy, California and other volunteers…selling the books to help pay for the shipping and salaries of the Ethiopian staff who deal with the books when they arrive.

This summer, after years of effort, books arrived.

Remember the pictures on my blog of the






to get all the books stored in LeAnn Clark’s storage units in Kansas loaded into a truck to head to Books for Africa and from there to Ethiopia?

They arrived!

It takes a ton o money to get the English-language books to the libraries we’ve planted in Ethiopia.  (Yes, we do buy all the local language books available, too, and yes we continue to explore alternatives to shipping.)  This summer, we managed to get 80,000 books for new libraries to Ethiopia, thanks to LeAnn and to help from Books for Africa and Better World Books.

Once the books arrived, it took more money to hire the trucks and cranes and get the books plopped down on the ground in the right place.

It took–or, more accurately, takes–money to store the books and sort the books and for the Ethiopian staff to distribute the books to the new and existing libraries.  It’ll take more money to do the professional development for Ethiopian educators using those books.

More need for hope…

And community.

Sometimes it feels impossible.  But today the news came that the books gathered at Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver a few months ago have been delivered to the new girls’ school library.  Thanks to this summer’s efforts, that empty room is now full of 10,000 books.  When school starts this week, the library will be open for business.

 More new libraries will also be open for business for the first time, thanks to those books.  Some are in the capital city of Addis Ababa.

Some, like this one, are outside of the city, reaching some of the kids who struggle the most to get an education.  In fact, by the end of this school year, we hope there will be one model school library planted in each of Ethiopia’s 11 regions and city administrations.

Whew.  It feels impossible.  But I’ve seen that it’s not.

 What does a book represent?

What has reading books meant to you?

What has having a library done in your life?

I doubt I would be a children’s book author today if I hadn’t had that lovely little library in Trinidad, Colorado, where I brought home arm loads of books and read them to my three little kids.

So we celebrate books






This little boy has a life full of all of those things.

His family is the one who planted that library, now full of books, to honor the place of his birth and his reading grandfather.

Community…passing along the hope.

Ethiopia: the good life

We humans seem to like and need hooks to hang our brains on.  Since moving to Kansas nine years ago, I’ve found out what people in other states think about Kansas, for instance, and it mostly has to do with The Wizard of Oz although a surprising number of people comment on Kansas as being such a cold state.  I tell those people I moved down the Great Plains from North Dakota to balmy Kansas.  The year we lived in a FEMA trailer in Grand Forks, ND, a layer of frost built up so thick it was hard to get the door to stay closed.  I remember house windows almost covered with frost feathers, only a small hole in the middle left open.

I’ve generally liked living in states where other people think they wouldn’t want to live.  How will it be to live in Oregon aka the We-Love-Dreamers state?

I talked to a flat-lander recently who tried it and said, “I never got used to the mountains and trees crowding in on me.”

What will it be like to live mere blocks away from my mom and four of my siblings and their children and grandchildren and dogs?

I haven’t lived so close to so many of them since I left Ethiopia for Monmouth College when I was seventeen years old, and it’s a startling thought.  Lovely.  But startling.

When we drove into Wyoming, I glanced at the sign by the side of the highway.  A cowboy flashed by and the words, Forever West.  Exactly what I would have thought.

 Nebraska surprised and interested me, though.

The good life.

At first, the good life appeared to be one with a whole lot of solitude.  An ocean of grass and some of those interesting lumps I commented on seeing in other states.  The occasional windmill.  Fitting for the Home of Arbor Day, I eventually saw a whole lot of trees, and trees are always good.

What is the good life?

As humans, we can’t seem to help but equate it with comfort and ease, which almost always leads us to equate it with lots and lots of money.  No matter how much evidence we see that lots and lots of money doesn’t lead to lots and lots of happiness, we can’t help ourselves.  Someone wisely pointed out that what we crave when we think we’re craving money might often be interesting sensations, interesting experiences.  So travelers to Ethiopia comment on the heartbreaking poverty–but also on the amazing sensations.  The immense beauty of land and animals and people.  The food.  The bubbling joy and determination of survival.

It was always a painful thing of my childhood to visit the United States and find the image of Ethiopia so fixed.





Like many an Ethiopian-American today, I bristled at having to explain the land of my childhood.  Eventually, I didn’t want to try.  But my feelings of being a child in Ethiopia weave through everything I write, including the story of an American Girl, Lanie, longing to be outside.

Even today, I struggle when a young reader at an author visit asks, “What was it like growing up in Ethiopia?”

I want to say, “Read my books.”

Often their faces are open and curious, and I want to try.   I love having my pictures to show during my presentations. But it’s still hard to find the words.

My voice comes through my writing.

The complex, gorgeous, magical, heart-breaking world of Ethiopia has never been easy to explain.  Maybe I could just adopt Nebraska’s slogan.  Ethiopia: the good life.  In spite of the pain, in some ways it would be the truth.

What I know is that almost everyone who visits Ethiopia has an experience that jars and complicates their images forever.

Many of them come back as mute as I felt when I was a child, struggling to find the words for their experiences.

Many, many of them fall in love.



I’m in Grand Forks for happy times.  A garden party at All Seasons on Sunday, May 1, to talk about how the planting of reading seeds helps the kids of Ethiopia grow hope and vision and dreams.  A gathering of 400 Rotarians, where I get a chance to say, “Hey–thanks for a hand with the hoe!”  At least twelve of the Ethiopia Reads libraries exist because of Rotary International.

Here’s an exciting thing…the 4th-5th grade kids I met today knew that monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed, and the teachers told me they had monarch butterfly encounters way back in kindergarten.  Wowee.

So why do I walk and drive around this town and feel so sad?

Well, it’s a hard time of year in Grand Forks.  The Red River flood that wiped out one great Lincoln Park neighborhood happened back in 1997.  I spoke to kids today who weren’t even born until 2001.  But, as I wrote in RIVER FRIENDLY RIVER WILD, memories live in places.  Something happens inside my cells every time I come back to this place where my children went to school and where I got my master’s degree in English and taught university writing classes–and became a children’s book author–but also where I learned the lessons of loss.

As we looked around the greenhouses today, the air was spiced with the greenness of growing things, and I felt the thrilldom of thinking about what it will be like to show pictures and speak in such a joyous place about newness and opportunity and unusual openings and hope.  But the person who owns those greenhouses grew up in Walhalla, the little town where we fled when the knock came at 4 a.m. on the door of the house where we had taken refuge (a house I was also inside today).  I am most connected to All Seasons by a sensation of sadness.

When I wrote my book about going through flood, I changed little bits here and there.  The Christmas things that plopped out of a soggy box weren’t exactly like the Christmas things in River Friendly River Wild.  Our cat had a somewhat different story than the one I spun for the cat in the book.  But my feelings about losing the Lincoln Park neighborhood are captured precisely through the words I wrote.

We struggle to find the words to wrap around our sensations and our experiences…and we read and listen to each other’s words and feel the feelings that another person has felt.  Stories give us powerful ways to hang on and let go and move on and believe in better times ahead.

Go team!

Sometimes when I’m doing author visits and people hear that I’m from Kansas, they say, “Isn’t Kansas cold?”  Well, we moved down the Great Plains to balmy Kansas.  So it was hard…especially after I spent a chunk of winter in Indonesia…to have March go roaring out like the proverbial lion.  This was the pathetic view of the back yard where I took pictures of monarch butterflies when I was working on the Lanie stories. 


On the other hand, the snow was good preparation for my trip to Minneapolis coming right up, including (as I wrote in my last blog) bringing back memories of this time of year during the year we were smacked by the Red River flood.  Getting ready for the Kerlan ceremony is making me think about what it’s like to have a team.

I went through the early part of my life as part of a giggling, singing, camping, hiking, reading, story-telling team.  One of my sisters settled in Minneapolis and raised her own giggling, singing, camping, hiking, reading, story-telling team of kids there.  They made every Kurtz family reunion an adventure of cold rushing water and pancake making and hiking and singing songs around the campfire.  

March was the month my granddaughter also came roaring into the world like a lion, six years ago, so we decided it was time to pay that part of our team a visit.  Long ago, my daughter’s class was my very first chance to experience what it’s like to do an author visit with kindergarten students.  “Wow,” her teacher said.  “That was great.”  I wobbled away thinking, That was great?  To me, they were like bits of popcorn popping.  But I learned, over the years, that it’s worse to try to do an author visit for a school where one’s kids are, say, in junior high.  So I was pretty thrilled last week to get to be a visiting author in my granddaughter’s school while she was still in kindergarten–in a school that loves and celebrates reading and writing.  Thrilldom!


Sometimes you need someone to sing in harmony with you.

Sometimes you need someone to help you build castles and moats and a lake and a canal to connect it all right up.

Sometimes you need someone to bear witness to what your childhood was like…the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Where we’re from can help us make the changes for the journey toward where we’re going.

We teased our granddaughter that she and her fellow soccer players might need to call their team The Handstanders.  Our daughter went through some years when she spent a lot of her outside time whirling in cartwheels.  Upside down or downside up, outside is precious.  And the team is precious.

Those who write fiction spend hours and days mucking around in silence, bouncing around with their thoughts, sometimes thoughts that are scary and sad.  Artists shake the world and have their worlds shaken sometimes on a daily basis.  We have to grab every possible chance to feel a sense of success, a sense of comfort, a sense of joy.

Minneapolis has meant a lot to me over the years.  I ate Thanksgiving dinners there with my sister’s generous family.  They’ve come to pick me up at the airport when I was stranded and fed me and tucked me to bed.  I’ve spoken in schools and at conferences in Minneapolis.  Readers and writers and adoptive parents there have also been a big part of the Ethiopia Reads outreach to get books to the kids of Ethiopia.  Next weekend, several of my writer friends are making the trek to celebrate with me.  I can’t wait to share the city.

Go team!

Before and after the sorrow

In March 1997, the fax machine in my office space would start making its whirring noises in the middle of the night almost every night…a super librarian doing her super job of planning an author visit with me to ICS and two other of the international schools in Addis Ababa.  It was going to be my first time back to Ethiopia in 20 years…and I would lie in bed and listen to the fax almost sick with joy and wonderment. 

Before I packed my suitcases, I was careful to take the photos that were in our bedroom and put them onto a high shelf.  After all, the bedroom and my oldest son’s bedroom and our office space were in the lower level of our house–and record snow had fallen in Grand Forks that year.  Trucks rumbled by, filled with snow from city parking lots, bound for some secret destination.  “Might as well dump it into our basements,” was the joke going around.  “It’ll end up there anyway.”

Ha ha ha.

When I got back, the river was rising, barreling from the south, and people in our neighborhood were taking turns to walk on the dikes and look for cracks.  We lived in a neighborhood that sloped right down to the Red River, but our house was on high ground.  “If the river gets us,” my husband said, “it’ll get everybody.”


The snow did end up in our basements and lower levels all over the city and–for many of my neighbors–even up to their rooftops.  If the flood had hit before I had returned from Ethiopia, many of the pictures on this blog would be gone.  This picture records some of my precious papers drying on the lawn after clean-up.  But that’s getting ahead of the story. 

Most of us have ways of measuring life in Before and After.  One of mine is what happened when the Red River flooded in 1997 and spread out over the entire city of Grand Forks.  In March 1997, we were still in Before.  “Did you lose much in the flood?” people asked me for years.  What I lost in the flood, as I managed to say in River Friendly River Wild, was one terrific neighborhood.  What I lost is hard to measure in STUFF, but I still carry the sorrow of it.

Today I’m working on the pictures to share at the Kerlan Award celebration in Minneapolis on April 2 at the Elmer L. Andersen Library.  I’m thinking of the way the Twin Cities communities stretched out their hands to us after the flood.  I’m hoping people will be there if their Minnesota record snowfall this year makes their rivers wild.  What I know for sure is that we will all continue to tell the stories of Before and After, stories that can stretch our hearts a few sizes bigger for the sorrows that are here in our world and surely to come.

Author awards? Ya sure, you betcha

Last time I was in Minneapolis, it was Jan. 2 and the very beginning of the Year of Lanie.  I was meeting (for the second day in a row) reading families who love American Girl books and were excited about Lanie.  My sister Joy even got a member of her family to come to the American Girl store to congratulate me.  Go, Mike!

Since then, I haven’t been out of the airport when I fly through Minnesota, but I’ve been talking to girls who’ve made little eeee sounds about visiting the American Girl store there.  This week, more sweetness flowed out of Minneapolis to me. 

Everyone should have the fun of getting a message like this one:

We are so pleased to have selected you as our Kerlan Award recipient for 2011! Each year the Kerlan Award  is given (according to the Kerlan website) “in recognition of singular attainments in the creation of children’s literature and in appreciation of the generous donation of unique resources to the Kerlan Collection for the study of children’s literature.” Our committee was impressed with the depth and breadth of your donations to the Kerlan and your long and distinguished publishing career.  

I look forward to planning the logistical details of the award ceremony with you in the coming months.


I swoon with thrilldom when I look at some of the other authors who’ve been honored by the Kerlan Award:

Margaret Wise Brown

Katherine Paterson

Lois Lowry

Madeleine L’Engle

Karen Cushman…Walter Dean Myers…Jane Yolen…Carol Ryrie Brink

I love books by those authors.  I love being part of the children’s literature world–and my author friends.  Are awards a good thing for the book world?

Well, as one of my author friends says, they’re like fairy dust.  No one can count on them.  They’re lovely when they sprinkle down on you.  I like pointing out these days that there is a very good reason why the words starving and artist go together.  Being an author is a great way to live.  It’s a terrible way to make a living.  Thank goodness for award-givers and other ambassadors for books and champions of authors.

I’m also full of thrilldom to go back to a city that was shiny and generous and comforting when my ND city, Grand Forks, was whomped by the flood in 1997.  I love the independent bookstores in Minneapolis.  I love the outdoor spirit in Minneapolis.  I love the school visits I’ve done there.  UMBA (when it was UMBA) was always a jolt of joy.  I still show pictures from some of the work Minnesota teachers and librarians have done to help students connect with my books.

My sweet sister Joy drove from Minneapolis and did the ugly work of helping me dig out, clean up, and move into a FEMA trailer.  She just showed up.  That same spirit of giving and strong character has been part of every school I’ve visited there, including one where 23 families speak Amharic as a first language at home.  That spirit shines through Twin Cities families who have been library planters for Ethiopia Reads, too.

As far as I can see, only good things come out of Minneapolis.  A terrific project of that city, Books for Africa, has helped Ethiopia Reads get these huge containers full of books to Ethiopia where they’ve gone out to establish the school libraries you can see at

If fences make good neighbors, maybe lots of snow and cold do, too.  Go, go Minneapolis.  I can’t wait to be back there.

Thrills of travel to Ethiopia, Abu Dhabi, our back yards

I come from a family of travelers. 

Oh, they didn’t start out that way.  My dad, who grew up a skinny boy picking vegetables on the neighbors’ farms, thought he might live in eastern Oregon his whole life and never see the capital city of Oregon.

But World War II took the five Kurtz boys out of Oregon, and my dad was the one in the family who came home from war wondering what he could do with his life that would make a difference out in the wide world.

My mom–until she met my dad at Monmouth College–had traveled only between small Iowa towns, as her dad tried desperately to find work.  Her new sweetie took her traveling…on the back of a motorcycle to visit his family out in Oregon.  Later, when I was two years old, he got the idea that they belonged in Ethiopia, helping with the new effort to build schools and hospitals after the war.

When I look at pictures like this, I’m amazed that my mom and dad thought they could pack up three little kids (that’s me on the right) and move to Ethiopia.  But they did.  And they planted traveling in my blood.  “What were we like on that trip to Ethiopia?” I asked my mom.   She said that we were “troopers”–and added, “you had to be.”

The thing about traveling is that it has such power to open our eyes and open our hearts.  We meet people just like us…and people who are fascinatingly different.  It’s great for our writing–because we get startled and gripped by things when we see them for the first time.  When I met my granddaughter in Ethiopia, several years ago, I knew she’d be a traveler, too, and I hoped for all those strengths in her life.

In Lanie, I created the girl I never was…the girl who feels stuck in her own back yard, looking with longing at Aunt Hannah’s camper and thinking with longing about her friend Dakota off having orangutan adventures.

Speaking of Lanie, the monarch butterflies are traveling, too, on their annual migration to Mexico.  They graced us and entertained us and thrilled us for another season.  May we always pay them back in the ways we can:

At a recent writing workshop, one of the young writers hearing my story of becoming an author said, “Oh!  I know where you got the name Dakota.”  She was right.  My children were like Lanie, growing up in Grand Forks, North Dakota, never traveling outside the U.S. even though they heard story after story of my chidhood.  I’m proud that they’ve chosen to travel.  I’m proud of their courage and fortitude…

…because the truth is that even though traveling opens us up and gives us adventures and dreams and curiosities and understandings we rarely get any other way, that newness comes at a cost.  It’s like living through a flood.  We rarely welcome the sweeping away of the old life to make room for the new.  We feel dizzy and disoriented and uncomfortable and sad and frustrated and scared through many of the adventures most of the time.

I was reminded of HOW hard it all can be as we said goodbye to my nephew and his wife in Portland, recently.  They packed up their comfy teacher lives in Bend, Oregon, and headed out to teach in an international school in Abu Dhabi.  It took a lot of courage.  Most of us have very few pictures in our heads about places like Abu Dhabi…I was embarrasingly surprised about what I found when I did author visits to schools in the Persian Gulf, myself…and was delighted by those camels in the middle of the road.



But…then?  Wow. 

The world is a cool and thrilling place after all.

Family by blood and tenderness

All the boys in this picture from Kurtz camping trips past are young men, now.  (My brother Chris–the one on the bottom of the pile–is forever young.)  But the family gatherings haven’t stopped…and neither has the camping.  I’m just home from a trip to Portland where I spent a week of companionship with my mom, while my forever-young brother and his family (who are moving in with Mom) went on their annual camping trip.

Our family’s love of camping was born in Ethiopia, where camping was quite the production.  Luckily, my dad–the one with the outside genes–was always ready to energetically organize everybody and everything.  He was willing to pack and unpack and get a crew going on putting up the tent while another crew (with six kids, you can have more than one crew) started supper preparations.  No lovely little camper like the one Lanie falls in love with and longs to camp in!  Still, my dad did come up with scheme after scheme to make things easier for my mom, the one with the inside genes.   And all the efforts to get the six of us out into the wide, wonderful world turned all of us into the kinds of people who take our own kids–and now grandkids–camping, thus starting the cycle all over again.  I love that about us.  It’s one of the things that knits the Kurtz family together into one sprawling…well…family.

While I was in Portland, I also had an unexpected and glorious chance to introduce my reader mom to two of my writer buddies: Deb Wiles (who lives in Atlanta but just happened to be out in the Northwest) and Deborah Hopkinson, who lives in Portland now.  More than ten years ago, the three of us roomed together at a big International Reading Association conference.  Three books came out of our late, late night talks and brainstormings.

We love to think of artists as solitary geniuses, sitting alone in their lonely garrets.  The life of a writer does involve lots of garret-hood in oh so many ways.  But writer friends not only make the crashing solitude less overwhelming, they often jar bits of genius loose we can’t manage to reach on our own.  It’s one of the most precious things about the Vermont College MFA in children’s literature: the writers who suffered with us through hot/cold boot camps of the residencies and became our friends as well as writing community. 

Family by blood.

I’m grateful for all my siblings, for their energies and enthusiasms and that we share so many of those, from camping to reading and writing.  I’m touched by their generosity to me, the grasshopper who has been busy fiddling and not always storing up the grain that I need for the long shivery winter.

Family by choice.  My writer friends are also generous…and also fun.  I love hanging around with them, too.  I love it when our interests overlap.  This morning, I spent a great time with Jackie Briggs Martin’s new blog on writing and endangered animals.

Blest be the ties that bind ths big swirling world into one family.  By blood.  By adoption.  By friendship choices.  And more, more, more.


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