Planet Jupiter by Jane Kurtz – Review by Jennifer Jacobson

Sweet words from a reader!

Nerdy Book Club

I have been eagerly awaiting Planet Jupiter, the newest middle-grade novel by Jane Kurtz.  Kurtz’s novels contain the number one thing I search for in stories: HEART.  Planet Jupiter is no exception. It is a deeply layered and incredibly moving. For this reason alone, I want to thrust it into the arms of young readers, teachers, and librarians. But it also contains an oft forgotten truth.

Jupiter is a girl with agency. When Paddy Wagon, the van that keeps her freewheeling family on the road breaks down, Jupiter saves money to repair it. When her older brother feels the need to stay put and earn a regular paycheck, she plans to bring him (and her rolling-stone father) back into her orbit. When Topher (her mother’s heretofore supportive friend) moves on, Jupiter scatters the blessed thistle to keep him away for good. But it’s when her seven-year-old cousin, Edom, arrives…

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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Ah. Every author’s dream question! I recently was asked it about my new middle grade novel, Planet Jupiter.

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Some authors have flippant answers…from the idea fairy. I capture them tumbling under my bed with the dust bunnies. I sometimes point out that a novel has to have interesting and unusual ideas for every scene–and that maybe a better question is, “Where do you get your details?”

In the interest of demystifying the writing process just a little, I show how various details in my books have come from memories, observation, and research–even if in the end, there is something deeply mysterious about the whole stew of it all, and how we take a spoonful and shake our heads and say, “needs something.” How we find something to try. How we know whether or not we’ve created the effect we want.

With Planet Jupiter, I can vividly remember where I stumbled on some of my details. For example, I agreed to be part of a reading night for the school where my brother, Chris Kurtz, was teaching in Portland, Oregon. One of his students introduced me to her twin. The way the two of them described their experiences made me burst out laughing. So I went to school to interview them about twin-dom.

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By the next school year, I’d finished many drafts and gotten feedback from my editor, so Chris and I decided it would be okay if I came back to school and read the entire novel aloud to his third graders.

I sang songs for them. They sang songs for me. Every time I read a chapter, we discussed Jupiter and Edom’s lives and feelings and struggles and worries.

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I asked if they knew what buskers were (a word I’d only recently learned, myself, for what I’d called “street performers”). Not only had most of them seen buskers around Portland, one boy had been busking with his family all over the world! Wowie zowie on that.

A couple weeks ago, I returned to school to show the Advanced Reader Copies of Planet Jupiter. Embarrassingly enough, I told the students that when I was first working on writing the entire story–the year I interviewed the twins–this group would have been in second grade.

Chris classroom

And the group I read the revised-and-ever-revising novel to? They were in third grade, then, and in fifth grade now.

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If you’re a writer–if you’re me, anyway–it takes a long, long time and ever so many details before you actually get to share the stew with your friends.

But then the feast is delicious!

 

On Being Grateful to readers

I was thanking my artistic friend Stephanie Schlatter today on the phone for her support of the new Ready Set Go books, and she said something I’ve heard from other people I’ve thanked in the past few weeks–I didn’t do much it was your determination blah blah blah. But here’s the thing…

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On our way to Maji

If Stephanie hadn’t wanted to go create art in Maji, Ethiopia last year…if Maureen (seen with me at one of our hotels on the way) hadn’t created tissue paper art with kids at the bookmaking day in Addis Ababa…if Troy hadn’t scanned the kids’ art and created a prototype book…

turtle…if Stephanie and Dr. Ann Porter in Grand Forks, ND, hadn’t financially supported us with materials and to help pay for design and translation…if people in Portland like Ann Griffin and Laurie Curtis and Beth Neel and others hadn’t helped set up a bookmaking day here…if Molly Curran hadn’t talked to her daughter’s school and teachers hadn’t said YES…

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…if WEEMA and Ethiopia Reads hadn’t paid for a printing and wanted to distribute the books in Ethiopia…and if a whole other army of volunteers and supporters hadn’t stepped up…

…these kids and adults wouldn’t have instantly stuck their noses into the books and started to read and talk and laugh and love them.

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Really and truly…it takes readers to make a book a book.

Creating books

I’ve published an interesting bunch of 30+ books–fiction, nonfiction, picture books, easy readers, middle grade and young YA novels. I’ve written articles and short stories and magazine pieces and grant proposals and memos. (When I taught Business and Technical Writing at the University of North Dakota, one of my favorite assignments was a memo announcing a new no-smoking policy: words have weight and reverberations.)

Never before have I been the one in charge of shepherding books from a glimmering idea…an urge of a story wanting to be written…all the way to kids reading it for the first time.

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But then along came Ready Set Go Books.

First, I got to inspire some illustrations and even try my own hand at some.

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A few kids helped with writing the stories, but mostly that’s been the job of my older sister and me, two writers who used to love making up and acting out stories when we were kids in Ethiopia and who traveled back to that beloved spot last year.

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We’re pretty tough editors of each other’s and our own writing, too.

But then came things I’ve never had to think about–like layout. One of my author-illustrator friends helped by creating thumbnails for one of the stories I’d written. (It was about a lion, and she’s published a book about lions!)

A young illustrator then took Jo’s thumbnails and turned them into characters for one of the Ready Set Go books.

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It’s been great fun to think about the impact that page turns have on the pacing and interest of a story. Not as much fun…copy editing. LOTS of it.

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But now, thanks to lots of guidance and help from Eastside Printing in Portland, donors, creative volunteers, and an NGO (WEEMA) that ordered 1000 books, I’ll soon get to see kids reading the first 10 books that exist (so far) in four languages.

Wowie zowie.   Ready.   Set.   Go.

at the printer

Travels and the writing life

When I talk to young writers and when I have conversations with MFA students in the Vermont College of Fine Arts program, I like to imagine I can take a bit of the mystery out of words like “inspiration” and “imagination” by pointing to ways that details and scenes in my books have grown out of observation.

An Icelandic proverb says, “Keen is the eye of the visitor.” Isn’t that one reason travel writing is so vivid and compelling?

When everything is off-balance, our senses go on high alert. When we can’t understand the language, we start relying on other ways of taking in information. I learned these things growing up in Ethiopia.

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I experienced the Icelandic truth all over again recently traveling in Guatemala and doing an author visit in Russia.

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Embarrassing as it is to admit, Guatemala was only part of a blur of Central American countries until we visited Brian and Sandi, Presbyterian social workers living there and working on issues of women’s human rights to things like safety and education and jobs.

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I listened. I learned. I saw connections to my books…

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Boy with pigeons in the park

The biggest thrilldom in Russia was getting two days of talking to readers and writers there–Russian, American, Canadian, Australian, Jamacian, Czech…so many word people from all over the world. So much to soak up. So much to share.

 

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And oh the stories! Who knows how these images and feelings will seep into my writing.

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The joys and agonies of bookmaking

Early in 2016, my sister Caroline Kurtz and I took a group of artists to Maji, Ethiopia, the place where she and I spent long, magical days making up and acting out stories–and where I learned to read.

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When we returned to Addis Ababa, we tried our hand at a bookmaking workshop–the first time I truly faced the challenges of actually creating books rather than being the person who writes the words.

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Luckily for me, one of the artists from the trip–Troy Zaushny–took the individual pictures children had created after listening to Yacob and Nahosenay read the stories aloud and used digital design to create a digital version of a first book.

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My dream was to have playful, appealing, colorful, culturally appropriate and easy-to-read books in local languages. Back in Portland, Caroline and I found ready volunteers to help with writing and illustration…we had to hunt much harder and follow many dead-end paths with translation and design. In the end, under the guidance of East Side Printing here in Portland, we did a lot of the layout ourselves, discovering why book publishers have to hire people to handle design, fonts, copy editing, etc. What an education!

But a year later, WEEMA, an NGO that works in the rural area of Kembata-Tembaro where they have built a public library and started some kindergartens, got a donation for 600 books. Caroline will also carry some books for an Ethiopia Reads school in Oromia when she travels to Ethiopia next month. What an accomplishment of volunteers using their talents to share book love!

 

Can’t wait to start on the next ten!

 

Where are the parents?

Some time ago, my brother Christopher Kurtz and I wrote a picture book together about a boy in Ethiopia who had become Chris’s friend during the years when Chris was teaching in the Bethel Girls’ School.  Only a Pigeon was praised for giving kids a rare look at life in an African city–no wonder, because Chris and the illustrator, E.B. Lewis, traveled to Ethiopia to do the art research, and it’s my book that most distinctively and accurately shows Addis Ababa streets and neighborhoods.

Only a PigeonI was surprised at the critics who read this mostly true story of a boy who shines shoes for a living and still takes time to care tenderly for his pigeons and asked, “But where are the parents?”  It was a criticism that was repeated when the idealistic parents of the girls in my novel Jakarta Missing leave them alone for a week.

There’s a large gap between a lot of U.S. readers and resourceful working kids in parts of Ethiopia (note this boy from our recent trip, out watching the cows with no parents in sight) and all around the world.

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Now Deborah Hopkinson has used her writing talents to show a time and place where children in the United States routinely had to learn to find their way with no parents anywhere around.  It’s powerful for us all, old readers and young readers, to understand the working life of children who don’t have access to school…and maybe some of the rest of us will meddle our way to having their backs.

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Jane: I love the way you weave real people into your historical fiction—I especially loved the way Jacob Riis shows up in this story and kids can get a feel for how his photographs shifted the social conscience of America.  Can you give readers a bit of insight into the challenges of incorporating someone like Riis into a lively, fast-moving tale?

 Deborah: This is actually the part of writing historical fiction that I like best. A Bandit’s Tale was inspired by my longtime fascination with Riis, who I encountered some years ago when I wrote two books set on the Lower East Side: Hear My Sorrow, part of the Dear America series, and a nonfiction work entitled Shutting out the Sky, Life in the Tenements of New York.

When proposing A Bandit’s Tale, a fictional story set in the same period, I realized I wasn’t quite done with my writing about Riis – or those compelling photographs of the time.

Jane: I would imagine kids would be astonished to discover that not long ago people their age were fending for themselves on the streets of New York City.  Have you had responses yet in author visits or pre-publication reading?

 Deborah: For years now, I’ve shown students a photo of children on the streets of New York playing next to the carcass of a dead horse. Like Riis’s photographs, this one has stayed with me for years and served as an inspiration for including another historical figure in this story: Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA. I’ve only had a chance to preview Bandit and haven’t had response from any young readers yet, but I’m looking forward to talking with them about it.

 Jane: Photos like the one at the opening of Book Two and the three boys sleeping in the window well have immense power.  What was your plotting process like as you studied those historical photos and worked out the story of A BANDIT’S TALE?

Deborah: I very much wanted A Bandit’s Tale to be a visual experience. And, as sometimes happens in research, one thing leads to another. I discovered a young reporter named Max Fischel, who served as Riis’s assistant and helped translate for him in the Jewish community. So it made sense for Rocco, our protagonist, to serve in the same role as part of his journey from street musician, to pickpocket, to runaway, to activist.

I highly recommend that students and adults interested in this period watch Steven Johnson’s PBS series, How We Got to Now.  All six episodes are fascinating, and the one entitled Light features Jacob Riis.

Jane: What’s your biggest hope as historical fiction like this flies out and into the hands of readers?

Deborah: Over the last couple of years, since the publication of my last historical fiction book, The Great Trouble, A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, I’ve visited dozens of schools and had Skype visits with students who learned about cholera and epidemiology for the first time while reading that book, which is set during the 1854 cholera epidemic in London. I’ve been immensely delighted that it’s been part of many state award reading lists, book clubs, and battle of the books programs.

I know that fantasy and dystopian genres are popular. But my favorite part of sharing historical fiction is to have groups of two hundred or more kids so intensely fascinated by looking at an 1854 death certificate that you can hear a pin drop – and to make the connection to Dr. John Snow’s work then and the cholera outbreak in present day Haiti.

In the same way, I hope reading A Bandit’s Tale will expand readers’ awareness that change can take place through the dedication and determination of individuals. Like Mary Hallanan, the other main character in the book besides Rocco, our narrator, I hope kids will want to be “meddlers!”