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!”

 

 

Blogging for Ethiopia Reads

I’ve written a few blog posts to share the new bookmaking project with Ethiopia Reads supporters.  The second one just went up today: http://www.ethiopiareads.org/blog-date/2016/3/7/stories

Meanwhile, as I describe where the inspiration came from for these new stories, I am blown away by the powerful example of how Stephanie Schlatter as a painter gets similar flashes of inspiration from the world she sees:

The road between Tum and Maji as we returned one evening last month…acaciainspire2-3616.jpg

And one of Stephanie’s paintings.

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I also was awash with warm memories of the Ethiopia Heritage and Culture Camp near DC as I looked through pictures of the time my son and his wife and their kids joined me.

Ellemae at camp

Noey at camp

Awwwww.  So glad they worked with me on creating these new stories for Ethiopia Reads.

An Ethiopian Diary: From Maji to Tum

Writers and all other artists try to tap into vivid, surprising, primal moments and details in order to spark the vision. So powerful to see how Stephanie does it.

Stephanie Schlatter Art

acaciainspire2-3616.jpg The view that inspired so much.

Many painting in this Ethiopia series were inspired by that magical moment on the road from Maji to Tum when the sun was setting and the mountains glowed as they rolled on all around us.

acacia1-3616 24 x 48, acrylic

All of us four painters who were a part of An Ethiopian Odyssey II were glowing, basking in the warmth of a perfect day.  We had trekked to a waterfall, saw the vast dramatic expanse of Nafis Bir and brought the Polaroid out in the town square, with many memorable exchanges.

acacia2-3616 24 x 8, acrylic

Our truck was bopping along the ever-twisting and turning road and suddenly, this acacia tree was before us, popping out of the landscape like a regal, proud ancestor. It’s given me loads of inspiration, burning the memory even deeper in my mind. This is a joy of painting, to be…

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An Ethiopian Diary: All 21 Ethiopian Odyssey II Paintings!

I write…Stephanie paints…deep gratitude for seeing my magic world through her eyes.

Stephanie Schlatter Art

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I know as the year goes on I’ll be painting more in this series, but for now, it’s a wrap!

When you have a concept of a series, it’s like something bubbling up inside you. You’re bursting at the seems to get all these images held inside of you out. Especially if you are a landscape painter who has just been to one of the most beautiful places on earth. Especially when you have been traveling with other artists who inspire you and with whom you’ve had the time of your life.

But alas, I came home with a crushing jet lag (eight-hour time difference, 30 hours in transit), the usual culture shock, a cold and a pile of “catch up.” I was delayed in my start. But maybe that was a good thing because once I started this series, I could not stop. It was like running down a hill…

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Don’t leave home without it…

A team, I mean.

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Too many things go wrong on the road. People get sick or turn out to have needs or expectations that we were barely able to articulate ahead of time. Obstacles wave their tentacles until you can hardly think.  Even unexpected opportunities–like waterfalls–knock the day’s plans askew–let alone the day in Maji we suddenly got the chance to jump in the car and galumpf down the road that our family used every time we needed to meet or catch a plane when I was young.

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Ato Marcos

Ato Marcos, one of our hosts in Maji, told Caroline that he hardly notices the flowers around him, and he was surprised to see the artists taking pictures of them. “I thought, if they think this little flower is beautiful, what will they think of nifas bir?” he said to her.  Nifas bir. Gate of the wind.  A spot of childhood nightmares for me.

more nifas bir

It’s hard to capture vast landscapes…how narrow the road is in this spot…how far it drops on both sides.  Far in the distance, you can see a mountain beyond which is Kenya.  You can see down, down into the lands where the Surma roam and where Odyssey I unfolded.

We were willing to set aside our plans that day–a carful of artists–and just go. I got to see what it was like in the artists’ vehicle and how their driver was part of the team, too, used to stopping and having them all leap out and snap photos.

road to nifas bir

Just like in my childhood, the car got hung up on a rock and couldn’t move, at one point, so Stephanie Schlatter and I walked ahead.  I got to see nifas bir through the eyes of a painter for a few minutes.

nifas bir with Stephanie

amazing note

Sometimes a team is hard because everyone’s priorities have to be taken into consideration. Sometimes, though, the team spurs you on and helps you see things through new eyes and gives you courage to carpe the diem and not miss something precious.

artist car

One of the most delightful parts of being on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts is the chance to hang around with fellow writers for 10 days every residency. And in Maji, I got to hang around with painters. I wish everyone the joy of being on a team with artists.

An Ethiopian Odyssey: The Final Days (Making Books)

No matter how much I thought about the bookmaking ahead of time, I could never have guessed all the things I would learn on this adventure!

Stephanie Schlatter Art

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The rest of my days in Ethiopia found me in the capital city. I’m not a city girl; no matter the country, I love the countryside. Addis Ababa is a bustling, rapidly growing city. It reportedly has a population of 3,384,569, with a growth rate of 3.8 percent, but  both numbers are widely considered underrated, according to Wikipedia.

But it gives you an idea. The pollution and chaos cannot be overstated. I try to spend as little time here as possible, but I still have some work to do. So I’m resigned to a few more days. The city has a certain energy and bustle that is charming, but for me the charm lasts about an hour, so let’s go visit a few artist studios and make some books and get me out of here.

First is bookmaking day. My dear friend Jane Kurtz is a very accomplished children’s book …

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Holding pinkies around the globe

I know to my bones how important it is to be humble and playful as we dance up to the cultural divide and stare over.  Respectful curiosity goes a long way. Calmness goes a long way.  Hubris is a good thing to leave behind.

The community of third culture kids is deep and wide with many things to separate us from each other–but I’ve never met another third culture kid who didn’t seem a lot like me.  And when we talk about respect for other cultures…well…I think that’s really important, of course. But I also think there is a culture of women around the globe. There is a culture of readers and writers and artists.  We  have lots of common ground.

This is an Ethiopia Reads school being built.  It’s a great image for how I feel as I set out for Odyssey II.  Precarious. Hanging on the edge. But aware of those holding my hand.1 foundation of support for building projects

Three writers (one who is pretty good in Amharic), two American painters, an amateur photographer who wants to help document the trip, two Ethiopian painters…we’re going to see what we can do to create our own art together but also to start creating a body of simple, playful, culturally appropriate, local language books that can go into the schools and libraries where Ethiopian kids are just learning to read.

1 Stephanie

Stephanie Schlatter, the American artist here, has done a lot of art work with kids in Ethiopia.  As she and I have discussed, visual art dodges the language question that is so hard as we struggle with sharing books.  I believe we will find the shared language of art on this trip and we will come back changed…if nothing else from a week lived off the electric grid.

1 empowering women through strong models

Tough team.  Watch this space for more!

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