A Woman Walked Into a Picture Book…


After decades of publishing books that have sometimes been called lyrical and important and poetic, I’m about to publish a picture book that my friend Carmen Bernier Grand calls hilarious.

Zoo poo

Thanks, Carmen.

Ironically, this book was born in a brainstorming session where my writer retreat friends and I were making each other laugh—and the idea for it wasn’t even mine. I was just the one who seriously wanted it. Now it’s about to come out and I’m terrified.

Aren’t you often terrified?

Art makes us vulnerable, and the sea can be so brutal.

My writer friends and I sometimes shout, “Back, back, Fearnando.”

Poor Fearnando. He just wants to protect us. As shame guru Brene Brown (she of the academic research around vulnerability) tells us, “The message is, do it! Get your courage on, but be clear that it won’t be easy. It’s going to feel like shit.”

(This is an appropriate message from someone who would write What Do They Do With All That Poo.)

zoo poo 2

Humor is, well, fun and games. Right up to the point someone slips on a banana peel.

I thank my lucky stars that one day I took a deep breath and began to sing as part of my Vermont College of Fine Arts lecture (which is another story) and Cate introduced herself afterwards and admitted she sings and…

VCFA singing

…Reader, we sang. (Singing in public is scary. It’s a lot like telling a joke. Do you feel—as I do at times—that you can die from scary? But do you also feel more alive when you’re taking risks?)

Cate also wrote her critical thesis on funny picture books, and since I was her adviser I got to think about all of this. A lot. (Thank you, Cate—and she’s going to post for all of us later this month and give us all kinds of wisdom about why women feel they are so shut out of humor in picture books.)

That’s why I read an article called “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian” (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/02/the-dark-psychology-of-being-a-good-comedian/284104/) about how humor dances on the edge of the unacceptable. Is often transgressive. As the article says, “Go purely light-hearted and you risk being toothless. Too edgy, and you’ll make people uncomfortable.”

It made me look inside for part of the answer. Good girls don’t bite. Luckily, I was born fierce. (So was my daughter, who demanded that her teachers have a sense of humor. So was my granddaughter–as you can see.)

My mom recently asked me, “When did you get to be so civilized?” Well, Mom, it happens to the best of us. But Mom herself was pretty unconventional–tough, but also witty. When I was growing up in rural Ethiopia and we were given a chicken to carry with us in the Jeep, I made her laugh and laugh by announcing, “I smell something foowwwwl.”

I did not win any good-kid awards in my family. I did get to feel the zingy power that comes from making someone laugh.

My dad loved a funny story, too. And in my family we didn’t get the memo that only boys get to take after Dad–because for a long time there weren’t any.

Humor. Often so uncivilized. I have a feeling we’ll have to push hard to wedge this particular door open wider because there’s a lot at stake in seeing women as sweet and ladylike. Grandmas? We wear aprons and are jolly and warm and comforting. In other words, on the other side of the door, a big sweaty mass is pushing back.

Brene Brown says, “I want to create. I want to make things that didn’t exist before I touched them. I want to show up and be seen in my work and in my life. And if you’re going to show up and be seen there is only one guarantee. And that is, you will get your ass kicked.”

I don’t like getting my ass kicked. I—like you, like all humans, probably–have been on a lifelong quest to get over shame. To actively…with big gulps…resist the idea that I was born to sit down and shut up and make myself small.


When the sea is brutal, there’s only one real boat for me.

The sisterhood.

sisters at beach

Yes, I mean my actual sisters (and my brother, too) who make me laugh harder than anybody else can.

I also mean my sisterhood of writer friends. For example, recently Jennifer Jacobson and I have been exchanging manuscripts and we ask each other for help in answering how can this story take more risks, be more inventive, be more muscular?

And I mean the sisterhood of teachers, librarians, academics, reviewers who can use their power to amplify the voices of the small peepers down here up to our eyeballs in sand.

Maybe a woman walked into a bar…and walked away with a black eye.

But maybe the sisters are there with ice packs and raw beef.

Didn’t we once, long ago, burn our bras together and feel the power?




Ready Set Illustrate

When I fell in love with the dream of an artistic life in children’s books it was through writing picture books. I used to love to draw when I was a kid. I didn’t pursue visual art with the same kind of single-minded determination I applied to the craft of writing fiction and creative nonfiction, though. And when you’re a writer of picture books, you have almost doing to do with the illustration.

Over the years, I got to see the pictures that others dreamed up when they read my words–in the U.S. and occasionally in Ethiopia.

But I never wrestled with what illustrations to put with what text or how to craft things like the page turns of my picture books. Enter my experimentation with Ready Set Go books to give kids (and adults) in Ethiopia practice reading.


For the first time, I had the delight and challenge of working with illustrators and figuring out how to put things together in ways that spark a reader’s understanding and imagination.

Main big problem? Not many of our volunteer illustrators can draw people. One of the first stories I wrote for this project was a variation on the runaway gingerbread man/tortilla/johnny cake…but it languished without an illustrator who knew what scenes and people in Ethiopia look like–and could handle the complex visual storytelling.

Enter Katie Bradley. Through her adopted daughter, she had come to love (and occasionally see) Ethiopia. She worked with some second graders in Vancouver, WA to create one of the Ready Set Go books called Fire. And then she decided to use paper cutting (which she vows never to do again) for the runaway injera story.

I’m always fascinated to models and then an artist’s interpretation…so here’s the girl that served as Katie’s inspiration for the final scenes of the book–and how she’s showing up in the illustration (with the injera rolling  near).

The girls are reading Fire, Katie’s first book for Ready Set Go, currently available on Amazon with all proceeds going to create more books. Go, go, go Katie and all the creative people involved in this new project!

2018 dawns full of emotion and the messy glory of life

Mid-January, I was battling both rain and snow (which of course = ice) at Vermont College of Fine Arts and loving doing the picture book workshop at residency with ten students eager to learn about this quirky genre + Liz Garton Scanlon + Ashley Wolff showing us how life looks from the illustrator’s point of view. VCFA

As I always do, I had one of my own manuscripts open–a picture book I’ve been working on–and as I sat through lectures and readings about the amazing and complicated craft of writing, I was jotting down ideas and zingy snippets that came to me. Doodling and moodling.

On a break, I listened to a voice mail from the hospice nurse who had been stopping in to visit my mom for nearly a year. “Please call me,” it said. I texted my sisters and asked someone to give me a call. “Please call me,” one of my sisters texted back, a few hours later.

Oh, Mom.

She was always so ready to go for it. So hard to pin down and box in. Such a lover of words and books. Someone whose life was saved by reading and by being intellectually curious and open to learning more, more, more.

For her memorial, we are taking donations to print the first set of Ready Set Go books in the language of Dizi, heart language of Maji, where most of my sisters and I learned to read and put down roots in this life, where we acted out stories and fell in love with the earth and life and family with its messy glories, as one of my author friends put it.

dog 5

Dogs and chickens may run in front of you. The thief may take advantage of chaos. Life may slam you and knock your feet out from under you, but stories are something to cling to when everything else is shaking.

Or so it has been for us–my parents and siblings riding the rapids in the same boat.




A time to write and a time to figure out next steps

After all the fun of creating Ready Set Go Books for Ethiopia in 2017, I reluctantly admit it’s time to think about next steps.

In 2016, Stephanie and Troy and Nahosenay and Yacob met with those young illustrators in Ethiopia and read them a few of the simple stories I had written. I was charmed–and dismayed all at the same time.

art work 3

How were we going to get from that one lion to all the illustrations needed for my story based on an Ethiopian saying about lions and spiders?

Back in Portland, the answer came in the form of an eleven-year-old who showed not only great artistic talent but also great determination to figure out all the postures of the lion, page after page.


Now even my story about a runaway rolling injera has found a volunteer illustrator up to the demands of the story!


I promised going into this project that I was going to put on my artistic hat and not try to solve production and distribution. Luckily, between Ethiopia Reads and Open Hearts Big Dreams and WEEMA and a handful of other NGO supporters, we’ve been able to get a few of the books read in Ethiopia…enough to know that–as my sister puts it–adults and kids would glom onto these little books like iron to magnets.

Now more volunteers have stepped forward–a bunch of them in Seattle as the organizers and visionaries behind this event on December 9, coming right up! http://openheartsbigdreams.org/events/


2018 will be the year of figuring out production and distribution. We’ve experimented enough to find out a lot of what DOESN’T work. I know there are enough creative brains engaged in this project to figure out what does. Up with Ethiopians and Americans working together to figure out steps for reading…for all the power of ideas unlocked when people can share words on a page across continents.






It’s fall and that means time to write!

It’s fall! Most of my apples have brown fuzzy centers (since I don’t use any pesticides in my yard) and then every once in a while I cut open one that is beautiful.  Yesterday, traveling birds also stopped by the yard to feast on elderberries. The world is bursting with good things.apple

And then there are the wildfires. And the floods. And the long, hard slog of cleaning up after disaster up-ends everything. Whew do I know that story (and the urge to tell the stories of our disasters that is so powerful and often healing).


The scary and the hard and the beautiful all squashed together…I think…is part of what compels us humans to make art.

We also feel compelled to find the small things we can do to keep despair and darkness at bay. For me right now, that’s the work I do in my yard and with Ready Set Go books. Flinging those stranded starfish off the beach one starfish at a time.


#pollinationrocks (created at two library programs for PLANET JUPITER here in Portland)

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…

View original post 448 more words

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.

01 cover

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.



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.


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.


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!