Archive for January, 2010

The power of girls

Wow.  What girls these days can’t do…My daughter, for instance, is the one who set up this blog and also my Facebook page.  And recently two girls named Christa and Mia did a podcast with me (my first). It will probably not surprise you to hear that I do not know how to do a podcast.  But I told their dad/coach that when I was a shy little reader, I never knew I’d grow up to do so much public speaking, so I admire all they are learning.

In addition, you can find it on the web at:

As I’ve done signings, I’ve been hearing about girls doing monarch projects, girls with gardens, girls doing citizen science…which, in fact, is where I got a lot of the information for the citizen science that Lanie does.  I talked with people at the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab in Minneapolis, where kids count monarch caterpillars in different stages.  “What’s one hard thing for the girls that are citizen scientists?” I asked.

Here was one answer:

“The first instar is easy to spot.  But instar 2 or 3 or 4 can be tough to tell apart.  Kids want to go by size.  A better way is tentacle size.  (The tentacles at stages 2 and 3 are small, at 4 and 5 are large.)

Here was another answer:

“Kids really want to find monarchs, and they sometimes get frustrated if they don’t.  We have to convince them it’s just as useful if they go look at the milkweed patch and don’t find them–because it’s data.”

Some girls in Massachusetts asked me for some monarch factoids.  Here are some unusual ones that got my attention:

–No one quite knows, yet, how such a small insect manages to navigate thousands of miles to a place it’s never been.

–Hardly any living creatures can orient themselves using both latitude and longitude.  In fact, humans couldn’t do it for a looong time.

–Until 1975, scientists didn’t even know where the monarchs ended up when they flew south in the fall. 

–Female monarchs have a glue gland and can stick their eggs to the plant so the eggs don’t wash off in the rain.

–Stinkbugs attack monarch caterpillars by stabbing them and turning the caterpillar innards to liquid so they can suck those innards out.

–Monarch caterpillars keep predators from finding them by hiding their frass (scat) in folded leaves stuck together with silk or even shooting it in the air, so it doesn’t give away the caterpillars’ location.

Thanks to my girl for getting me started!

Passing on the gardening gene

Our kids got the gardening gene from both sides of the family.  Leonard’s mom told me that even as a girl, growing up on a farm in Kansas, she always chose the outside chores over the inside ones.  Leonard says when he was a child, she grew corn and beets and peas and carrots and lettuce and all kinds of other things in her garden.  By the time I knew her, she was still growing most of those–and poppy seeds–and turning them into delicious meals. 

Leonard and I were planting a garden in Southern Illinois the day our first son, David, was born.  Ten years later, he was growing this pumpkin.  We called it the two hundred pound pumpkin, but I don’t remember if it really weighed that much.  I do remember pieces of it filled up the freezer for way longer than we wanted to eat pumpkin dishes.  By the way, if you’ve ever eaten or carved one of these, as I wrote in my book What Columbus Found (It Was Orange, It was Round), “say thank you to America, the land where pumpkins grew.”

We grew and carved and ate pumpkins for many years–in Southern Illinois, in Southern Colorado (where it was way too dry for a garden), and in North Dakota, where the mosquitoes were wild and crazy by the time harvest rolled around.

Our children and now grandchildren found all kinds of things to love in gardens.  Raw peas.  Pumpkins.  Strawberries.  Blueberries.  Buckets and buckets of kiwis from the tree in my dad’s back yard.  The love of plants often starts in the beautiful dirt.

(Tim Havlik, one of my nephews, shows off Dad’s kiwi tree.)

What are your first American Girl memories?

Reading this funny and sweet post by a dad made me think back to the days when my daughter and her best friend, Shannon, just had to get their hands on all the American Girl books.  (Meanwhile, Rebekah was longing like crazy for an American Girl doll, but I felt pretty much as the dad in the above post did.)

When dolldom finally happened, Rebekah was thrilled.  In those days, she wanted to grow her own crops and make her own butter and was interested in All Things Pioneer.  She and Shannon created plays with American Girl characters and learned all kinds of historical details.  On the mom side,  I was thrilled that she had a childhood as long as she did. 

(Shannon was the real best friend in my book about surviving flood, River Friendly River Wild.  She and Rebekah spent so many great hours in this room at Shannon’s house, and it was disconcerting when suddenly they were apart and had no idea where the other was.)

Got any memories to share of your very first experiences with an American Girl doll or book?

The power of one gardener

Okay…I get it that this sounds really dumb…but it wasn’t until Nancy Werlin and Jim McCoy and I were wandering around the neighborhoods near Mt. Auburn Cemetery–where I’d been taken to see birds and birders–that I really understood the connection between the plants we choose to plant + insects + birds. 

That day, we stopped to chat with a woman who was working in her garden–a lovely, slightly messy mass of flower and plants.  She talked about her quest to gradually replace all of her non-native plants, and she recommended a book: Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Susain Wildlife in Our Gardens.  I went right home and ordered it.

Of course, I did know all about wild gardens because my dad always filled his with wildflowers  and vegetables and other interesting things.  (Here I’m waiting in front of his front garden for a motorbike pick-up from my brother Chris.)  It used to make Dad’s neighbor upset.  Now I see gardens like this one all over Portland, Oregon. 

But in spite of my dad’s gardens, it hadn’t clicked in my brain that of course various bird species are only going to eat the insects their bodies can use for food…and that insects are only going to eat the plants their bodies can use for food.  If we plant things that insects of our neighborhood can’t use for food, they go away and then the birds go away.

This person knows a lot more about it than I do:

Because of that conversation, gardens became a huge thread of Lanie’s story.  So did insects and birds.  Even the Boston gardener’s cat eventually made her way in.  She changed my life that chatty morning.

I hope American girls (including the one watering my dad’s garden this summer) and their families will find these plant-insect-bird connections (and choices) as exciting as I did.

The power of Julie + more

I met Julie Evans when I spoke at a reading conference in St. Cloud, Minnesota.  At that point, I was sharing what felt like a big and tough dream–that we could help Yohannes Gebregeorgis move from his job as a children’s librarian in San Francisco back to Ethiopia where he wanted to start children’s libraries.  People were interested but skeptical.  It’s hard to donate to a dream.  Jule, though, said, “Can I help?”  She wrote and sent out a press release that was picked up by the Christian Science Monitor and became an important step on the path to the 43 children’s libraries that now exist in a place where Ethiopian kids often learn to read but then have utterly no books to read.

Recently, Julie got in touch to ask again if she could help.  She’s been working on pulling together pictures and information for Delta Kappa Gamma teachers in Pennsylvania who, last year, raised $14,000 for Ethiopia Reads.  With some of that money, Yohannes started a fifth donkey mobile library in a small town called Bui.  With more of the money, Ethiopia Reads brought out a bilingual version of my picture book Trouble (with thanks to Durga Burnhard, the illustrator who agreed to donate use of her work). 

It’s cool to think that a group of PA teachers (wh0 took this picture of me with the Nittany lion) helped these Ethiopian-American students at Haggerty (who, with their fellow students raised more than $500 for Ethiopia Reads) have a book in one of Ethiopia’s languages.

And Julie is using her volunteer efforts to write about it all.

And a volunteer (Down Home Books) is selling Trouble on and sending the proceeds to Ethiopia Reads ( 

I love it.

More about camping

How fun and funny to think so much about camping on this snowy weekend.  When I was writing Lanie’s story, I asked people for interesting camping disasters.  My favorite stories came from my sister Jan who does a lot of backpacking and told me about a time when deer were running around the campground with long johns dangling from their mouths and also waking up to see a deer tongue inside her tent licking her water bottle. 

Debbie’s comment of the coffee cups all lined up (from the last post) made me think about this picture, which my siblings and I came upon while we were sorting pictures for Dad’s memorial.  My dad always had his great organizational plans for our camping!  (I’m the teenager in the left corner on this one.)

A Facebook conversation with an old friend made me dig this picture out–because he’s in it.  This is Chebera, another beautiful and remote place in Ethiopia that, along with Maji, was a place that shaped our family.

Lanie loves camping

Camping was always quite an adventure in Ethiopia–and my dad loved it.  This was one of our sweet spots on the savanna, near a lazy brown river that we floated down on air mattresses and in inner tubes.  Sometimes, I laid in my sleeping bag and listened to lions rumbling and grumbling in the grass.

Notice, however, that my mom is putting on her lipstick.

Our family continued to have camping reunions and adventures all the way up until mere months before my dad’s death this December.  I recently studied a list of national parks and figured out I’ve visited 28 of them.  You?  Anyone know the very first national park?

(Hint…it also shows up in my brother’s very first novel, which comes out this May, and you can probably guess from studying the cover below.)

In creating Lanie’s story with her longing to go camping, I admit that I could relate to the inside members of her family, too.  It was a lot more fun being the kid in the camping scene than being the mom.

Ummmmm…the good, the bad and the ugly.

A few days late

The wonderful person who maintains my website for me set me up with goggle alerts, and one of those let me know about a blog post by the illustrator for the ready-to-read I wrote about Martin Luther King.

Maybe no other person who lived in the United States quite exemplified the power of one person to make a difference.  In the book, I wanted young readers to understand what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. actually SAID in his speech.

I also spend a lot of time in author visits talking about Yohannes–here doing a presentation with me in a church where Dr. King preached some of his famous sermons–who is changing the world for Ethiopian children one person at a time.  No wonder he was chosen as one of CNN’s top heroes in 2008.

I can’t think of a better reason to go to Hollywood than to hear about those heroes, ordinary people making an extraodinary difference.  They were the people in the back of my mind as I shaped Lanie’s story about the choices each one of us can make that will save our world.

Lanie’s sisters

Toni Buzzeo, library goddess and acclaimed children’s book author (and a member of my writing group) tells people that when she was stuck on a draft of a manuscript, I said, “If this were my story, it would be a sister story.”  That comment led to the revision that turned manuscript into this fabulous book.  She often shows a picture of my family to give a little extra context for my remark.

That baby on my brother Chris’s lap is the fifth Kurtz girl.  I know sisters.

I can well remember when the sister scene looked more like this. I’m the one in the middle, already with my mouth open to tell a story, no doubt.  So when Lanie’s family started to take shape in my mind, it’s no wonder that she popped out as a middle kid.  (Yes my older sister did play the cello.)

That little kid on the end now lives in the Minneapolis area, and she and one of her seven sons came to my signing at the American Girl store there.  Thrilldom!

The staff at the store hosted us beautifully, and Joy was treated to a banana split after the signing.  She and Mike said it was fun to have a relative that was so famous (at least for a day).  I thought one banana split was little enough payment for all that material on little sisters that made Emily’s character so easy to write!

I’m finally home for a week or two and have had time to download pictures, reliving memories of the three American Girl store signings that I’ve had so far.  Just call me Princess Jane.

Apparently, the Boston store has had extraordinary sales of the camper that comes with Lanie.  When I was doing research about the area, I saw the many camping possibilities nearby.  Maybe that’s why?

Here the Boston Lanie dolls are wearing their tee-shirts that support the National Wildlife Federation and their campaign to get kids outside.