Archive for February, 2010

Ah…the flowers of Atlanta

Denver has donkey carts, too :>  One of them sits in this school and reminds kids to bring their pennies for Ethiopia Reads.  I was proud to meet this leadership team, glad to meet kids making a difference…and also the ones who like to wear funny hats to school.  Denver had smart kids, great questions from those smart kids, and a lot of interesting conversations about books.

But it didn’t have any flowers.  In fact, the sidewalks still had ice and snow on them for the most part. 

So I got a kick out of standing outside the Atlanta airport looking at the flowers.  

In the Atlanta hotel, downstairs, girls are watching the Molly movie.  Upstairs, I’m unpacking and thinking about signing at the American Girl store tomorrow.

Off in the snow, throwing starfish

The story goes that a man, walking on a beach after a storm, comes upon a person who stoops, picks up a starfish, and flings it into the ocean. 

The man looks around.  Starfish litter the sand all up and down the beach.   “You’re nuts,” he says.  “You could work all day and not make one tiny bit of difference here.”

The other stoops, picks up a starfish, flings it into the ocean.  “Well,” he says, “I made a difference to that one.”

Today, I slide off through the snow to Denver.  I’ll talk to kids in three schools about Lanie, the girl who discovers she has the power to make a difference with ladybugs and birds and butterflies and plants and orangutans.

One of the schools has raised money for three years for Ethiopia Reads.  I’ll talk to them–and to a group of parents who’ve adopted kids from Ethiopia–and to people who’ve given money to start children’s libraries in Ethiopia–about what has happened because they stood in the sand and threw starfish.  

When Yohannes wrote me an email from San Francisco Public Library, almost ten years ago, he said, “Books change lives.”  He said, “What about the children on the streets of Addis Ababa who have no library like this one to go to?  No books to read?”

Once, my little sister was a girl who saved her allowance for a year to give to an orphanage that Mother Teresa started in Ethiopia.  She was one of the first girls I knew who was a starfish thrower.

In the past ten years, I’ve met a bunch of others.

I can’t wait for the ones I’ll meet this week.  I can’t wait to show them the faces of the children who now–because of the efforts of hundreds of starfish-flingers–are holding books…and dreams…and hope…in their hands.

Everything’s fun for me in Kansas City

Thrilldom day in Kansas City yesterday.  I spent two weeks last fall doing author visits in schools in Liberty, MO, where the kids, teachers, and librarians are grand.  It turned out I visited a school where one of the families had met me several years ago–in Michigan–when I was doing an author visit.  (I didn’t get the automotive connection until I chatted with people in Liberty.)  Yesterday, I went back to that family’s house for an elegant tea with some of the girls I met at Shoal Creek School.

After we had tea and cookies and conversation, the girls put together a fashion show with their dolls.  Then I had to leave to drive south to Overland Park–through a whoosh of snow–for a book signing at a bustling B&N there.

Wow.  That’s about all I can say.  Great staff.  Great signing.  Great kids.  Great faces.

I talked to the girls about things they like to do outside.  An impressive number named bugs as the things they find in their explorations.  They told me they like dolls and books…just as I did (starting when I was only two years old).

And sometimes they like to play with their dolls outside, which my sisters and I did all the time.

Garden + doll = two pretty great things for any kid!

I was lucky that my childhood was full of books, dolls, gardens, and all the imaginative games my sisters and I could invent.

Reading teaches, reading connects

I’m mostly overwhelmed by Twitter (which my son Jonathan introduced me to) but I’m also impressed at the cool things I learn from reading National Wildlife Federation tweets–something I started doing when NWF and American Girl teamed up, thanks to my Lanie books.  A tweet this morning led me to a contest for kids who care about art and endangered species.  I would so quickly have jumped on this when my sons were drawing drawing drawing.

The deadline for entries is March 26th. Winners will be chosen in four categories: Kindergarten-Grade 2, Grades 3-6, Grades 7-9, and Grades 10-12. From these, one national winner will be chosen who will be honored with a special trophy, designed by a gifted young artist. The national winner will also be flown to and recognized at a reception in Washington, DC in May.

 Enter the Endangered Species Day Art Contest today!

 For more exciting information about Endangered Species Day, visit

 Reading tweets this morning made the think about the power of words: how magical and weird that 140 black marks on a white screen can make me FEEL things.

When I was in Norway, I was struck by how words connect people across continents and across generations.  These two marvelous girls have lives strung across the United States, the Persian Gulf, Europe…and I like to believe that the books of mine where I struggle to give a voice to third culture kids will be a part of their inspiration and comfort, now that I’ve made an author visit to their school. 

Their dad (a teacher at the school in Stavanger) and I had a fascinating book connection, too.  When he saw my book ONLY A PIGEON, it brought back memories of his dad, raising pigeons in the NYC area, caring tenderly for them as Andualem, growing up in Ethiopia, does in the book.

I’ll carry with me the image, now, of his father, mourning a pigeon (who was attacked by a hawk), trying to sew up the wound to save the bird’s life–just as I’ll carry the joy of exploring the wild, wonderful rocks and forests of Norway that Lindsay, the other teacher in this picture, described and showed me so well.

Imagine…a word without books.

The power of books

I could pretty much write about this topic every single bingle day.  I definitely talk about it every single bingle time I do an author visit.

My romance with books started with my mom, who grew up in a tough household in small towns in Iowa.  She coaxed my dad–the storyteller–toward books.  (When I spoke at my alma mater, Monmouth College, last year, I discovered this picture of them in a book about the college.) 

She read on camping trips.  She read every day.  She was my first teacher and the one who modeled a love of books for me.

I think of her when I read this quote from Julie (the person I wrote about in The Power of Julie): “If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.” – Betty Reese

Just before we moved to Ethiopia, Mom happened to read an article by a librarian, “One Hundred Best Books for Children.”  They didn’t have much money, she said, but she bought as many of those books as she possibly could.  Those were the books that got unwrapped every Christmas, every birthday.  Oh that moment in the afternoon–after all the hustle bustle died down–when it was time to curl up and open that book for the very first time!  When I finished, I traded books with my sisters…or sometimes went right back to the beginning and started over.

It still feels magical that I had a chance to publish books that would show other readers a bit of Ethiopia, the beautiful country where I learned to read.   When I saw E. B. Lewis’s art work for the first time (in the Simon & Schuster offices in NYC), I cried because it brought back so many memories of the place where–at that point–I hadn’t been for sixteen years.

It’s thrilldom that a young Ethiopian woman who loves children’s books got permission from Simon & Schuster to bring out an Ethiopian edition of Fire on the Mountain, illustrated by an Ethiopian artist.  You can see a video of the book being put together and distributed at 

As Yohannes says, books change lives. 

What I didn’t know about Norway

Every time I go a-wandering, I’m impressed (and a little bit embarassed) about what I don’t know about the world.  An Icelandic proverb says, “Keen is the eye of the visitor”…and since good writing leans on good observation, travel often shakes things loose in my brain.  Being a writer makes me pay better attention.  So (at the risk of having a bunch of people say, “You didn’t know that???”) here are surprises and things that caught my attention.

#1.  I like little things. 

Doors.  Chairs.  Ooold things.

The Stavanger airport has smooth wooden floors obviously tromped on by thousands of feet.

#2  The Norwegian alphabet has three more letters than the one I’m used to.  I am most charmed by the letter I heard nicknamed “Angel A.”   (It’s an “A” with a little halo stuck on top and pronounced like the “o” in bored.)  One of the teachers told me about his visit to a town with only that one letter for a name.

#3 Not every city in Norway is cold and snowy during the winter months.  Stavanger is usually overcast and rainy.  Winter or summer, though, Norwegians get themselves outside.  They use snowshoes, skis, or boots to make their way to cabins anyone can share.  On the way out, they leave their name and address, their nights of staying in the cabin + any food stock used…and a bill comes in the mail.

#4  I don’t know who these people are in this painting (from the medieval church), but doesn’t it appear that Norwegian ladies a long, long time ago had Bluetooth headsets?

I can’t figure out if this is one couple who had an enormous # of children or a couple with their siblings and a fairly large # of children.

At some point, my curiosity made lead me to dig for answers, but right now the curiosity itself is fun.

#5  A great many Norwegians do church work in either Ethiopia or Madagascar.  (My friend who taught Norwegian at UND had spent time in Madagascar, but I didn’t know she was one in a grand stream.)  When you’re born in Norway, you have to opt out of being Lutheran.

#6  Freaky fascinating connections are everywhere.  The school secretary was in Asmara (then Ethiopia, now Eritrea) at about the same time and at the exact same places where I’ve been, including a hospital.  (It wasn’t a church commitment for her but a scuba diving commitment.)

Here she is in the office she shares with trolls.  Many trolls.

The international school connection

Lanie’s best friend Dakota has waltzed off to Indonesia, where she is getting to work on saving orangutans.  And where did that idea come from?  Simple: I was visiting an international school in Indonesia (with a terrific orantuan project) when I was contacted about writing the doll of the year books.

How fun to be doing an international school visit in Norway and talking about Lanie (as well as my other books…and–as two fifth graders earnestly asked for–how to become an author).  Here I am in the office of the school with a few of the trolls. 

Norway, of course, loves its trolls.  What do people think of first with Norway?  Snow and ice.  Usually, though, Stavanger–on the sea–has more of a Portland winter: overcast skies and rain.  This year, though?


Most churches in Norway–I hear–are simple and modest.  This rare medieval church (built in the 1200s) is unusual.  Add the sound of accordion music and a faint smell of the sea…

I love the way these schools are full of children from all over the world.  I love the way connections to my books seem to be pretty much the same everywhere.  Some of the kids who saw my pictures of cheetahs and leopards, guessed “jaguar.”  Bella showed me her jaguar and promised to do research to see if there are any jaguars in Africa.

One of the classes used my juicy words in WATER HOLE WAITING to inspire their drawings and their own word choices.

If there’s hope for world peace and deep cross-cultural understandings, it’s probably these great kids at these great international schools.

The power of pizza

When I was writing the Lanie books, I made Emily a pizza lover for several reasons.  First of all, it gave me the chance to create a dad who would make up fun and funny recipes for his kids.  Also, it set up a pizza garden–and I wanted a pizza garden as part of the lure to get Emily outside.  Finally, I have two grandkids who love pizza.  On Super Bowl Sunday, they made pizza with me.  You can find the recipe and read an interview with me at a fabulous author’s blog:

Some things make gardening irrestible.  Pizza.  Potatoes.  Peas.

The power of memories…in writing, in life

A family whose four-year-old son was adopted from Ethiopia hosted a visit from me to Houston to speak in two schools and do a presentation about Ethiopia Reads.   Dakota, Lanie’s best friend, is going to an international school in Indonesia–something that popped out of my real life–but I sometimes forget about the international schools right here in the U.S.  It was a kick talking to kids from Saudia Arabia, Argentina, Ghana, Nigeria, India, Indonesia…so many places that I’ve forgotten them all.  When I showed my picture of the camel that appears to be reading a sign taken in Kuwait on an author visit there, my little joke was lost in a flurry of kids buzzing with the excitement of wanting to tell me they could read the Arabic. 

Yesterday, I had my own freaky connection buzz.  After my presentation about Ethiopia Reads, a dad was getting books signed for his daughter, when he commented that the pictures of my dad looked familiar and that he had grown up in the same Addis Ababa neighborhood where I spent years.   He and I tried a few tentative feelers about possible connections–what kind of car did my dad drive?  what did the Ethiopians in the neighborhood call him?–but I wasn’t sure until he said, “Ah…and a dog.  The family had a dog named Chino.”  Chino!  I couldn’t believe it.  I hustled over to my computer and whipped out a picture of my brother with Chino in our house in Addis Ababa and then found a picture of my dad standing beside the family car.  He pointed to where his house was–right beside ours.

Many of the Ethiopians in the audience had been teenagers at the same time I was in Ethiopia, and we agreed it was a treasured time in a treasured place.

Can you identify these Boston spots?

Since Lanie’s books are all about loving the dirt, plants, birds, butterflies, and other animals of a place, I had to get to know her place well.  Some of the threads I had in mind ended up fizzling.  But some of these spots became part of scenes in the new American Girl books.  Any Bostonites recognize the spots?

Hint: these two top places are connected.

These two pictures are also connected (and you can see my guides for most of this journey).

Extra credit for anyone who knows where this spot DOES show up in Lanie’s books.