Archive for April, 2010

The worst possible thing to write about

Earth Day!  Earth Day!  We could also just go ahead and call it Mothers Day II because when you think of it, where would we be…where would our mothers be…without good old Ma Nature?

When the American Girl team invited me to Madison to talk with them about their early ideas for the doll of the year, they thought Lanie might be an inventor who came up with a great idea to help save the earth.  The only problem is that the worst possible thing for any writer to write about is something they don’t know about and don’t care about.  I’m not sure where my brain was during science class when I was young–probably dreaming up fairy tales–but I just couldn’t picture myself in the brain of a character who invented something scientific.  Who did I think made fascinating scientific discoveries?  Jane Goodall. 

Luckily, the American Girl team took a look at my pictures of my outside childhood in rural Ethiopia and agreed it made sense to let Lanie be an outside girl.  That way, I had deep feelings and memories to draw on as I started to invent the character.  

I got lots of inspiration for Lanie as I read more about Jane Goodall.  She had no real training–but her story is a study in the power of observation.  Only her mother believed enough in her to go along to Africa with her as a companion.  She got up at 5:30 every morning and climbed a mountain to a ridge. She sat with her notebook on her lap, watching for chimpanzees, not moving even if cobras slithered around her feet.

Jane Goodall started to do her part for plants and animals when she still thought of herself as a girl.  Girls can absolutely do so much!  See for further proof.

Starfish behind, starfish ahead

I’m at one of NYC’s bustling airports so full of the joy of this fascinating city.

I’m looking behind me…thinking about the talented young man who designed the visuals for the NYC store (and I loved standing there listening to the bird calls), thinking about Lisa and Paul’s cozy and warm apartment in Brooklyn, thinking about all the girls I talked to at the store who see themselves in the pages of Lanie’s books.  That’s one of the delights of reading…we see ourselves and our interests and think yay.  It’s thrilldom to talk to so many kids who explore in their own backyards and talk to me about the flowers and butterflies and bugs they see while they’re exploring.

I’m looking ahead, too.  I’ll only have a few days at home before a trip that starts with LA (American Girl store, bookstores, LA Times Book Festival) and has Chicago and IRA in the middle–and ends with a fundraiser for Ethiopia Reads in Boulder and Denver.   Whew!  The power of volunteers.  The power of throwing one starfish at a time.  The power of books.

volcanoes and floods and dolls oh my

Today in New York City, I heard two of the sweetest name stories.  Whenever I sign books for kids with unusual names, I want to ask them if they know the story behind their name.  Willa, today, has cousins in Bethel, Kansas, where I have relatives, too, and she was named for Willa Cather.  Willa Cather!  Now there was someone who observed her prairie world.  (Like my grandson, here loving Kansas flowers the other evening.)  The other was Cariea, and she was named for a nurse who cared for a dying 18-year-old, an 18-year-old who said if he ever were able to have a child, he’d name her Cariea.  I also signed for kids who share my birthday day.

I told them about the worst birthday present I ever had.  On April 17, 1997, my mom and dad were trying to call to wish me happy birthday, but I was evacuating from the house where we had hung our kids’ home made Christmas ornaments, where they had planted giant pumpkins, where my daughter had unwrapped her American Girl doll.  Where they’d been children.  We never lived there again.

Today in New York City, I also met girls who don’t speak English…girls trying hard to get home to places like Paris and Zurich.  They can’t because a volcano is spewing grit into the air.  Disasters are so hard.  So, so personal when they happen to us.  And they feel as if they’ve messed up everything and will never be over.

They never are quite over (especially, I guess, when one writes books about them :>)  But some of my best speaking moments are thes ones where I know my words made someone else feel, just for a moment, what I felt that April 17 when the river became wild.

Or what I felt the first time I splashed down the friendliest river, ever, on the savannah in Ethiopia.

Words build bridges to our lives.

Oh Ma Nature…quick to remind us love involves respect

Whew!  Scary story out of Florida about a girl who loves Lanie and wandered off into a swamp.  My heart goes pitter pat to think of it–and I’m so, so, so relieved that she was found and is back with her family.  I talked with a reporter last night and a couple of CBS local anchor people to the sounds of early morning bird song.   As I said to the reporter…who hasn’t participated in the chorus that went with our family picnics and hikes in Ethiopia?  Mom:  Girls!  Not so close to the edge!  Us:  Oh, Mom!

As soon as I was a mom, I immediately played out my part in the chorus.  Me:  Kids!  Not so close to the edge!  My kids:  Oh, Mom!

At this time of year when I mourn (still) what we lost in the Red River flood, I have to say it: when it comes to Mother Nature, love had better always include respect.  

Luckily for my magical childhood, my sisters and I were the only American kids in the entire Maji area–so we could run around with both very little supervision and very little danger of getting lost.  Since Cambridge, Massachusetts isn’t Maji, Ethiopia, I gave Lanie an aunt to be her role model, mentor, and companion in her outdoor explorations.

Nice to have aunt models under my nose that I could draw from as I thought about Aunt Hannah and Lanie and the adventures they could have together.

Yep! Lanie’s right.

Yep!  Lanie’s best friend is off saving orangutans in Indonesia, and she’s wildly jealous…until she discovers the beauty and things to save in her own back yard.  Now I’m home to discover my son Jonathan’s pictures of the farmers’ market at the link, above.  At one time I thought I’d work farmers’ market scenes into Lanie’s story, and I haunted the booths he writes about to get ideas.  I also discovered that spring has come not only to Japan (picture on left) but to my own back yard.  Gorgeous gorgeousity.

Alas, I won’t be able to savor my back yard for long.  I’ll be driving to Kirksville, MO for a young author conference and then flying to New York City, where I’ll be signing at the American Girl store from 2-4 on April 17 (aka my birthday, aka the day we evacuated from the Red River flood) and meeting with New York families who’ve adopted children from Ethiopia (lunch on the 18th).  Next weekend…LA!  Whirling, whirling on we go.

I’m thinking of back yards also because it’s National Library month.  Proud as I am of the 43 libraries I’ve helped plant through Ethiopia Reads ( I couldn’t help but think–as I spent time in lovely international school libraries–about the treasure of libraries in my own back yard.  I’m scared we’re taking the treasure for granted and that it’ll slip out of our fingers.  Go, go libraries.

Sweet, sad love and cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms, they told me in Japan, flit through spring and won’t stay, no matter how we squeeze–

much like love.

Boys play their taunting games as they would anywhere.

Businessmen trudge in their ties under the trees.

Girls eat sweets.

Phones and cameras click.

An airplane rustles the sky overhead.

Pigeons are clearly proud of the possibilities that spring holds for them.

They discuss these things and chuckle as they walk through sprinklings of petals on the ground.

In the trees, some other bird can be heard.

It sounds a bit frantic.

Is it lamenting the nests it built for a bird that flirted and then slipped away?

The power of words that traveled to Japan

To my astonishment and delight, one of the schools I visited in Tokyo had a check prepared for Ethiopia Reads.  Here’s how it happened.  The librarian came upon the article in Good Housekeeping a couple of years ago and read it to her students at Seishen International School.  A girl decided she couldn’t imagine a world without books.  She started saving her yen.  A few friends helped.  Kids making a difference…wowee.

Surprises in Japan:

–driving on the right;

–heated floors and toilet seats;

–lots of pointing and laughing and trying because almost everything was in Japanese.

–Lanie travels well.

Some of the girls I met pronounced her name differently than I do…but they liked her science interests and they know a lot about the need to do our part for animals, even bugs.

It was a thrill to pick up the inflight magazine on the way home and see Lanie’s hero, Jane Goodall, on the cover.