Archive for June, 2010

No matter how we travel, words give us glue

It happened again yesterday–as I talked over dinner in Boston with a group of families who had gathered in an American Girl salon, one of the girls was excited to point out that my real life story is actually somewhat like Dakota’s story in the books.  (I was charmed at the store signing to hear of a girl who is going to have a Just Like Me doll created to look like Dakota so that Lanie and Dakota can have earth-saving adventures together.)

My details of what a tight friendship can be come more from watching my daughter play with her elementary school friends than from my own memories.  It’s thrilldom fo meet groups of friends and Girl Scout troops that come to my signings, but I can relate to sister pairs and trios.  Since rural Ethiopian girls are assigned serious house tasks starting at about age 6, I spent a lot of my early years playing and picnic-ing and camping with sisters.  We turned sticks into horses and galloped them through our stories, listening to the satisfying scratching sound the ends made in the dirt.  We cut people out of catalogs and created families in the cobwebs under the tin roof where the rain drummed so loud we couldn’t hear each other giggle.

I did have friends in boarding school in Addis Ababa.  Since we slept on bunkbeds together–four to a room–and ate together in the round dining hall and ran to school together and went through game phases together (marbles, hopscotch, pick-up sticks, tether ball, work-up, jump rope, Pom Pom Pullaway), we laughed and quarreled more like sisters than friends.  So I struggled, in college, with how to make friends.  But somehow I managed to get friendship glue going with Chris Heaton Brown, and we’ve always kept touch.

We haven’t seen each other for–oh–25 years?  Yesterday, Chris drove to the Boston area so we could have brunch…and browsed in the Natick mall while I sat on my lovely throne and signed books…and came to the meet-and-greet, where I got to show the picture of her that I dug out (above).  I remembered what a zingy, great storyteller she is as she caught me up.  We talked about her cousin, Nan, and my sister, Caroline, who were also part of our group and friends in both Monmouth and Carbondale, Illinois, and what it’s like to leave old selves behind–and yet still feel them itching under the skin.


How do they work their magic?  How do they make us feel so much?  How do they have such powerful glue that people can stay connected even when they travel far away from each other?  How do they show us the possibilities and give us courage to try on new ways of being?

I’m glad for the thrilldom of creating girl characters who know more than I ever knew as a girl.  I’m glad I know more about friendship, now, than I ever did then.  I’m glad for friends and family and the blurry places where windows fly open and we let people into our lives.

Stories and the human heart

I met my granddaughter in Ethiopia, surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles, and her other grandparents.  Not too many books in that household.  Stories, yes.

Ethiopia has many ways to tell her stories.  Names, for one.

Hiwot, my daughter-in-law, was practically a baby when her mother and father, during the time of the communist government, were arrested and thrown in prison.  Her aunt carried her to the prison.  Seeing the child, a guard had pity and released her mother.  Hiwot was given her name–which means life–because she gave her mother life.

Architecture for another.  In Lalibela, where 16 U.S. teachers will soon be visiting, every bridge tells a story.  Every gate tells a story.  Every window tells a story.  Every cross tells multiple stories. For centuries, people who could not read any words have been able to walk through Lalibela and read the stories. 

Paintings tell stories of angels and saints and monsters and kings.  St. George gallops on the wall killing the dragon over and over in many places. 

All over Ethiopia, stories are told in complicated songs that the likes of me will never understand.  Drums can be read if you know the language.  Some of the stories are mean…all about who’s in and who’s out and who’s more ferocious than whom.  Some of them are head-achingly complicated, like the real history I wove into my first American Girl book, Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot.  I’ve been reading some of that history again, getting ready to head to Ethiopia on Monday. 

I went to Ethiopia when I was two.  When my granddaughter was two, she came to America.  She landed PLOP in a world of books–and, wow, did she take to them and did I love reading to her.

I’m saying “did” because she’s moving this weekend.  Wow do I hope she keeps on reading those books.

Some stories need to be told over and over–heard over and over–and even then they might or might not sink into the human heart.

But they might.

Read on, Daddy-o

“Why did your family go to Ethiopia?” 

I probably leave the door open for that question–the one I get all the time–because I’m never happy with the simple answer, which is that my parents worked for the Presbyterian church for 22 years.   I want people to hear the story.  To imagine what it was like for my dad to leave the farm in eastern Oregon and end up in places like northern Africa.  How he came back from war, as I once heard him say, with the world on his heart.  How the emperor of Ethiopia returned home after World War II to find a country devastated by the Italian occupation–and invited church groups in to help with schools and hospitals.  How someone told that to my dad…by then a young minister with three kids in Portland, Oregon…and said, “You’d be great in Ethiopia.”

Since I grew up in rural Ethiopia (unlike my younger siblings who grew up in the city), I spent lots of time tagging after Dad while he innoculated mules against sleeping sickness and as he dangled down a cliff by a waterfall, putting in a mill to grind grain into flour.  Once I watched him clinging to the roof of that house in the picture–in a wind storm–fastening some kind of tarp so the grass wouldn’t blow away.

Was it scary?  Lots of times it was.  My dad was the one in my family with the outside genes.  I could never have written Lanie’s stories the way I did if I hadn’t spent so much time outside with him.  But he also was a big part of shaping my writer self in another way.  He spent lots of time reading to us and telling us stories.

So that’s the kind of thing I think about on Father’s Day.  I also think about what it was like to watch my kids tag after their dad and my dad.  To see the sweet times when they shared a book together.

When my second son graduated from preschool, each child got a chance to stand up and answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  Lots of the boys wanted to be firemen and policemen and circus acrobats.  I thought Jonathan might say he wanted to be Spiderman.

He stood up in his small cap and gown and said, “I want to be a grandpa.”

I guess he’s well on his way. 

Did you cry?

When my brother came over last night to tell Mom and me about his last day at a school where he has taught ESL for 20 years, Mom asked, “Did you cry?”

I’m not sure Chris had time to cry.  He and I are swamped with being part of the leadership team for the Fulbright-Hayes group that will be heading to Ethiopia in early July.  But leave it to Mom to go directly for the emotional jugular.  Mom and Dad laughed. Cried. Didn’t duck intense moments. No wonder Chris and I are writers.  And we did spend our young and tender years in a family of cry-ers.  In Ethiopia, my dad didn’t preach often.  When he did, he was more likely than not to tear up at the crunchy part of the story, the part that stabs your heart.  Those were squirmy seconds–likely to make us tear up, too, likely to make us feel the weight of a strong guy’s vulnerability.

So I’m thinking about loss again, today.  I didn’t know Kris Kristof (who just died at age 91) but I read these words of his in The Oregonian this morning: “War, want and concentration camps, exile from home and homeland, these have made me hate strife among men, but they have not made me lose faith in the future of mankind.”  Kris Kristof swam a river in a leaky inner tube, survived concentration camp, asbestos mine, and logging camp, survived to grow cherries and teach in Oregon.  I felt an immediate connection with him because of his connections with Reed College (where my baby sister works) and Portland State University (where my mom graduated from college–20 some years after she started–along with my two youngest siblings)…and also because I read the tweets of Nicholas D. Kristof, a NYTimes columnist I became interested in because he sometimes writes about Ethiopia.

I also felt connected to Kris Kristof because of my dad, another amazing guy who died recently.  Going off to World War II as an 18-year-old and flying missions that were considered suicide adventures and seeing his own brother after the war, so changed they walked right by each other and didn’t think, I know you…all those things shaped Dad.  They made him deeper.  More compassionate.  More determined to believe in the power of one person to make a difference for good and ill.

He gave me Ethiopia.  He gave me the wildflower garden I can see out the front window that sparked the garden ideas for my Lanie books.  So we cup the small light in our hands and walk on.

Loss…is it why we write?

I learned a lot, growing up in Ethiopia, about how loss punctures the heart.  I don’t remember leaving Portland, Oregon, where I was born, but it was my first massive goodbye.  My baby brother (who was born on my three-year-old birthday not long after my family arrived) died in Ethiopia when he was only a few months old.   When I was nine, I sewed name tags onto my clothes, and my older sister and I  said goodbye to Mom and Dad and three siblings, bumped down the Maji road, and got on a plane for boarding school in Addis Ababa.

I’m the one holding Chris’s hands, here…the last year I was to live at home until I was in 8th grade and a visitor for a year to Pasadena.I’m a big softie about saying goodbye to this day…which I’m thinking about now that my talented second son just accepted a photojournalism job offer with an Alabama newspaper.  Of course I’m thrilled.  I admit with the journalism field not being exactly robust these days, I wasn’t sure he’d graduate into any job.  As a recent headline says: Good luck 2010 grads; you’ll need it.  But we moved to Lawrence–Go, Jayhawks–to help Jonathan and Hiwot with their (then) one child while they were in school full-time, and it’ll be hard to say goodbye.

A couple of years ago, Jonathan’s picture was on the cover of Sports Illustrated–in the corner, snapping a shot–when the Jayhawks won the national basketball title.  This week, it looked as if the Big 12 basketball league was also going to fall apart.  Another loss.  Oddly hard to take on top of everything else.  (I was taught to sing a Jayhawk song by my preschooler grandchildren.  How will they feel about Alabama bulldogs and whatnot?)  But apparently that one is not quite so certain, at least according to today’s Oregonian headline: Score so far: Big 12 now 10, Pac-11. 

I’m thinking today about how loss probably drives me toward my writing.  Life is about loss, it seems, and yearning–and so is fiction.  Thus, when flood took the neighborhood where my children had spent most of their elementary school years, I was compelled to write.  I first fiercely re-connected with Ethiopia through my writing, where my memories could finally take root.  Each of my books probably has loss woven through it somehow.

I’d gladly do without more loss.  But I don’t seem to have the option to check that box, so I’ll try to consider the gifts, at least in my better hours.

If only Ethiopia had therapy bunnies

An article in yesterday’s Oregonian introduced me to the sweetness of bunny comfort care.  Every week, Sarah Baran carries two baskets–filled with Cloey and Bitsey–to an assisted-living center.  She says, “A bunny is soft, small fragile and completely vulnerable.  They make people happy.”  Oooo.  Every day when I walked in the arboritum in Hesston, Kansas, I saw bunnies like this one in the picture.  They made me think about the bunnies my kids had, when they were young, who were utterly not fragile or vulnerable–and who never made great pets.  When I decided to give Lanie a pet bunny, it was thrilldom to read a flood of true stories, on the web, about house rabbits and the people who take them seriously and–like Baran and Lanie–train them well.  (This illustration of Lanie walking her bunny is my favorite!) 

Ethiopia invented many things the world enjoys today.  If only it had invented bunny therapy.

When I was a kid, growing up in Ethiopia, I was crazy for small animals.  These cats had work to do, catching small rodents in the storage rooms, and they weren’t a bit tame, but I never gave up on them.  Someone brought us a dik-dik whose mother had been killed by a hunter.   My sisters and poured our hearts into keeping it alive. 

Alas, no.  I wrote, “We have a babby antelope.  We keep him in a box and feed him with a bottle.  We are afraid he is dead.”

He was.

My dad dug a grave, and my sisters and I spent hours sprinkling flower petals onto it and mourning the short, sweet life of such a shy and delicate animal, as I later described a dik-dik for my book Trouble.

My brother also was powerfully drawn to animals–and he got to have pets because my family lived in the city of Addis Ababa when he was young.  (I’ve written on this blog about being in Houston and running into the guy whose dog our dog, Chino, used to tangle with in that Addis neighborhood…amazing connection.)

Now, he has the wondrous Penny.  Yesterday, Penny became a sort of therapy pup for my mom.  She parked herself on the top of the couch and surveyed the world, for hours, with deep concentration and seriousness.  Chris said she was eager to go bite some ankles of dogs across the street in the park.  Mom was tickled pink.  We nicknamed Chris’s dog Napoleona.  She thinks she’s Napoleon.  She thinks she’s a wolf.  Yay for the comfort of bunnies and dogs and all things furry and fascinating.

World travels in teeny accessories

I’m still trying to absorb all the places I went this year (so far) and all the people I met and all the different chances I had to talk about Lanie, about getting kids outside, and about Ethiopia, where I learned to love being outside.  American Girl created some charming teeny postcards and travel accessories for Lanie–remember the days when we wrote postcards instead of emails when we traveled?  There’s something so adorable about miniatures (as this outside girl thinks, too) .  But I do like having digital photography and easy ways to share pictures.  Recently, it was fun to create my own album with my various American Girl store stops…and Japan and Norway and other places:

I’m taking a deep breath while I’m out in Portland visiting my mom.  Next stop…Boston for a talk and signing at the American Girl store (in late June).  Ethiopia in early July.  And Vermont in mid-July, where I teach in a program for people who want to earn an MFA degree and learn everything they can about writing for children and young adults.

Read on…from America to Ethiopia

Kids have asked me whether I longed–when I was a girl–to follow in the footsteps of Jane Goodall or to creep after wildlife on the savanna…the way Lanie longs.  I always explain that I DID see roving animals on the savanna when I was a girl.  So–as one student recently pointed out–I was more like Lanie’s friend Dakota.  My mind is sometimes full of the sights, sounds, smells of the savanna. 

But I admit that most of my hours these days are being taken up with thoughts of people, not animals, on the continent where I grew up.  These weeks of June, I’m throwing starfish.  I’m following clues, asking questions, tip-tap-typing to help put together a program in Ethiopia for 12 teachers who will be spending the month of July there, thanks to the generous and idealistic funding of a Fulbright-Hayes grant.

In my 2010 books, Lanie discovers she can do little things in her own back yard that will have a big impact.  I’m hoping the little things I’m doing on my couch will have a big impact, too.  It’s hard to guess, in this world, how dominoes will fall.  After all, I had no idea that Lanie would ripple out from Saba, my first American Girl book (still available at

All over Ethiopia, these days, Ethiopian educators are trying to dream new dreams.  This building, for example, is part of a project to plant 250 new primary schools in the general part of the county where I grew up.  Maybe giving up a month of summer vacation, a month with family and friends, and traveling to Ethiopia doesn’t seem like a big thing.  But this trip is a ripple from another teacher-to-teacher trip almost three years ago…and I can hardly wait to see what will ripple out from this one.

Start those ripples rippling wherever you are.