Archive for August, 2010

Birders binoculate and share the world, subtle and grand

Oh boy.  I can’t help it.  I am in love.

I’ve never shared a product link before, but I can’t help but think about all the birders out there who told me they’re thrilled to get the girls they care about engaged in birding.  No matter what kind of dolls hang around those girls’ houses, don’t you think those dolls need binoculars and a bird book?

Maybe other writers can just make up all the vivid details for their books.  I have to poke around in the world and in other people’s brains.  When I was first starting to think hard about Lanie’s stories, I asked Jim McCoy what makes kids interested in birds.  Well, they can pop into a kid’s life almost anywhere–A-Rod’s daughter was on a school trip visit to Fenway Park and a red-tailed hawk swooped down on her.  (This is a true story, and I saw hawks on the lights, myself, flapping off and soaring, when Jim and Nancy Werlin and I poked around Fenway, home of the Red Sox.)  Or you walk by a pond and see a great blue heron, a bird so magical the automatic thought is that great blue herons must be endangered.  (They’re not.)  A northern flicker is suddenly there on the lawn eating ants, and the kid looks out and says, “What?  What’s that?”

In those days, I didn’t know what time of year the story would take place.  Jim told me that birders consider late winter and summer to be “doldrums” times.  At Mount Auburn cemetery, he said, the dazzling birding show starts and finishes in May as migrant birds on the move fly in, attracted to a space deliberately designed to be gorgeous nature right smack in the city.  We wandered along the petunia path and the rose path and looked up at Rapunzel windows, while a catbird hopped across in front of us–and I heard the question, “What are you on?” for the first time.

It was an oriole nest.  The fledglings twittered as a mom or dad oriole fluttered in.

On the way back to Kansas, I read an article by Bill Donahue about sitting in the cold dark before dawn and hearing a lone sparrow chirp.  “It was a pedestrian sound, the sort that runs past my ears all the time,” he wrote.  “But there, in the damp brush of Northern California’s Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, it carried a certain distilled splendor.”  That’s when I thought, Lanie is going to go out into her back yard and really listen.  (Here she is in my back yard, where I, too have now slowed down–okay, maybe not at cold dark before dawn–and experienced a certain distilled splendor.)

Hooray for people with passions.   Yay for Julie Zickefoose who wrote the most delightful bird piece for NPR that gave me another scene for my books (which you can hear for yourself at the link below)–and who generously talked with me on the phone about birds and back yards and what it’s like to watch the daily life of wrens.

In Ethiopia–and, for that matter, walking around the arboritum in Hesston, Kansas–I was attracted to big, dramatic birds that soared and flapped and even (once) hissed at me.   Now I’m more interested in the subtle language going on all the time in my own back yard.

Family by blood and tenderness

All the boys in this picture from Kurtz camping trips past are young men, now.  (My brother Chris–the one on the bottom of the pile–is forever young.)  But the family gatherings haven’t stopped…and neither has the camping.  I’m just home from a trip to Portland where I spent a week of companionship with my mom, while my forever-young brother and his family (who are moving in with Mom) went on their annual camping trip.

Our family’s love of camping was born in Ethiopia, where camping was quite the production.  Luckily, my dad–the one with the outside genes–was always ready to energetically organize everybody and everything.  He was willing to pack and unpack and get a crew going on putting up the tent while another crew (with six kids, you can have more than one crew) started supper preparations.  No lovely little camper like the one Lanie falls in love with and longs to camp in!  Still, my dad did come up with scheme after scheme to make things easier for my mom, the one with the inside genes.   And all the efforts to get the six of us out into the wide, wonderful world turned all of us into the kinds of people who take our own kids–and now grandkids–camping, thus starting the cycle all over again.  I love that about us.  It’s one of the things that knits the Kurtz family together into one sprawling…well…family.

While I was in Portland, I also had an unexpected and glorious chance to introduce my reader mom to two of my writer buddies: Deb Wiles (who lives in Atlanta but just happened to be out in the Northwest) and Deborah Hopkinson, who lives in Portland now.  More than ten years ago, the three of us roomed together at a big International Reading Association conference.  Three books came out of our late, late night talks and brainstormings.

We love to think of artists as solitary geniuses, sitting alone in their lonely garrets.  The life of a writer does involve lots of garret-hood in oh so many ways.  But writer friends not only make the crashing solitude less overwhelming, they often jar bits of genius loose we can’t manage to reach on our own.  It’s one of the most precious things about the Vermont College MFA in children’s literature: the writers who suffered with us through hot/cold boot camps of the residencies and became our friends as well as writing community. 

Family by blood.

I’m grateful for all my siblings, for their energies and enthusiasms and that we share so many of those, from camping to reading and writing.  I’m touched by their generosity to me, the grasshopper who has been busy fiddling and not always storing up the grain that I need for the long shivery winter.

Family by choice.  My writer friends are also generous…and also fun.  I love hanging around with them, too.  I love it when our interests overlap.  This morning, I spent a great time with Jackie Briggs Martin’s new blog on writing and endangered animals.

Blest be the ties that bind ths big swirling world into one family.  By blood.  By adoption.  By friendship choices.  And more, more, more.

Pick a tree, any tree…in Ethiopia, Indonesia or your back yard

When I was a girl in Ethiopia, I didn’t visit parks or playgrounds.  (It makes me sad, now, when I’m in Addis Ababa to notice how few public, safe spaces there are for children to play.)  In Maji, there wasn’t even one store, let alone a mall or movie theater.  But when my sisters and I wanted to imagine we were on a playground or in a store, we always had a great prop: trees.

This scene, on the left, shows the landscape of my childhood–the house and clinic and school…the waterfall and the path to it that we ran up and down almost every day…the trees we climbed.  Maji is where I fell in love with the outside world and what I showed off to the American Girl team when I suggested that Lanie be an outside girl.

Besides trees, my sisters and I had a lot of other props for our stories and games.  The yellow middles of these lilies became people–and were soon wearing fluffy petunia dresses.  We built houses out of mud for roly poly bugs and the frogs that nestled in the leaves of the false banana leaves, where water pooled.  But the most special time of every day was when I was climbing, smelling the sap, hearing the wind whoosh, feeling the bark and branches.

As I started gathering details to write Lanie’s stories, I had to pay attention to and learn about the trees in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Lanie lives.  For several days, I walked around neighborhoods looking at houses and trees.  Then Nancy Werlin and Jim McCoy took me to Mount Auburn cemetery where, every spring, the birds flutter in the trees and around the ponds in a dazzling show.  I was never good with binoculars, but Jim made me feel more confident (and competent) by giving me lessons on binoculars as well as birding.  I can’t wait to show him Lanie’s new binoculars and bird book!

As the stories shaped up, Lanie gets outside…and discovers the trees and birds in her own back yard.  Thanks to her friend Dakota, she also discovers the true stories of orangutans in Indonesia, struggling to survive because people are cutting down too many trees.    She ALSO discovers we all can choose to make a difference. I see that all around Portland this week, where I’ve been seeing these signs.  Go Portland!  Go trees!

 And in Indonesia? The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation is making a difference for orangutans and trees.  They’ve obtained land near their orangutan nursery for 100 tropical fruit trees, including rambutan (which translates as “hairy fruit”), a favorite food for small orangutans.  Kids in Borneo are being drawn in to do the planting.  People’s donations are helping, one tree at a time.

In Ethiopia, where humans and animals often have severe problems because too many trees are cut down for houses and cooking fires,  NGOs are struggling to find workable, sustainable plans for reforestation.  When I visited the international school for an author visit back in 1997, it was thrilldom to have a tree planted in my honor.

Pick a place and befriend a tree!

In praise of Ethiopian donkeys

This is not a donkey.

This is a mule.

When17 teachers went to Ethiopia this summer on a Fulbright Hayes study journey, they found out that mules are still a common way to reach villages, monastaries, new water projects.  When I was growing up in Maji, mules hauled the mail up the mountain from the Ethiopian Airlines landing strip on the savannah–pretty exciting day every time letters from family in America spilled out onto the living room floor!

This is not a donkey.

This is Habtu’s tour bus that faithfully carried the 17 educators to the south and to the north and on many amazing adventures.  Of course millions of Ethiopians these days get around by car and bus, and roads are expanding every year.

This is a donkey.

Actually, it’s two donkeys.  Donkeys are everywhere in Ethiopia doing a lot of the hard work of hauling and pulling and whatever else needs to be done.

These donkeys pull a cart–a cart full of books.  The donkey mobile library is a lot more fun to see in all its rolling-down-the-road glory, which, thanks to Sam and Keith, who volunteered their time and photographic expertise, you can do:

When I was speaking at a fundraiser for Ethopia Reads that featured Lanie and her outdoor adventures in her own back yard, I had a great conversation with a woman who was fondly remembering  her childhood mobile library: a bus full of books.  Every week, she walked out of the bus with an armload.  Every week, she curled in a play house in her back yard reading–day after day–until the bus returned again and she was able to get a new armload of books.

Not too long ago in the United States, a mobile library was a precious part of many communities.  As you can see from the video, they’re wonderfully popular in Awassa, too.

At this point, Ethiopia Reads has five donkey libraries that do their work in the south and one in the north part of the country.  Some of them stop under a tree.  The library managers pull stools out–and some children take the books to their houses to read to siblings and even parents.

When I speak in the United States, I spend a lot of time encouraging parents and teachers to read out loud to kids.  In Ethiopia, it often goes the other way around.

Sometimes, the donkey library pulls up to a school.  Most schools in Ethiopia don’t have libraries, so books that can travel to the school are enormously helpful in opening the students’ eyes and hearts to the world around and inside them.

One of the best things about the donkey libraries is that they’ve opened the eyes and hearts of a lot of students in the United States, too.  This is a school in Fargo that raised $1800 for Ethiopia Reads–and I’ll have a chance to thank the students and teachers and staff in person when I’m in Fargo and Grand Forks this fall.

This is not a donkey.  This is the Nittany lion. I met the Nittany lion when I met a funny, fun, starfish-throwing group of Delta Kappa Gamma teachers who are responsible for starting one of the donkey mobile libraries–and are now going to help us raise money for upkeep.  Ethiopia Reads has to feed those donkeys and pay the keepers and renew the books on the carts.

This is the future.  This is the reading team that is growing in Ethiopia.  This is the way we make a difference in our own back yards and around the world.

Making a difference in Ethiopia one library (starfish) at a time

Part of the thrilldom of choosing an author’s path is a lifetime of being a student.  While I was working on Lanie’s stories, for example, I learned all kinds of things about orangutans.  Did you know they eat hundreds of different fruits, and may have a “botanical repertoire” of as many as 4,000 plants?  That’s a lot of knowledge stored in an orangutan brain.  I always did love school.  When my mom started to homeschool my older sister she says I used to ask, “Do I have to go to school too?”

“Only if you want to,” she’d say.

But I wanted to be a real student.  “No, Mom!”  I’d say.  “Tell me I have to.”    Every day, I watched Maji students–some as old as 16 or 17–walk into the primary school my parents helped with.  I couldn’t go to that school because the instruction was in Amharic.  The Ethiopian girls in the above picture with my siblings and me couldn’t go to that school…because they were girls.

Ethiopia can break your heart.  There are regions and city neighborhoods where children (21% across the country) have no access to school at all.  Even where kids can go to school, their only experience with writing is often having the teacher write a sentence on the board and waiting for a turn with the pencil to copy that sentence onto paper.  Thousands of Ethiopian children learn to read–and never hold a book in their hands.

But what I see when I visit Ethiopia these days is something else.  I see kids hungry for education.  Teachers who want to learn new approaches and methods.  And I see the results of amazing people standing at the edge of the ocean scooping stranded starfish from the sand.  

In Saint Paul, Minnesota, a group of third graders at St. Anthony Park Elementary School heard from Eric, their classroom volunteer, that he was going to be adopting a son from Ethiopia.  They set about raising money for what became The Sefi Whittington Grand Library 103. The students, now starting sixth grade, named the library for Minneapolis baby Asefa (Sefi) Whittington, seen here with his dad, Eric Whittington. Only after much prompting from their third grade teacher did the kids add their identity to the library name—simply their room number, 103.  Children half a world away will be reading books because of those young readers in Minneapolis.

The 17 educators who were part of the Fulbright-Hayes group that traveled to Ethiopia this summer saw several of the schools in the region where Sefi Whittington’s library (and others) have been planted.  One described them as “hugely impressive.”

They also got to see a donkey mobile library in action.  Five of these have been sponsored so far…by Rotary, by educator groups, by families.  They carry books to several neighborhoods and schools about five hours away from Addis Ababa in the regional capital Awassa.

This week, Ben Berhe, a Canadian Ethiopian book lover, will be visiting the library that his family co-sponsored in Addis Ababa.  Several years ago, he came to a board and leadership retreat in Denver and made the pledge to raise the money…for the first Canadian-sponsored Ethiopia Reads library.

In 2011, Ethiopia Reads will be collaborating with another literacy project, with the goal of planting one excellent school library to be a model–in each of 10 regions of Ethiopia.  We’ll also be working on a library for the very first girls’ school established in Ethiopia, now a place with great leadership potential for girls’ education.  Seeds.  Start-ups.  A tiny group of volunteers planting flags in the sand.

Will it be easy?  Whoa…no.  For one thing, we have to raise money–a lot of money–to ship at least 2 huge containers full of primary-level books that schools and individuals have donated and sent to amazing volunteer LeAnn Clark (here in Addis Ababa this summer), who sorts, packs, and stores them.

Anyhow, Ethiopia Reads may have planted 50 libraries so far, but 65.8% of the schools in the country have no library…and some of the schools that do have a library have a collection of books completely unsuited to the students who go there. 

With all those starfish scattered on the sand everywhere, you can’t make a difference.

In the story, the man stoops, picks up a starfish, and gives it a toss.  It glitters briefly in the air before falling into the water.  “Well,” he says.  “I made a difference to that one.”

I can’t wait to look around and see who will be standing on the sand with me this year.

Wake up to the feastly feast

Wake up!  Wake up!  Wake up!

My cell phone poked me at 6:30 a.m.  today–Saturday–(because I forgot I had the alarm set for my dentist appointment yesterday).  Groan.  Moan.  The good thing, though, was that getting up early got me to the Lawrence Farmers’ Market in the fairly early morning.  Early mornings–before Kansas gets hot and icky-sticky–are good times of the day around here.  And the Lawrence Farmers’ Market is sumptuously good for all the senses, which makes me wonder why I don’t get here every single time the farmers’ market is doing its thing.

Writing a novel involves going down a lot of dead end streets.  When I was working on Lanie’s stories, I was convinced, for a long time, that I was going to be crafting scenes at a farmers’ market.  I read about farmers’ markets in Cambridge and I also read about farms in that area that have CSA shares available…and families who buy CSA shares…and what it’s like to be a locavore in Massachusetts. 

Here’s the thing about waking up.  Almost every place I’ve lived, a good many of us living there have assumed that the fabulous things of life are happening some place else.  That’s a great thing about locavores.  It’s hard to wake up and notice what’s right under our noses.  Locavores do.

The parking lot this morning made me notice things.  It made me remember there’s nothing like growing something, when you’re a kid, to make you really notice it.  That was one of the gifts of growing up in Maji, Ethiopia.  No shops.  My dad had a huge garden, and he figured out a way to put in a mill so that local grain could get ground into flour.  Market day happened once a week in the town of Maji.  People brought their wares up to the house. Eggs and little, fat bananas and occasionally something great like a papya or pineapple that couldn’t grow up in the mountains where I lived (which is the disadvantage of being a locavore).

You might be surprised at what’s available locally in August in Lawrence, Kansas.  Emu bones for your dog.  Lavender sachets.  Duck eggs.  Garlic.  Onions.  Peaches.  Apples.  Kale.  Green beans.  Okra.  Watermelon.  Lamb.  Chicken.  Beef.  Sand hill plums that used to be the only sweet, fruity things some Kansans ate all summer. Elk antlers.  Honey.  We could buy only from the farmer’s market and make a feastly feast–and a lot of it would have been grown with no chemicals in the rich, dark Kansas dirt.  In the farmers’ market, everything glistens, even the dogs.

I walked there.  I walked home.  The whole time of walking and wandering, I was awake.  I kept noticing things.  Delicate things.  Robust things.  Fluffy and sleek and shiny and glossy things.  Something I love about being a writer is that being a writer often forces me to gooo slooow and look, look, look.  Something like growing up in Maji where all the baking got done in a wood-burning stove and hot water came my way once a week.

The farmers’ market food is home now.  I didn’t really buy all that much.  But every bite of it is going to be a feastly feast.  So thank you, cell phone.  Wake up, wake up, wake up.

Ethiopia gave me the gift of outside…trying to pass it on

Even kids who give little ew shudders for bugs in general usually have a soft spot for two citizens of the bug world.  One?


When I was doing research for the Lanie stories, I was startled to discover that non-native ladybugs are crowding out native ladybugs–and there’s a very cool citizen science project (as readers of Lanie will know) for kids who can look for and photograph native species.  The details are at this link:


Roly polies.  (That doesn’t sound like a very scientic name and, indeed, when I look it up I find “isopod crustaceans of the family Armadillidiidae, also known as pill bugs.”)  As I mentioned yesterday, I tried valiantly to make pets of the Maji cats when I was growing up in Ethiopia (I’m the one on the left).  When that didn’t work, I convinced my younger sisters we could surely turn frogs into pets…or what about roly poly bugs?  We spent hours making little mud houses we were sure they would develop a fondness for sooner or later.

In the gorgeous weather of Ethiopia–and home schooled as I was–I could be outside all year long.  For my own kids, the long days of finding insects and otherwise exploring outside happened in the summer time.  August was often camping month when we lived in Colorado–and my big extended family has had camping family reunions, so far right up until last summer.

The thing is…as gorgeous as the mountains are, I remember just as much outside joy from sitting in the grass and watching roly poly bugs curl and uncurl.  It has been rather shocking to me these past few years to hang around with my grandkids outside in Lawrence and sometimes be the only people on the entire playground or field.


I know air conditioning in Kansas is great.  Sometimes I tell my husband I can’t imagine people lived here, non-air-conditioned (he just laughs at me and talks abobut the Kansas wheat fields he spent time in when he was young and hot).  But…overall…what are we thinking?  There’s so much joy to be found on every sidewalk and under every tree.

A Lanie moment of astonishing surprise

After my summer travels, the see-saw has tipped, once again, and I’m back to remembering what Lanie discovers: the joys of one’s own back yard.  A Lanie friend sent me this picture of her back yard and wrote,  “We have alot of milkweed. I got my first milkweed plant in butterfly camp, when
I was five! Now its a forest!(not in the pic.) Did you know that a bluejays can
stuff a small peanuts in their throats and still hold one in their beaks!!!”  (I asked her to send me a picture of the milkweed forest.)

I have loved, loved, loved hearing about back yards and bugs and butterflies and gardens ever since Lanie’s stories came out.  Now that I’m back home for a few weeks, I’ve also loved walking (almost every day) up the hill to the KU campus, which is more-or-less in my back yard.  Kansas is having a sizzling summer.  But Kansas is not one bit drab.  It’s astonishing and full of beauty.

So many things I don’t know and I think about as I walk.  The pale rock of so many of the campus buildings…for example…is it the chalk rock of the Jayhawk chant?  In the evening or morning light, it’s luminous.  Buttery colored flowers and red ones and baby pink ones gleam right up next to these rocks and against the dark grass and trees.  They make me feel as if I’ve just had a drink of something clear and bubbly.

Back home, Milo guards the front porch–and the porch animals use Lanie’s new binoculars to watch the birds bopping on the lawn.  Ever since I learned about birds for Lanie’s stories, I watch those birds, too.  I might not have seen a blue jay with peanuts in its throat and its beak, but the birds are always doing something new.

In Maji, when I was growing up, the cats were wilder than Milo is.  They were workers.  Rodent hunters.  My sisters and I made up plans for catching them and other animals–saving our naptime candy for a month one time because I had read a story and was pretty sure I knew how we could use the candy to trap a monkey.  The animals we saw, in the mountains and on the savannah, were often nothing like the animals in the stories I was reading.  Those story animals seemed utterly real, though.

So this picture (below) shows my very cool and exciting sighting of yesterday’s warm walk in the gloaming.  (I was reminded of that great word gloaming when I read The Night Fairy recently.)  I got to see an animal I had read about in stories since I was a girl and had never seen before–nor did I ever dream I’d see it in the middle of the KU campus.

What astonishing surprises do you see when you get out into your back yard and fields and blocks wherever you are?