Archive for November, 2010

Reading: it stuffs us into the feelings and choices of our lives

Late November has settled around us, and Lanie’s year is coming to an end.

It’s making me a bit melancholy–and also making the memories of my whirlwind year all the sweeter.

I’ve talked to several people recently who didn’t realize that Lanie doll won’t be around after December 31.  Alas, true.  But I’m tickled pink, as my grandma would have said, that the books will.  New families will discover them and some of them will even drop me a note, and I’ll know my words are at work out in the world.

It’s been a year more than ever to think about reading and writing and why I’m grateful my reading mom gave me a lifetime of books.

I was sorting files yesterday–a dreadful thing to do.  But fascinating, too.

I pulled out a piece of paper and read Philip Pullman’s words that we’ve “forgotten the true purpose of literature, the everyday, humble, generous intention that lies behind every book, every story, every poem: to delight or to console, to help us enjoy life or endure it.  That’s the true reason we should be giving books to children.”

A scrap from the diary of a friend I went to school with in Ethiopia offered this:  “Yesterday Janie and I made taffy for Mrs. Anderson’s birthday.  Janie made up a real cute poem and it was pretty keen.”

A scrap from an essay:  “I needed to read about girls who were stirring up trouble and turning heads and altering the landscape on purpose.  I found a novel that genuinely sustained me and gave me hope.”

I looked at a picture from a brilliantly drippy retreat center near Portland, Oregon, writing with a group of women about our lives.  Writing, I said that day, is a way to pay attention.  I re-read an interview with author Richard Selzer.

“Father’s office,” he wrote, “occupied the first floor of our house.  From the landing of the staircase I could listen to the cries and moans of the sick people below….I had the feeling that I was living between parantheses.  This made an observer of me; it was quite isolating.  These are the two essential qualities of a writer, of course.”

I re-read a letter from a student who wrote to me after an author visit:  “Ethiopia is where I used to live.  Houses were different than the U.S.A.  One hundred people died in a war.  People are really nice there.  I miss Ethiopia.  A lot of people are nice over here too.”

I read a letter from a girl in Ethiopia who spends “almost 5 days in a week” in an Ethiopia Reads library. “I advise my friends to read books.  People must be friends of books to eradicate poverty and avoid our world’s problems.”

I picked up a snippet on one piece of paper: “Before I was in school, I felt like such a worthless girl.”

Another: “Reading stuffs us deeply into the thoughts and feelings of another human being.”

And…”I beg you to expand your projects and reach other Ethiopian children who are living in different urban and rural areas.”

When I began my day of sorting, I was feeling overwhelmed by how long it’s been since I sorted files.  By the volunteer commitment that Ethiopia Reads has become, by the hugeness of trying to get one model school library in every region of Ethiopia.

When I finished, I was thinking about Philip Pullman’s words:  “Stories are written to beguile, to entertain, to amuse, to move, to enchant, to horrify, to delight, to anger, to make us wonder.”  And…”if we get education right, it would show that we were being serious about reading and thinking and understanding ourselves; it woulod show that we were paying our children the compliment of assuming that they were serious too.”

(Thanks to volunteer Marie Claire Andrea for this photo taken by one of the donkey mobile libraries.)


The eerie beauty of connection and pies

Yesterday, we drove over the bleak midwinter (okay, mid-fall) prairies to the Kansas farm where my husband, Leonard Goering, spent his childhood.  (He resists saying he “grew up” there, commenting that he didn’t grow up until he went off to Northwestern University in Chicago.)  The day made me think about some eerily beautiful and strange connections of my life.

Families.  They represent all the tangle and joy and complication of staying connected.  When I met Leonard’s sister Charlene, her children were about the age that her grandchildren are now.  The house where we had Thanksgiving dinner yesterday wasn’t even built–but this house sits on a corner of the farm where Leonard once helped his dad in the wheat fields and where the family once raised (and ate) turkeys, a moment of laughter at Thanksgiving time.

After Thanksgiving dinner, we watched Charlene’s grandkids coax two kitties out from their hiding places, using a ribbon and bell.  I remembered when my daughter fell in love with a puppy and sat with her cousin in that living room, begging to take it home.  “The cat would be pretty mad,” we told her. 

Leonard’s siblings talked about growing up on that farm and finding kittens in the barn–how Leonard’s father never thought cats belonged in the house, but they would sneak the kittens in for a few hours whenever they could.

I thought about our cat.  We adopted it as an abandoned kitten when we lived in Trinidad, Colorado.  It moved with us to Grand Forks, ND, where it ended up as part of my book, River Friendly River Wild.  It moved down the great plains to balmy Kansas when we left North Dakota to be close to Leonard’s parents in their last years.

My daughter loved that cat.  By the time we moved to Kansas, she was in college and when the cat died, she wasn’t at home–but it gave me a little jolt of comfort to tell her we had been able to bury her cat on the farm where her dad…okay…didn’t grow up but once dug for kittens in the hay of the barn.  Some people have lives where these circles within circles happen all the time.  For someone like me who grew up in Ethiopia and took a long, long time to put down any roots in the United States, these connections feel eerie and beautiful and strange.

Once upon a time, when my daughter and our cat were young, I taught English in Trinidad, Colorado, and dreamed of writing books.  Sometimes it made me feel guilty that I longed to do something artistic.  I had grown up in a family that tried to change the world, not a family of artists.  The art teacher at the school told me, “We have to do what God has given us a heart to do.”

My heart kept telling me to write.  When we moved to cold North Dakota, my homesick heart told me to write about Ethiopia, land of my childhood.  (I never knew, then, that my heart would later tell me to see what I could do to get books to children in the land where I was a child.)

But back to Colorado.  Back to the days before I even thought of writing about my childhood…when I was jotting the journals that turned into my very first picture book.

In those days, I was reading picture books to my children–and giving them picture books for every birthday and every Christmas.  Each week, we’d go to the Carnegie library in downtown Trinidad and check out armloads of books to carry home for joy and inspiration.

My very first published picture book grew out of an encounter between my oldest son and our next door neighbor when we lived in Trinidad, Colorado in the shadow of Fisher’s Peak.  Last week, the art teacher from my time in Trinidad read a comment I made about my newest book character, Lanie, and her discovery that she can be a hero to the monarch butterflies in her Boston back yard. 

He wrote: “About butterflies: I once climbed Fishers Peak to discover the entire top of the mesa covered with Monarchs, migrating to Mexico. It was magical.  I’ve since learned a little about these amazing creatures. Did you know that the normal life-span is 2-4 weeks (as a butterfly) but when it’s time to migrate they live for 4-5 months in order to travel all of those thousands of miles?”

I looked up at Fishers Peak every day when I was writing my first drafts of children’s book.  Thirty books later, I close my eyes and think of that peak covered with monarchs and about connection, one of the themes of the Lanie books. A butterfly flaps its wings in Bejing, we now say, and sets off a tornado in Texas or a heat wave in NYC or loosens the rains in Ethiopia.

So we trust.  We hold hands around the table and say thanks.  We bend and scoop a starfish from the sand.  We read a story to a child.  We aren’t sure what will happen next, but we think it will be good. 

Hey, the sun king didn’t have us

These kids were born into Ethiopian families too poor to afford the uniforms that allow children to attend public school.  Yet here they are.  They attend school…they eat bread…thanks to never-ending efforts of an Ethiopian-American father who quit his job to found a school and has the audacity to think a regular person can keep a school going. The picture was taken by my son after my daughter-in-law, Hiwot, told him about the tragedy that lies at the heart of this father’s efforts.

How is it that sometimes sorrow and pain can create new life?

Some day, I want to tell the story of that school.  But what’s still on my mind this Thanksgiving week is the notion of more more more vs. gratitude.  And this week, I’m grateful for ordinary people who have stubborn audacity to think they can change the world.

America’s story is often told as the triumph of the individual–but when I was writing Bicycle Madness I clearly saw that our story can also be told as the place that really GOT IT that instead of waiting around on emperors, ordinary people can put small efforts together and create things.  Things like schools and libraries.  Andrew Carnegie was a messenger boy when he met the man who opened his personal library to any young worker who wanted to borrow a book and, as Carnegie later said, opened a window so the light of knowledge could stream in. Carnegie grew up to give away a chunk of 350 million dollars to create libraries like this one in Dodge City, Kansas.

These high school students don’t have 350 million dollars.  But they put together a book sale.  They raised money that matched a Rotary grant and ended up creating a library in Ethiopia.

Little efforts.

Big impact.

Rotary groups, I’ve discovered, are made up of people who think little efforts can have big impact, who seem to stubbornly believe they can put efforts together and do something important.   This Thanksgiving week, I’m thinking of all the Rotarians–not one of them rich and powerful, as far as I know–who covered hard costs for 12 libraries in Ethiopia, including one in this school.

I’m thinking of the families and individuals and church and community groups who raised the other half of the money for this library and others.

Can Ethiopia Reads and all its volunteer efforts create a chance to read books for every person in Ethiopia who needs one or wants books?

Not hardly.

But we did create a chance to read books for these girls…and there will be thousands more.

The Sun King was famous for his luxurious food and his cooks who hopped to it and a wave of his finger.  His sister-in-law said, “I have very often seen the king eat four plates of different soups, an entire pheasant, a partridge, a large plateful of salad, mutton cut up in its juice with garlic, two good pieces of ham, a plateful of cakes, and fruits and jams.” 

But we aren’t exactly food slackers.  ‘Tis the week of Thanksgiving feasts.  And Peter Sagal points out in his piece on more more more that those of us who live in cities have more cooks at our fingertips than the Sun King ever had.  Yet we share less readily than this mother did when we visited her home in Ethiopia three years ago.

More more more seems to only make us somehow often more scared. 

My Thanksgiving wish?

I want us to be Lanies.  I want us to speak out for birds and butterflies and weeds…and books.

I want us to believe small things can make big differences.

Let’s go out and be powerful.

I just wanna be happy

I had one of those driveway moments when I heard Peter Sagal talking on the radio about whether maybe humans are wired to always want more.  As he says, “A medieval emperor would look at my stocked refrigerator, my closets filled with clothes, my powerful machinery, and immediately start coming up with ideas for a new Web site, so he could live the dream.”

My dad was once the scrappy fourth son of a family that fanned out over the Oregon prairies to gather sagebrush to burn to keep warm.  He woke with snow drifting over the quilts on his bed.  He had to lift things too heavy and pluck chickens and go up and down rows picking the neighbors’ vegetables. 

Like a lot of scrappy little kids, my dad developed his clown side.  He liked to tell stories and act them out.  (The song he learned when he dressed in this so-called Scottish kilt tormented us on those mornings when all we wanted to do was sleep.) 

He liked to laugh.

Last year, just before Christmas, my dad died from the tumor that crowded its way into his brain.  I’ve been missing him–and feeling glad I got him as a dad–and wondering why the emotion of gratitude gets so easily leached out of our lives…especially when we have so much: cozy quilt mornings, feasts that the Sun King would envy.  Our brains are busy focusing on more, more, more.  But this is the week of Thanksgiving, and this week I’m thinking about what my dad gave to me and to my siblings, some of my favorite people in the whole wide world. 

All six of us like to tell stories.  Maybe because we grew up without radios, we all put time–some of us a lot of time–into creating our own music.  Every Sunday, some of my siblings gather around my mom’s piano and sing.  My brother was playing songs on that piano when my dad slipped away…and let me just say right now I hope my brother is around to sing me out of this life when that time comes for me.

So much of what my dad treasured lives on.

His children…his grandchildren…and now his great-grandchildren…love many of the things he loved.

I think of my dad when I look at my middle son’s powerful photos: and think about how some of them would make Dad tear up, but he’d be proud of that new way of storytelling.  He lives on for me in my daughter’s back yard garden and when my oldest son sends a picture of his tomato plants.  My children didn’t see their grandpa Kurtz all that often, but I can see his idealism has rubbed into them.

Many of the things Dad loved have become the threads of our lives.  As I was writing the Lanie stories, I put my older sister with her cello in–those music genes we got from our dad–and also my dad’s recent food explorations and my dad’s wildflower garden.

My dad’s love of his garden has had a stong ripple effect.  One of his grandchildren is in Peru right now, planting fruit cacti and shoveling manure.  Four of his daughters faithfully coax along their vegetables and flowers and fruit bushes every summer.  (I, sadly, don’t dig in the dirt these days, but, hey, since I gave Lanie his garden, I get to show it far and wide!) 

Yes, my dad’s stories and hard work and music and silliness and stubborn hope in making the world better all bubble away in all his children and grandchildren.  His treasures are the kinds of things we can all have more more more of if we choose.

When we Americans travel to Ethiopia, we often find ourselves baffled.  How can families who live in one small room…who have barely any stuff…be happy? 

Recently, I keep stumbling onto that 26-year German study about how to be happier.

Marry someone who isn’t neurotic.

Get outside and move at least a little bit.

Pat on the fears that lead you to think you will be safe and happy if you have more stuff.

Pay more attention to friends and family.

Figure out what you can do to make the world a better place.

Author awards? Ya sure, you betcha

Last time I was in Minneapolis, it was Jan. 2 and the very beginning of the Year of Lanie.  I was meeting (for the second day in a row) reading families who love American Girl books and were excited about Lanie.  My sister Joy even got a member of her family to come to the American Girl store to congratulate me.  Go, Mike!

Since then, I haven’t been out of the airport when I fly through Minnesota, but I’ve been talking to girls who’ve made little eeee sounds about visiting the American Girl store there.  This week, more sweetness flowed out of Minneapolis to me. 

Everyone should have the fun of getting a message like this one:

We are so pleased to have selected you as our Kerlan Award recipient for 2011! Each year the Kerlan Award  is given (according to the Kerlan website) “in recognition of singular attainments in the creation of children’s literature and in appreciation of the generous donation of unique resources to the Kerlan Collection for the study of children’s literature.” Our committee was impressed with the depth and breadth of your donations to the Kerlan and your long and distinguished publishing career.  

I look forward to planning the logistical details of the award ceremony with you in the coming months.


I swoon with thrilldom when I look at some of the other authors who’ve been honored by the Kerlan Award:

Margaret Wise Brown

Katherine Paterson

Lois Lowry

Madeleine L’Engle

Karen Cushman…Walter Dean Myers…Jane Yolen…Carol Ryrie Brink

I love books by those authors.  I love being part of the children’s literature world–and my author friends.  Are awards a good thing for the book world?

Well, as one of my author friends says, they’re like fairy dust.  No one can count on them.  They’re lovely when they sprinkle down on you.  I like pointing out these days that there is a very good reason why the words starving and artist go together.  Being an author is a great way to live.  It’s a terrible way to make a living.  Thank goodness for award-givers and other ambassadors for books and champions of authors.

I’m also full of thrilldom to go back to a city that was shiny and generous and comforting when my ND city, Grand Forks, was whomped by the flood in 1997.  I love the independent bookstores in Minneapolis.  I love the outdoor spirit in Minneapolis.  I love the school visits I’ve done there.  UMBA (when it was UMBA) was always a jolt of joy.  I still show pictures from some of the work Minnesota teachers and librarians have done to help students connect with my books.

My sweet sister Joy drove from Minneapolis and did the ugly work of helping me dig out, clean up, and move into a FEMA trailer.  She just showed up.  That same spirit of giving and strong character has been part of every school I’ve visited there, including one where 23 families speak Amharic as a first language at home.  That spirit shines through Twin Cities families who have been library planters for Ethiopia Reads, too.

As far as I can see, only good things come out of Minneapolis.  A terrific project of that city, Books for Africa, has helped Ethiopia Reads get these huge containers full of books to Ethiopia where they’ve gone out to establish the school libraries you can see at

If fences make good neighbors, maybe lots of snow and cold do, too.  Go, go Minneapolis.  I can’t wait to be back there.

The vulnerable and the brave

One of the most impressive things for me about having been a volunteer for Ethiopia Reads for nearly ten years is a new understanding of how much good can be done by the marshmallows of the world.  This tea party in Boulder involved dress-up and kids and Lanie and Poli (a doll and a bear), but it did a roll-up-sleeves, dirty job.  Cucumber sandwiches and carrot cakes sent books whirling through the air from America to Ethiopia.   I’ve often wished for a thick ol’ Teflon skin.  It would be handy in an artist’s world, when failure and rejection lurk around all the corners.  At the same time, I know people probably can’t make art unless they are willing to feel their feelings, including the tough, uncomfortable ones.

Small things can lead to big change.  Yesterday, girls (and a few boys) and their families gathered at First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence.  They heard me talk about how I created Lanie’s stories–and they bought books and t-shirts and jewelry.  They asked questions and made donations.  And…voila!  Money for books.

A few other volunteers and I also went to meet with an Ethiopian-American businessman who wants to make sure that some of the money for 450 million cups of coffee (bought every day in America) goes to the growers and their families in Ethiopia.  One man…who is determined to make a difference with the thing he knows best: coffee.

Fiction writers know that people are strangely drawn to the likes of LeBron James: the bold, the powerful, those who draw attention to themselves.  But, even more, we’re interested in the vulnerable.  The vulnerable and the brave.

It was a thrilldom moment to hear that most of the girls in the room yesterday already knew monarch caterpillars–what they eat…how they transform themselves into butterflies…the way they head off for a journey of thousands of miles.  A lot of those kids had helped monarch butterflies somewhere along the journey.  Some of them had even participated in Monarch Watch taggings.

Why do so many of us love monarchs?  They start out life small and pale gray-white. Within two weeks, these caterpillars grow to more than 3,000 times their hatching weight.  They munch poisonous milkweed, drawing those noxious chemicals into their small bodies.  At the right moment, each caterpillar spins a silk pad, shakes and wiggles its way of of its skin, and rests in a brilliant green and gold chrysalis until it can climb out–a butterfly.

On my fragile days, I try my best to remember that the race does not always go to the swift…and that even a marshmallow can sometimes be strong.

For its own shining sake



When my American Girl editor and I started talking about Lanie and who she was, we set a goal that this character would show girls that we all can make a difference around the world AND in our own back yards.  With all the author speaking I’ve been doing, added to my volunteer work for Ethiopia Reads, I don’t actually spend too much time in MY own back yard.  But this weekend, it’s all Lawrence, KS all the time. 

 On Saturday, I sign, starting at 10:30, at a Lanie event at the Jayhawk store, as I last wrote on my blog.  On Sunday, families can 1) hear (and see) the story of how and why I created Lanie, 2) hear how they can love the earth from Kansas back yards, and 3) make a difference in Ethiopia. 

 It’s not every day we can save a library.  This weekend, I know we can save this one…and plant more.

Maybe you’re nowhere near my back yard.  That’s the joy of connections on the Internet.  But if you happen to be close, come see me!


First Presbyterian Church,2415 Clinton Parkway, Lawrence

(785) 843-4171 or

Sunday, November 14, 2010, 4:00-6:00 p.m.



The year of Lanie is drawing to a close, but her story has been one little starfish tossed into an enormous sea.  How do we forget that stories, fragile wisps in a big world’s winds, have such power?

This young reader can’t check out the book he was reading, so he’s copying the story onto a piece of paper so that he can read it over again at home.

I’m thinking of this library this morning and mulling a Lance Armstrong quote as I head off to bedazzle second graders: “Believe in belief for its own shining sake.”


Jayhawk signing rah rah rah

Jane Kurtz-American Girl Event-8.5×11- FA10[1]


*Book signing

*Special activities

…says the flyer from the KU Bookstore about a Lanie event I was asked to do on Saturday.

10:30 a.m. – 12 p.m.

Jayhawk Ink

Kansas Union

Level two

Saturday, Nov. 13




My grand kids liked to sing a Jayhawk song from the time they were two years old–and it was fun taking them to women’s basketball games at KU.  More related to Lanie, though, Chip Taylor from Monarch Watch is a Jayhawk and that’s the main reason this feels extra fitting…extra fun.  He’s one of my heroes.

Hope Jayhawks don’t eat monarch butterflies.

Hope Monarch Watch gets stronger and stronger every year.

Hope the winged airplane flies me safely from Oklahoma home to Kansas without a glitch.

National adoption month + Ethiopia

I remember the first time I heard from a mom who had kids adopted from Ethiopia.  Sandra Snook lived in Chicago in those days, and she was headed for Montana on vacation with a van full of her children–and she asked if she could stop in North Dakota so they could meet the author of Fire on the Mountain.  I can remember the chemical smell of swimming pool at the hotel where we sat and talked about adoption, about kids, about books, about hanging onto dreams when disaster strikes.  That’s the story of the boy in Fire on the Mountain.  That’s the story of many families in Ethiopia who find themselves unable, these days, to take care of their precious youngsters.  And it’s the story of those youngsters, off-balance, vulnerable, sad.  I still have the letter from the family whose child took Fire on the Mountain to bed with him for months after he arrived from Ethiopia. 

An Ethiopian family is a warm and wonderful spot for a new baby to land.  People who live in the villages of Ethiopia don’t shape their lives around stuff…and they aren’t secretly checking their smart phones while they’re rocking the baby.  Every time a baby looks up, there’s a crowd: parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and close family friends.  By the time the baby is a youngster, many people are happy to speak up if they spot misbehavior.  (The Ethiopian adults around me were forever slapping my hands to make me drop lizards and frogs I was carrying around.)  That crowd also says, “You belong with us.”

In Ethiopia, people are knit together in complicated and strong relationships that often go back for hundreds of generations (which is bad news if a person’s ancestors ran up bad blood with someone else’s ancestors).  The web is a tight one, often full of love and care.

When I was working on Lanie’s stories, I knew she needed a mentor.  She had whispered to me that she was born with outside genes–stuck in a family that had inside genes.  I saw she was going to need someone to help her get outside even if it was only into her own back yard. 

My editor and I talked about several different possibilities.  Should it be a grandfather?  A gardener who loved to take care of the family lawn?  A friend of Lanie’s big sister?

No, I finally decided.  It would be an aunt.

An aunt with a camper and a dream of her own.

Aunts are terrific.

As my granddaughter knows, aunts read to you.  Aunts act out stories with you.  Aunts are silly with you.  If you’re Lanie, aunts dig in the dirt with you and say, “Did you know there’s such a thing as a state DIRT?” and teach you to listen to the language of birds and understand the journeys of butterflies.

The adult world can be a mysterious one–and a tough one–for a child to enter.  Aunts and uncles and grandparents can offer the secret keys, including books and stories and music.

Sometimes the family we are born into can’t be around to help us grow up.  When I was a child in Ethiopia, we called the other Americans around us “aunt” and “uncle,” which worked nicely for giving a deep sense of community and connection to those of us who were kids growing up far from blood family. 

Those aunts and uncles went on picnics with us and created guava jam and other delicacies my mom wouldn’t try.  One of my adopted uncles played the piano and sang Two Bright Eyes for me, a moment where I got to be just me and not one of a hoard of sisters.  Another adopted uncle greeted us in Maji with a big smile and “Happy day!”

Sometimes the tangled ties that bind us to our own blood family get too tangled or go off in wild directions or get damaged or snipped.  This month, celebrate everyone who wraps you in a hug of family, everyone who is tender and warm and accepts you and feeds you and helps you crawl along when you can barely stand up, whether they share your genes or not.  Celebrate your heritage.

One of the most moving things to me about the families who are adopting from Ethiopia is that they are so  committed to helping their children embrace the heritage of the country where they were born.   Many of them are also trying to figure out how to help create a world where families in Ethiopia will have resources to give food and water and medicine and education to the country’s children.  One of the latest powerful starfish throwers in my life is the mom on the left whose daughter’s school created the donkey on the right to raise money so that children in Ethiopia will have books.

With books come knowledge and resourcefulness and hope…and solutions for the future.  May all of our families be places where reading and stories are celebrated and passed on.