Archive for January, 2011

Riding the ripple from Houston to Ethiopia

One of my author friends just called me the Queen of the Ripple Effect.  I’m not sure how I got to be queen, but I like it.  In a couple of days, I’ll be riding the ripple south, riding a wave that–in some ways–started last year when I went to Houston on a visit organized by a parent who adopted a child from Ethiopia and had planted an Ethiopia Reads library in honor of her adopted son. 

Last year, in my blog, I wrote about the weird wonderfulness of that Houston visit and meeting an Ethiopian-American man who (we discovered) was one of my family’s neighbors in Addis Ababa, whose dog used to quarrel with my brother’s dog. 

Pretty amazing.

Memories reaching from Ethiopia to Houston.  Hands reaching from classrooms in Houston to classrooms in Ethiopia.  Kids in Ethiopia (in this school) reading books because of Jack and Debbie and their determination– and because my brother and I learned to read when we were kids in Ethiopia.


Something else happened at that Houston visit.  Bethlehem and her husband heard what I had to say about Ethiopia Reads libraries ( and decided they wanted to work with their son to plant a library in honor of their son’s 13th birthday–so that his step into adulthood could become a pledge toward what’s possible to do and change.  Bethlehem set up this week’s visit and invited my brother and me to come speak again.

Trace the ripple back even further.  A few years ago, my bro and I first traveled to Texas (to Dallas, not Houston) at the invitation of Kidmia, an Ethiopian-American group that had organized to make sure that kids growing up in Texas didn’t forget their Ethiopian heritage.  He and I talked about Ethiopia Reads there.  That’s where we first met Bethlehem.

(Okay…Chris and I might get just a little bit goofy when we’re together.)

We’ll be doing a booksigning at the Blue Willow Booksohp on Thursday, Jan. 27, at 5 p.m.

We’ll be doing a signing at B&N Town and country on Friday, January 28, at 7 p.m.

All the Houston events…the signings and the speakings…are one more way of reaching out a hand to kids in Ethiopia who want books. 

I don’t know how much money Bethlehem will raise during the weekend.  I do know that Jack and Debbie started ripples of hope going for the kids in these pictures, and this weekend will nudge that ripple onward to another school, another batch of kids, another batch of dreams.

Ripple on.

Surprised in Ethiopia and Vermont

This week the Bat Poets graduated to the melancholy lilt of the bagpipe and the sounds of sentences from their own stories, and I flew home from the residency for the Vermont College MFA in children’s and YA literature, aka Boot Camp for Writers.  Take clump of writers who are comfortable with solitude and often spend their days mucking around in their own brains.  Plant them in dorms; toss them into constant conversation; tromp them through sifting snow to meals and presentations and readings; ask them to be vulnerable and playful and brave about their writing–and open their hearts and minds to how much they have to learn about the art of writing  (whether they are there as student or faculty).  Luckily, we laugh.  I hope Dr. Noble’s portrait appreciates the affectionate dress-up games.


A terrible way to make a living.

A fasincinating way to live.

For the past few Vermont College residencies, I’ve been thinking about how writers can effectively create a couple of emotions we dislike in most of our lives but like in stories: tension and surprise.  I started thinking about the pleasure of surprise through an interview with Ira Glass of This American Life, who pointed out that “a lot of great stories hinge on people being wrong.”  In doing his radio storytelling, he says, “you want to manipulate the evidence and the feelings so that the audience is right there agreeing with the person who’s about to be proven wrong. When that happens, if it’s done right, you as the audience get flipped upside down.”

Flipped upside down.

A terrible feeling in life.

A fascinating feeling in a story.

One reason I love and hate to travel is that constant flipped upside down feeling.  Surprise leaps from around every corner, keeping me off balance and off center.   Last summer when I was in Ethiopia, the Fulbright Hayes teachers got to listen to what is has been like to live an artist’s life there for the past five decades.  One talked about the unexpected and subversive that can be woven so invisbly through Ethiopian languages, providing a way to speak truth through humor and double meanings. 

Throughout those intense decades, often seeped with suffering, stories have never been silenced.  People have never stopped making art.  (Under the communists, one artist said with a smile, at least everyone learned how to make posters.)

After listening to a Vermont College presentation by Elizabeth Partridge about the creating of her nonfiction books, I found an ending for my own presentation about surprise.  Sure, surprise is fun.  Sure, it often makes us laugh.  Sure, when the goblin leaps from under the covers, it can make us giddy with terror that’s somehow delicious.  Sure, it can keep our brains working hard to put together clues and unravel mystery.  But surprise does something else, too. 

It shakes up our expectations and our thinking about the way things have always been.  Surprise is not on the side of the powerful.  It makes us think about the way things might be and could be and maybe can be, in the future.

The reading and writing of stories can change everything.  So if Boot Camp for Writers wakes us up and shakes us up and leaves us feeling defenseless…well…thank goodness it happens only twice a year.  And thank goodness it happens at all.

The loops of Ethiopia and family loop on and on

Twenty-some years ago, I spent New Year’s Eve in a hospital room in Trinidad, Colorado, having a baby.  Every other person who came through the labor room (and there were plenty, as I remember) suggested I wait and have the first new year’s baby.  The others said I should have the baby now and get a tax deduction.  (My husband is fond of pointing out that even though our son was born that Dec. 31, we didn’t earn enough that year to make the tax deduction useful.  But we did ensure great New Year’s Eve celebrations ever after.)

He was our kid who met life head on–the one who broke his arm trying to follow his older brother in leaping off a table, who needed stitches from a rake, from falling into a window well, from barb wire.  When he decided to volunteer in one of the Ethiopia Reads libraries in Ethiopia, we knew it would be an adventure.

It was.

In many, many ways.

Jonathan learned Amharic and went exploring, including climbing high in the Ethiopian mountains.  He discovered he wanted to tell stories through photographs.

He also got married, started a B&B, and had a daughter.

Some years ago when the summer got rough in Ethiopia, Hiwot and Jonathan and their daughter moved to Kansas so they could finish college.  I surely am proud that right after he graduated this summer, he was offered a job as a photojournalist–at a time when all the old ways of getting stories into the world seem to be falling apart and many of us are struggling with how to put an income together in the new world.

If income is hard, though, the other rewards are mighty.

I glommed onto my dream of writing books for children when my kids were little and I was reading books to them and watching the world unfold for them in new and fascinating ways.  I wrote my Ethiopia books partly as a way to open the world of my childhood to my own children.  Now it feels sweet–and even slightly woo-woo–to watch my Ethiopian-American grandchildren reading those Ethiopia books…

…and discovering the outside world I wanted for my newest character, Lanie–the world my parents gave me in Ethiopia.

What an adventure my mom and dad put in motion that December they decided to take a day of Christmas break (when they were in college) and get married.   I wonder what loops the next year will bring.