Archive for March, 2011

Go team!

Sometimes when I’m doing author visits and people hear that I’m from Kansas, they say, “Isn’t Kansas cold?”  Well, we moved down the Great Plains to balmy Kansas.  So it was hard…especially after I spent a chunk of winter in Indonesia…to have March go roaring out like the proverbial lion.  This was the pathetic view of the back yard where I took pictures of monarch butterflies when I was working on the Lanie stories. 


On the other hand, the snow was good preparation for my trip to Minneapolis coming right up, including (as I wrote in my last blog) bringing back memories of this time of year during the year we were smacked by the Red River flood.  Getting ready for the Kerlan ceremony is making me think about what it’s like to have a team.

I went through the early part of my life as part of a giggling, singing, camping, hiking, reading, story-telling team.  One of my sisters settled in Minneapolis and raised her own giggling, singing, camping, hiking, reading, story-telling team of kids there.  They made every Kurtz family reunion an adventure of cold rushing water and pancake making and hiking and singing songs around the campfire.  

March was the month my granddaughter also came roaring into the world like a lion, six years ago, so we decided it was time to pay that part of our team a visit.  Long ago, my daughter’s class was my very first chance to experience what it’s like to do an author visit with kindergarten students.  “Wow,” her teacher said.  “That was great.”  I wobbled away thinking, That was great?  To me, they were like bits of popcorn popping.  But I learned, over the years, that it’s worse to try to do an author visit for a school where one’s kids are, say, in junior high.  So I was pretty thrilled last week to get to be a visiting author in my granddaughter’s school while she was still in kindergarten–in a school that loves and celebrates reading and writing.  Thrilldom!


Sometimes you need someone to sing in harmony with you.

Sometimes you need someone to help you build castles and moats and a lake and a canal to connect it all right up.

Sometimes you need someone to bear witness to what your childhood was like…the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Where we’re from can help us make the changes for the journey toward where we’re going.

We teased our granddaughter that she and her fellow soccer players might need to call their team The Handstanders.  Our daughter went through some years when she spent a lot of her outside time whirling in cartwheels.  Upside down or downside up, outside is precious.  And the team is precious.

Those who write fiction spend hours and days mucking around in silence, bouncing around with their thoughts, sometimes thoughts that are scary and sad.  Artists shake the world and have their worlds shaken sometimes on a daily basis.  We have to grab every possible chance to feel a sense of success, a sense of comfort, a sense of joy.

Minneapolis has meant a lot to me over the years.  I ate Thanksgiving dinners there with my sister’s generous family.  They’ve come to pick me up at the airport when I was stranded and fed me and tucked me to bed.  I’ve spoken in schools and at conferences in Minneapolis.  Readers and writers and adoptive parents there have also been a big part of the Ethiopia Reads outreach to get books to the kids of Ethiopia.  Next weekend, several of my writer friends are making the trek to celebrate with me.  I can’t wait to share the city.

Go team!

Before and after the sorrow

In March 1997, the fax machine in my office space would start making its whirring noises in the middle of the night almost every night…a super librarian doing her super job of planning an author visit with me to ICS and two other of the international schools in Addis Ababa.  It was going to be my first time back to Ethiopia in 20 years…and I would lie in bed and listen to the fax almost sick with joy and wonderment. 

Before I packed my suitcases, I was careful to take the photos that were in our bedroom and put them onto a high shelf.  After all, the bedroom and my oldest son’s bedroom and our office space were in the lower level of our house–and record snow had fallen in Grand Forks that year.  Trucks rumbled by, filled with snow from city parking lots, bound for some secret destination.  “Might as well dump it into our basements,” was the joke going around.  “It’ll end up there anyway.”

Ha ha ha.

When I got back, the river was rising, barreling from the south, and people in our neighborhood were taking turns to walk on the dikes and look for cracks.  We lived in a neighborhood that sloped right down to the Red River, but our house was on high ground.  “If the river gets us,” my husband said, “it’ll get everybody.”


The snow did end up in our basements and lower levels all over the city and–for many of my neighbors–even up to their rooftops.  If the flood had hit before I had returned from Ethiopia, many of the pictures on this blog would be gone.  This picture records some of my precious papers drying on the lawn after clean-up.  But that’s getting ahead of the story. 

Most of us have ways of measuring life in Before and After.  One of mine is what happened when the Red River flooded in 1997 and spread out over the entire city of Grand Forks.  In March 1997, we were still in Before.  “Did you lose much in the flood?” people asked me for years.  What I lost in the flood, as I managed to say in River Friendly River Wild, was one terrific neighborhood.  What I lost is hard to measure in STUFF, but I still carry the sorrow of it.

Today I’m working on the pictures to share at the Kerlan Award celebration in Minneapolis on April 2 at the Elmer L. Andersen Library.  I’m thinking of the way the Twin Cities communities stretched out their hands to us after the flood.  I’m hoping people will be there if their Minnesota record snowfall this year makes their rivers wild.  What I know for sure is that we will all continue to tell the stories of Before and After, stories that can stretch our hearts a few sizes bigger for the sorrows that are here in our world and surely to come.

Ethiopia: pain twisted into hope for kids

This is one of my favorite photographs among many powerful photographs taken by my son Jonathan, now a professional photo-journalist in Birmingham, Alabama.  One adoptive dad pointed out the photo tickles memories and sensations of a painting of the Last Supper.  You can see a much more stunning version here:

The photo matches some stunning efforts to create a safe and welcoming world for some Ethiopian kids who drew some short, short straws out of the sorting hat of life.  At their school, a fuzzy head was the excitement o the day when some folks visited from Olivet Lutheran church in Fargo.  But most days, the excitement is basic: water, pencils, bread.

Hope for these kids was born in the middle of intense pain.  A young Ethiopian college graduate–full of her plans to return to her Addis Ababa neighborhood and work with kids–was killed in a car accident in Minneapolis.  Her parents took a whole lot of sadness–theirs, their daughter’s friends–and braided something that could at least honor what their daughter had wanted for her life: a school for kids like Jemila, the girl whose story is told on the Fregenet website right now:  Eight members of a family sharing a bedroom.  A kitchen shared by 30 neighbors.  A child who arrived at this NGO school lethargic and hungry with lice in her hair, now full of sparkle.

Tafesse and his wife have put everything on the line for this school.  He quit his job–because his job has become keeping the school going.  Every year, he and others (now incuding my brother) put their legs on the line in the LA marathon coming up next weekend.  I’ve been telling everyone I know, hoping a few people will join me with a few dollars of sponsorship. 

This summer, the Fulbright Hayes teachers who visited Ethiopia made books with the teachers of that school.  Later this month, the school where my brother teaches will do a fundraiser to help extend this library’s reading resources to the entire neighborhood where 85% of the families live in poverty. 

We can’t do everything.

Opening a world of books to thousands of kids in Ethiopia who have a fierce determination to learn?

Sometimes adding an opportunity to wash up?  A piece of bread?

That is one thing we can do–one kid at a time.

When the world shakes and tumbles

My heart will keep drifting to Japan, to the immense city of Tokyo where I looked out of my hotel room and saw nothing but roofs stretching to the horizon.  It drifts also to the tidy sweetness of the neighborhood of my first school visit, to the cooks in their hole-in-the-wall-places where we stopped to get food, helplessly laughing as we tried to communicate (mostly by pointing) what we thought might make a good thing to eat.  It drifts to the blind man on the train who took my hand–and healed me right up, or so it felt, anyway.

The librarian at one of the schools where I spoke had dreamed of Japan ever since he was a young man growing up in a blue collar UK neighborhood.  Indeed, he felt at home when he arrived.  He married a Japanese woman and told me he planned to stay in Japan forever.

“What is it that you like so much about Japan?” I asked him.

“Everything runs smoothly and is on time,” he said.  “People whose job it is to serve the public are unfailingly efficient and polite.”

“That’s interesting,” I said, “because that’s my stereotype of the UK, the country you left.”

“Oh my dear.”  He gave me a wry look.  “Not since Victorian times.”

I saw a country where the community–the value of the glue that holds a group together–is honored and celebrated.  Children, I was told, are taught not to bring shame on their families.  They also, though, are taught to think about whether their actions will bring shame on their teachers and others who are investing in them.  For an American, the difference is striking…the line drawn…where single lives begin and end and how people should think of themselves as individuals who owe their existence to a nurturing whole.

For a while, Tokyo was simply too big and overwhelming for me.  But then I found the spots of serenity and beauty carefully tended in the midst of sleek modern places.  I didn’t realize that cherry blossom blooming can’t be absolutely predicted and thus people plan their lives and trips to Japan around the cherry blossoms, only to be disappointed.  We were lucky to find ourselves in the middle of the delicate feast.

What is it like when a place of order and glistening modernity is flicked around by the reckless finger of Mother Nature?

What do we as humans do and feel when all the things we’ve counted on as solid tumble down around our heads?

How do fragile humans keep their balance and breath when everything is shaken?

The only word I have from watching Ethiopian society get shaken almost to pieces and survive…from going through a flood and eventually coming out the other side…is story. 

I met writers in Japan, members of the Society of Children’s book Writers and Illustrators there.  I met Ethiopians in Japan, including a family at this school where I spoke.  I met this young reader who read a magazine article about Ethiopia Reads and saved her yen for a year because she wanted children in Ethiopia to have books and reading, as she does.

Now I’m comforted to think of the people who will be donating money to her–to her city, to her community.  Sometimes, for shiny moments, we’re able to remember where the lines are truly drawn on this earth–that we are all fragile, clinging together on this pretty planet, as the song has it, spinning through space.

So many problems and frustrations are intractible, no matter how much money we pour into them.  Other times, we humans can create a pot and collect up what we have…put in such a small amount and make a huge investment in creating the world we want to live in.  I hope we’ll be able to hang on together for the swirling ride.

Pencils of Ethiopia, Minneapolis, California, ND unite

Lanie, my most recent character to waltz into the world, yearns to travel to Indonesia where her best friend is getting a chance to hold orangutan babies.  Eventually, Lanie discovers the small animals and other joys of her own back yard. 

I just DID travel to Indonesia (still holding the memory of this tree in my mind: it spreads over a good part of the courtyard in one of the schools where I spoke) but am thinking of March as the month to discover the joys of my own back yard.  This is a chunk o time when my mind is traveling but–except for a hop down to visit Jonathan and Hiwot and their kids later this month–I’m mostly sitting on my couch visiting the fictional worlds created by my VCMFA students, while my undermind chews on the fictional world in my own novel.

I pretty much write wherever I am.  Last week, I was leading a spirituality-through-writing retreat for women who go to this church and get to look out at these trees every Sunday.

Wowee magnificence.

I gleaned details for my work-in-progress (affectionately known as a wip when my author friends and I are talking about such things) while I was sitting in church gazing out at those trees–and while I was sitting in the retreat center the day before with St. Joseph of Peace beaming down upon me from one angle and a mossy tree glowing from another.

I also glean details and write when I’m sitting in airplane seats and in van seats and in hotel rooms where the views are completely and utterly bland and boring.  The landscape of the mind brings us rich texture and comfort and joy no matter what’s going on outside. 

Of course, sometimes being able to travel in my mind is a hard, sad thing.  Watching the earthquake devastation in Japan zings me back to my author visits to Tokyo last year.  I find myself traveling mentally over the miles and wondering about what’s happening with the places, the people, the schools, the–okay–giant spider I became fascinated with while I was there.  People are already telling their stories.  Have you noticed?  Sometimes it’s the only thing for the pain.

Next month will be back to travel times for me and almost all of my travel will be about the journeys of the mind that reading is right now bringing to the children of Ethiopia.  In Seattle, this astonishingly wonderful family just raised money to plant a library in the Ethiopian city where the charming daughter of the family was born.  They are a force to be reckoned with–and their efforts will fling thousands of starfish into the immense dazzling lap of the ocean…in this case known as a library.

Want to know about libraries being planted in Ethiopia for kids who have no public library and have had no school library before Ethiopia Reads existed?  That’s great…because that’s what I will be traveling and talking about a LOT during April. 

April 2, I get a chance to talk to anyone who will hear me in Minneapolis–as part of the luncheon and celebration of the Kerlan award, which I’m honored to have been given this year (for my contributions to children’s literature and the Kerlan collection).  Hoping to look out at many faces of people who live in the upper Midwest and love Ethiopia, children, books, and libraries (like the family that planted the school library for these readers). Reservations are due in March:

In mid-April, I’ll be in California, both in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles, thinking about rural Ethiopian schools and what it takes to plant not just a library but a very first chance at school for children in remote parts of the country.  I’ll take part in a Room to Read workshop about emerging literacy and talk in a Bay Area library and help an adoptive mom with her determined quest to bring a school to the area of Ethiopia where her children were born.  You can find details and tickets for her event on the Ethiopia Reads website.

At the end of April, I’ll be back in Grand Forks, ND, where financial support for Ethiopia Reads first gathered steam and shape, thanks to some brave readers at First Presbyterian Church there, who were pretty sure we could do a kind of pay-back and pay-forward after all the help we received after the flood and also that there was SOMETHING we could do to get books into the hands of kids   (  I’ll speak and sign books at a district Rotary convention.  Rotary, with its literacy emphasis, has been another bold supporter.  Rotary helped us plant a big ol’ chunk of libraries, mostly in Awassa, Ethiopia, home of this young reader.

Can you remember your first book?

Can you remember your first library card?

Can you remember your first pencil?

Can you remember someone who listened to your story and brought you healing?

Join hands and I’ll see you on the journey.

Author teacher road warriors hang on for the ride

Home!  Next up: Seattle and several interesting events including this one, organized by an energetic new Ethiopia Reads volunteer.

Who: families – kids are welcome! Jane Kurtz, children’s author WACAP staff What: Book sale/signing Opportunity to meet with other parents and learn about the needs of Ethiopian children Why: To raise awareness and funds for programs serving orphaned and vulnerable children in Ethiopia When: Sunday, March 6, 2011, from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. Where: WACAP Main Office, 315 South 2nd Street, Renton, Wash. 98057 Cost: The event is free; donations are welcomed and encouraged.

So!  I left Kansas with snow on the ground and flew to gorgeous, lush Indonesia for three amazing author visits, flew back to Kansas (okay, Missouri) to find snow STILL on the ground, flew to Wisconsin for another amazing author visit but even more snow, finally got home last night.  I would feel all heroic and road-warrior-ish except that my dad was doing this kind of traveling and speaking into his 80s, including getting to where he was going via reindeer-pulled vehicles in Siberia. 

I guess I’ll just settle for saying it’s great to be home for a few days…and, hey, y’all who admire and support Ethiopia Reads and/or kids and/or books for kids and/or road warriors and their ilk, come see me in Renton on Sunday–or in California next month where another two events are being set up by volunteers (

What got better while I was on this trip?

–My novel.  (I kept going on revision and even got some new ideas…thrilldom!)

–My sprained foot.

(When I limped home from Houston and thought ahead to the Indonesia trip, I thought it was going to be impossible to keep going, but it wasn’t, even though the air travel made my foot swell up and get uncomfortable.)

What got worse while I was on my long trip?

–My attitude toward the Sky Team.  (Korean Airlines was lovely, as cramped and uncomfortable international travel goes, and I do like those powder blue planes and the view out the window during our loooong layover, but I made a mistake that prevented me from getting ANY frequent flyer miles, and I’m cross that no one would work with me–a loyal Delta flyer–to un-do my goof and make it right.)

–My novel.

(Things always get worse before they get better, so some chapters are an utter mess right now.  I kept writing, though, including while I was sitting in this van and slowly, creepingly making my way through sprawling, snorting, swirling Jakarta traffic.)

–My new haircut.

(Hair grows.)

Now I have two days to get caught up on many, many things + lean on a baby cold + put new updating-the-Lanie-story pictures into my Power Point presentations.

I’m buoyed by those making a difference with orangutans (go, go, Pasir Ridge International School) and Ethiopia Reads (go, go, library planters) and monarch butterflies (go, go St. Joe Elementary School).

For that matter, go, go, all of us author-teacher-speaker road warriors who spread the passion for reading and writing and sharing books.