Archive for May, 2011

What we plant and dig and tend and cherish

So many different patterns ripple through families.  In mine?  Reading, obviously.  A love of books.  A sharing of books.

But also…gardens.

Maji, Ethiopia had a year-round growing season, and my dad was forever coaxing my mom to cook what burst out of the earth there, introducing us to things like kohlrabi and artichokes and water cress.  We four sisters tagged after him to his garden, listened to his rhapsodies, made fake yummy yummy noises as he dug a potato out of the ground and his Swiss Army knife out of his pocket–and carved slices.  I can still vividly remember the taste of raw potato and dirt.  Lucky me that many years later, I got to see my grandkids slurping up my dad’s strawberries.  By then, even Dad’s fierceness about stepping on plants had faded, making his garden a perfect place for a grandson.

Once Dad left Ethiopia and got back to Portland, Oregon, gardening became somewhat easier.  For one thing, he didn’t have to have conversations with school boys about their job of keeping the monkeys out of the garden (a scene I recreated for Trouble).  In Portland, Dad grew a wildflower garden in the front and an enormous kiwi tree and rasberries–along with strawberries and vegetables–in the back of the house.  The last year of his life, I was several times put in charge of watering his potatoes.  I see him, now, bending over those plants, taking solace and joy in the hard work of growing food.

This month when we visited the Little Family (as my author friends have dubbed them) in Birmingham, we gave Noh a tomato plant for his birthday.  It went onto the deck along with the beans and peas my daughter flew down to plant with them.  As a kid in ND, Rebekah ate most of the peas fresh from the vine before I could pick and cook them. Last summer, she worked for AmeriCorps in an urban gardening program in Pittsburgh, and grew her own backyard pea plants, although the resident groundhog munched down the peas before she could get to them…fine justice.

Lanie discovers that the smallest gardens, even deck gardens, can be a haven for wild life.  I’ve written before on this blog about my own ah-hah brain-click of realizing that the choices we make about plants will determine whether or not certain insects and birds are able to survive.

Small choices.

Big ripple effect.

As a child growing up in Ethiopia, I had zero connection with Memorial Day.  In those years, my dad never talked about his World War II experiences.  I never thought of him as a soldier except briefly when he was trying to give us advice about packing our suitcases by rolling our clothes or when he was making us laugh by showing us how he could wipe a  smile on or off his face.

My dad was basically a kid when he went off to World War II, joking around with his one sister, here, when he was back on the eastern Oregon farm for a brief break.  Seeing a world at war changed him–in his case, planting a fierce determination (as I heard it put when I watched a documentary about Howard Zinn another man changed by his expeirence of war) to live in defiance of all that is bad around us.

Determination ripples through families.  Attitudes ripple through families.  Stories ripple through families, keeping memories alive for good and for ill.  After I married a guy from Kansas, we sometimes visited his family on Memorial Day.  That was my first (and only) experience with a tradition for many American families, visiting ancestral graves, decorating them with flowers.

My mother-in-law, too, loved her garden.  The morning of Memorial Day, she picked the flowers we put beside those graves.  When her great-granddaughter came from Ethiopia to live in central Kansas, she would have been proud to see the ripples ripping out.

“The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”  Howard Zinn

Hats and giggles and dreams, oh my!

Tea parties–not the political sort–are something that American Girl has managed to bring to a new generation of American girls.  Afternoon tea conjures images of elegance and formality, hats and gloves and sweet conversations over sweet nibbles.  A chance to do something sumptuous and fun with one’s dear friends.  Friends having tea together do not keep glancing at their smart phones or texting.  They stay in the moment and tickle all of their senses and act fancy.  They don’t slurp or chug.  Tiny bites.  Sips.  Perhaps a pinky even in the air.

Families who visit many of the American Girl stores now dotting the country–Chicago, Minneapolis, LA, Boston, Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City, Dallas–can have tea if they choose.  If you bring a doll to tea, you might be able to borrow a little doll-sized chair so that your doll can sit right up to the table and join in the fun.  Knowing the popularity of these teas, a number of families and organizations around the country now also offer a chance for, say, mothers and daughters to explore tea time.

As soon as Lanie became queen…um…doll of the year, a mom in the Kansas City area invited me to my first such tea party.  She used it as a chance to raise a little money for Ethiopia Reads and give her daughter and her daughter’s friends a chance to dress up and give herself a chance to bring out her pretty things.   During the year of Lanie’s reign, I continued to have tea.   My favorite memories are from the tea parties that also were part of a creative way to help girls in the U.S. get books to girls in Ethiopia.

Around the developing world, reading for fun is often seen as a waste of time.

Children need to read for facts.

Children need to learn about science and math so they can help with the technical and business needs that need to be solved for the country’s future.

Children need to read to be able to pass tests.

Lots of schools and families in the United States once felt that way, too, and some still do.

But brain research shows facts and knowledge that stick are ones that are associated with emotion, with passion, with joy.

Reading can make us curious and kind and hopeful and in love with our lives and our earth and all its quirks and possibilities.

Somewhere along the line, most neighborhoods and communities in the United States caught the dream of libraries.  Last week, the Detroit Public Library organized a tea and–since I’m the famous author of an American Girl book–I got a chance to present the program.  Those girls outdid themselves!  I loved seeing the hats and gloves and other accessories.  Before and after tea, however, I equally loved the opportunity to wander around one of the most grand and lovely libraries I’ve ever been in.

This was clearly a city where people once poured money and passion into a place that would celebrate the learning and dreaming and beauty wrapped in the pages of books.  Any family in Ethiopia would be astonished to learn that children and adults can come to this space and read–read thousands of books–free.  We’re mostly blase about what was once (and in many places still is) an astonishing and bold idea.

Can and will we keep the idea going?

When I first came to live in the U.S. people were singing that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.  Will it be so?

I know times are tough–in Detroit and lots and lots of other places.  Are times tougher than they were for our ancestors who decided to build schools and libraries?

I’m sure glad I’ve had the joy of being alive in a time and place of libraries.

What story will YOU read next?


Some places in this world don’t even mark them.  Some people have no idea on which day they were born.

In some places on this earth, life spins out on a thin thread

and can so easily


In some places it’s crazy to make plans.  In some places the stories that get told most often are stories of endurance and acceptance and staying still.

I wonder what difference it makes to our innards that we are people who read and hear and tell those other stories.

Human against nature.

Human against human.

Human against society.

Human against self.

What does it mean that in the most oppressive places on this earth, people still and always find ways to mock the fierce and powerful, to sing the songs and tell the stories of survival?

How many awful things have you practiced surviving as you imagined yourself into the skin of another human being?

How brave have you been?

How have you stretched as you felt all the things there are to feel in this world?

What stories do you tell yourself over and over?

Are they stories of toughness and hope?

My year of travels is wrapping up and spooling down.  This evening, I’m looking out over the lights of Detroit, that struggling city, and tomorrow I’ll get to have tea with families who come to the public library to hear about Lanie’s journeys.

Then Birmingham.

Then North Dakota (again).

Then Oklahoma.

Then it’s time to figure out how to move to Portland, a place I haven’t lived since I was two years old.

I hope at the end of every year I can think back and know that I did a thing or two to spread the stories.

donkey love

Would YOU be able to resist this donkey?

It was giving me donkey love as I got to talk with fourth and fifth graders at Abernethy School in Portland, Oregon on Friday.   We discussed vivid details, the ways that words make us feel, and how I crafted Lanie’s feelings and experiences when I was writing her stories.  And this donkey looked on, reminding us of our humble efforts to let written words work their magic for kids in Ethiopia via

My brother’s third grade class at Abernethy were his work team to make this charmer.  Apparently its head had to be ripped off at one point and replaced.  Chris also gave me a few other juicy details of the project.  “Some of us glued ourselves to the floor and walked out of the art room with gluey pieces of paper stuck to our heels,” he reports.

I was struck by how smart, thoughtful, and well-read the students are in Abernethy School–and how much they appreciate their books.  One boy told me he has bins of books he’s already read and probably won’t read again and that he might be able to bring them to school this week for the “Bring a Book, Buy a Book” project that will raise money for the containers of books that need to sail their way to Ethiopia.  Next week, kids will get to buy each other’s books (a buck a book), and the money will go to Ethiopia Reads…and the buyers will have a new reading experience, too.

Teachers and parents jumped into the fun last week.  I can tell this is a school that cares.  Some of the proceeds of the annual book fair will go to help Fregenet School ( expand their library outreach to one Addis Ababa neighborhood.  This year Chris also ran a marathon in the drenching rain to help Tafesse with his efforts–and I love to see his new school community in Portland gathering around him.

Kids and teachers have posted signs and pictures all over the school to help everyone understand their garden project (perfect connection for the Lanie books) and that there’s a hunger for books in Ethiopia.  The young person who posted this sign on a locker also had some advice related to the donkey in the art room.  That donkey will be traveling all around school this week, classroom to classroom, to help drum up enthusiasm for the idea that families can make more room on their own shelves as they bring gently used books to school.  It’s a pratical recycling-with-heart project that is also being done in Grand Forks, ND schools this week.

Whether books arrive in a cart pulled by a donkey or in a room staffed by a librarian or some other way, they thrill us and comfort us and give us dreams.  Chris and I had the best time sharing the stories behind our own books this week…and helping spread book love a little bit further in this world.  One of the great things to see is how those efforts help all of us feel happier and braver and more powerful, too.

Small efforts.

Big impact.

Big feelings for the fun and satisfaction of it all.

What book lovers do

They lug books.

In my next lifetime, I’m going to love something light…like butterfly wings.

They buy books and sell books.

Sometimes this happens in a greenhouse, such as at the Garden Party in Grand Forks last week.  Sometimes it happens at Rotary booths.  Sometimes it happens in huge, echoing convention halls.  That will be the International Reading Association in Orlando this week, where I’ll be signing books at Booth 647 from 11:30-1 on May 10.  Y’all come by!

 Booklovers want to share the delicious experience of reading.  Dawn is the one with the hat in the above picture.  I happen to know she sat and watched the royal wedding in her pjs and a hat.  Dawn’s sister is in this picture, in Ethiopia, at the library the Klevberg family planted in honor of their mom, Jeannette Roeder Klevberg, a reader.

While I was flying to Grand Forks, I was reading a collection of Jeannette’s memories, Growing Up on Cole Creek…or Was It Just a Coulee?  She was a good writer with warm and funny and vivid memories of her childhood in ND.

“People didn’t visit,” she writes, “they ‘chewed the fat.’  Something bad was an ‘uffda’ or a ‘feeda’ or ‘ishda.’  The best place to go for coffee was a place where the housewife had rolled white cookies and sugar lumps.  I sat on a chair swinging my legs waiting for Mom to say it was time to go, which was the signal for the housewife to say, ‘But you can’t go yet, we haven’t even had coffee.'”  The worst place to visit, she wrote, was the home of a little old German lady who “always said she wanted to keep me because I was such a nice little girl….I sneaked in behind Mom and slid into a chair right by the door, in case I had to leave in a hurry.”  A week ago, Dawn and Ann Porter and I slip-slid through the ice to Jeannette’s church, where her friends gave a donation to improve her library.

What else do book lovers do?  This talented teacher and librarian told me a story of a time she and a friend met author Trina Schart Hyman at an airport.  They didn’t do anything as mundane as hold up a copy of one of Trina’s books.  No, Letty dressed as St. George and her friend dressed as a dragon.  I was so lucky to have Letty’s stories to keep me laughing as we drove from one Hutchinson, KS school to another and to have her practical, expert help for the Ethiopia Reads fundraiser on Saturday.  A whole generation of smart, determined educators may be retired or close to it, but they aren’t stopping.

I visited school after school filled with book lovers all last week and the week before.  Places like ND and Kansas may not be fancy, but they dazzle me anyway.  This school was brilliantly smart to ask kids to think what favorite story/book they would most like to share with readers in Ethiopia.

That’s what book lovers do.

Anyone up for joining LeAnn Clark as she heads to Ethiopia fo rthe third time…this summer?

Thinkers and artists against all odds

South Central Kansas, land of wind sweeping over wheat fields, land of home baked bierrocks, land of generosity, was my husband’s earliest landscape.  His mother told me that when she had her babies, she couldn’t bear to listen to the radio and all the grim news of war.  She made rolls with surprising hollow middles (a marshmallow, don’t you know?) and pickles and mint tea.  When I broke one of her favorite pitchers, she said something gentle about the way of all flesh.

She liked to be outside on the farm when she was a girl, but when she was a mother, she usually cleaned up the things from breakfast and sat right down to plan lunch.

I spent a week in her part of America, introducing Ethiopia Reads to many teachers and students, and to the nature lovers who came to Dillons Nature Center on Saturday for a Lanie, Make A Difference event.

Some mothers are superb organizers and put together events with ice cream floats and talks and volunteers and nature journals and silent auctions so that they can ship big ol’ containers full of books to kids in Ethiopia.

Oh–and some mothers sort and pack and dust and hoist those books, too.  Pretty tough stuff.

Some mothers sit and sit until their demanding babies are born and then carry worms and bugs to a nest with barely a pause–and carry sacs of baby bird waste to stick them on branches far away from their babies’ home.

Some bounce their babies in a pouch…but not with seatbelts on.

Some make book connections and help kids to make them, too.  I’m glad my mom was one of those and set everything in motion that ended up meaning so much to me in my life.  I’m so glad she took time to sit, every week, and read to us and also to write letters that floated from Ethiopia to the U.S. to her mother and my dad’s mom and dad.

 All kinds of mother, chubby and thin, whether they’re covered with feathers or skin, do their best to hold and hug to keep their young ones safe and snug.

I loved getting these pictures this week about a boy who knows my book so well that he can say every page.  Wahoo for mothers who are artists and readers and thinkers against all odds and model such behavior for their progeny.

I went to a garden party

I went to a Garden Party…

On the wind-swept prairies of North Dakota on May Day.

I’d lived in Grand Forks–place of the twin forks–longer than in any other spot I’ve lived on this earth.  My kids went to school there.  I became an author there.  I can’t go back without a whoosh of all kinds of emotion.

May 1 was a day…

of celebration

 …and of snow.


We slip-slid to a small church to thank those who planted one of the first Ethiopia Reads libraries.  I so much longed to have my long johns along and had to borrow a coat from Ann Porter, once the principal in my kids’ elementary school.

That afternoon, people came to the place of flowers for a lot of different reasons.

1.  The promise of flowers and herbs and swirly breezes to come.

2.  The chance to hear Georgia, who owns All Seasons, with its plants and fancies and cats, talk about what’s new for spring 2011.

3.  Some people came to hear me talk about my American Girl character Lanie, and how she became a gardner (and to get books signed).

4.  Others came to support Dr. Ann Porter, book lover, educator, and chapter leader for Ethiopia Reads in Grand Forks.

I had such a rush of gratitude and happiness as All Seasons filled up and we had to pull out more and more and more chairs.  Ring the bells!  Share the news!  Let books and flowers and hopeful actions bloom.

Saturday, May 7, another chapter leader, LeAnn Clark, has organized another chance for families to love the earth and books and Ethiopia Reads–at the Hutchinson-Dillon Nature Center in Kansas.