Archive for September, 2011

Support what you love

The lovely and elegant (and yummy) Strings restaurant in Denver will be the latest gathering of people interested in books, Ethiopia, kids, reading and writing, not always in that order.

Friday, September 23 · 5:30pm – 7:30pm

That’s tomorrow!

Here I am outside the restaurant just after having had tea with Lanie and one of my talented and imaginative young friends who had dressed Lanie in a festive holiday outfit.

On that particular trip to Denver, I spent most of the time at CCIRA doing presentations to reading teachers, laughing, being inspired by their feisty attitudes about doing well what they know how to do, not buckling under to the pressures of making reading and writing nothing more than filling a fact into a blank.

One of the people who attended one of my sessions and bought some of my books lives and works in South Africa.  She’s eager for a reading culture to take root in communities there, and she knows it won’t happen without good mentoring and modeling, which she works to provide.  I hope we can bring some of the book club ideas and also the Little Hands books that grew out of that South Africa project to Ethiopia.

As a first step, some of the American educators who volunteered in Ethiopia last summer carried with them a DVD that shows how reading and writing and telling stories and making safe, welcoming spaces for kids and stories all connect in powerful ways.  Sometimes we take it for granted that such things are possible for every child everywhere.  But they aren’t.

Hope and community.

How we humans crave and need such things.  I can see that here in Portland where the community of my foo (family-of-origin) is now rooted.

Not long after we moved into this house, one of my brothers-in-law came over with clippers and gloves and snipped and pulled and yanked and slashed his way through the blackberry thicket that was growing by our back yard shed.  I’d been loving fresh blackberries on my cereal.

Right from my own yard!

Still, I could see that something had to be done.  My brother-in-law makes jam, and he was eager to add blackberries to the various berries he’d already smooshed into jam this summer.  I thought he should grab these while the grabbing was good.

Also, I could see how aggressive a mood the blackberries were in.  In their determination to grow and thrive and dominate, they were even climbing up and over the shed.  Getting ready to munch it down for all I knew.

Unfortunately, mint was growing amidst the blackberry stickers, and it all got chopped out, too.  For a few days, I mourned the leaving of the blackberries and mint.

Then, one day, I was walking in the grass in the back yard and I noticed that a fresh, summery smell was wafting up from under my feet.

I looked down and saw…mint plants.  Hundreds of them.  All over the lawn.  Seeds had blown and rooted themselves everywhere.

My siblings assure me the blackberries WILL BE BACK.

The mint is still out there for me to enjoy every day.

That’s how my upcoming Denver trip feels to me, too.  So many of the rich and powerful people in this world think it’s perfectly okay for them to treat the less rich and powerful humans on this earth as cogs in their wheels, pawns in their plans.  But there are lots and lots of us and we tend to be stubborn and determined.

We aren’t all that easy to get rid of.

Reading and writing and telling our stories are some of the ways we stay strong.  They are also ways we share what we know and care about–and plant new ideas and dreams and skills.

As Isak Perlman just said on the classical radio station over my ear, “Support what you love.”

That’s what this Denver trip is all about.

Support what you love.


Where did you go to school in Ethiopia?

A new school year.


When I was five and six, we lived in Maji.  One of the big things Presbyterians were doing in that part of Ethiopia was running a clinic (with a nurse and someone whose title was “dresser”) and running a school.  We had church in this school building on Sundays, and I can still remember the feeling of the mud and straw scratching my legs as I sat trying to figure out the sermon (in Amharic) while I drew pictures.

Now I wish Mom and Dad had sent us to that school, which would have given me a strong foundation in Amharic.

Instead, Mom homeschooled us.  The family story goes that when my older sister started her lessons, Mom asked if I wanted to start school, too.  “Do I have to?” I asked.

“Only if you want to.”

That was not what I wanted to hear.  I wanted to be a REAL student.  “No, Mom,” I said.  “Say I have to.”

After all, I was the one when we got to Maji (and I looked like this) who said (when asked why we were outside late), “Oh, we were just lifting our eyes unto the hills.”

I loved the sounds of words.  I loved realizing that black marks on a white page made the sounds of words in my mind…made them thump in my blood.

Being homeschooled left lots of time to explore the big, gorgeous, fascinating outside world where I grew up.  My sisters and I made up inventive games and stories that we acted out for days running on days.  We used the animals, vegetables and minerals of the outside world as the props in our stories.  Frogs.  Lizards.  Flowers.  Mud.  When I met with the American Girl team to talk about the Doll of the Year, I showed them my childhood pictures and said I wanted Lanie to be an outside girl.

At fourth grade, I went off to boarding school in Addis Ababa and learned the wrench of homesickness but also learned what it was to have a library.  After school, we ran to the dining room for our snacks–looking at this picture makes me remember the salty crunch of cheese bread/biscuit sticks–and then to the dorm to toss our school things on our bunks and run outside.  More long afternoons spent outside…in the (off-limits) rock quarry or pretending I was a horse, galloping through the grass.  In school, during the mornings and early afternoons, I read.  I read and read.

 My dad loved the outdoors.  When I was working on Lanie’s stories, I was so grateful for everything he brought into our lives with the camping trips and long hikes and daily explorations around Maji.  My mom was the reader and the writer.  When she was a little girl, her mom found her crying.  Mom managed to sniffle out the sad truth that she had just realized someday she’d be too old to go to school any more.

Everyone should be lucky enough to learn to read from someone who loves to read.  Everyone should have a teacher who loves being in school.

My mom grew up in a poor and struggling family.  I have no doubt school was a haven.  It was also a place where she got a vision of a new life for herself.

There’s something about school…if it’s a place of reading and thinking and curiosity and dreaming and opening up new thoughts and new worlds.

Yay teachers.

Yay reading.

Yay school.

Our stubborn, greedy, angry hearts

For much of my adult life, the question just about every American could answer was, “Where were you when you heard that JFK was shot?”

I was in boarding school in Addis Ababa.   I can remember leaning against a cement block wall, smelling that musty, mineral smell of rock and sand.  There had been a sense that JFK had his eyes turned outward to the world, was a hero to places like Ethiopia, and I remember the tangle of loss and confusion and wondering what it meant for the world.  My parents were far away in Maji.  My older sister was with the Big Girls.  I felt alone with my questions, just my shoulder against the wall, wondering and sad.

Now, I think, the question every American can answer is where they were on 9-11.  I was back in the little town in Illinois where I’d gone to college.  College.  Seventeen-years-old…far away, again, from my parents and younger siblings who were still in Ethiopia.  Monmouth was a place of powerful, confusing memories, and I was back, that September 11, to speak to some education classes at the college and a gathering of reading teachers and also to do an author visit in a few schools.

Reading was on my mind as I stood in a third grade classroom on 9-11.  Long ago as a college student, I’d sat in a Monmouth public school classroom and listened to a little girl struggling to read. Not that long ago, I had been one of fourteen authors and illustrators invited to Laura Bush Celebrates America’s Authors, the day before inauguration.  Because of Laura Bush and her emphasis on the importance of reading, I thought maybe–just maybe–we were entering a new era of celebrating books in schools.

When the principal came into that classroom the morning of 9-11, I was itchy.  We’d already suffered through a fire drill interruption.  I so much I wanted those kids to know–about Ethiopia, about writing, about how reading makes you strong in the hardest times.

It really wasn’t until I got home in the afternoon to the house of Jim and Jan DeYoung, both visionary and smart educators, people woven into my life from back in those college years, that I understood why the principal had thought it important to come in, to tell the students, “You might see or hear some frightening things today, but I want you to remember that you’re going to be fine.”

Up until that day, 9-11 had meant Ethiopian New Year to me.  I sat in the DeYoung’s house–as many of us sat–and looked at the images on the television set over and over and over again.

Remember the sudden long gas lines?  When the hardy reading teachers met in spite of it all, I talked about how now, more than ever, it was obvious that we need to listen to the stories of a whole world, understand the lives we are touching for good and for ill.

 Why should we listen if we’re hated in spite of all we’ve tried to do for good?

Imagine a room with ten people in it, I said.  Two love you no matter what. Two hate you and have decided they always will.  The rest are busily surviving their daily existence and don’t really have time to have an opinion one way or another.

The way we behave  now will have a lot to do with how those six now neutral people feel about us ten years from now.

In the next few days, Laura Bush read my book Faraway Home in several classrooms.  In many ways this is my life story: a story of a girl who thinks of America as home while her father is missing his home in Ethiopia, wanting with all his heart to help her see his faraway home.  Laura Bush used the story as a reminder that it’s not Us Vs. World.  That we have children from almost every country in our American classrooms.

Sometimes, especially in places like North Dakota (where I was then living), we act as if people are usually born, grow up and die in the same geographic area.  Actually, our world has become Fruit Basket Upset (favorite game from boarding school): a big swirl of people who’ve been tossed out of their chairs, everyone scrambling to make sure they get a new chair.

Remember that airports all across the country were closed?

I didn’t know when I’d get home.  Would I have to find a way to take the train instead?  I really, really wanted to be back in my own cozy spot.

How hard it is to change spots in the big Fruit Basket Upset game of life.  How hard it is to leave home, even for a little while, and wander in a place where food and language and customs are unfamiliar.  How hard it is to be patient with your fellow travelers and those who are trying hard to be hospitable to you but don’t always know what you need.  How hard it is to listen well and be humble and kind.

 We mess up the journey quite a lot.  We make each other mad–sometimes on purpose, more often even though we’re trying our best.

We despair.

We stomp off.

We come back and try again to share across age groups, language groups, country lines, in spite of our sometimes stubborn, greedy, angry hearts.

Hope and community in the time of floods and road blocks and reading droughts

Last Sunday’s profound thought: the journey is hard.

Maybe there are people for whom life’s path unfolds with gentle warmth and meanders over rolling hills in the sunshine.  For most of us, it’s a foggy grope at best.

A thorn in the foot.

A blister on the heel.

Throat-choking thirst.

Terrible despair–and that’s just the start of a new novel.

Remember when we all hammered out our words on a typewriter?  I stumbled onto this picture and had a heart-twist seeing my dad’s hands and the first cat of my adult life, remembering his words.  (My dad’s, not the cat’s.)

 In Ethiopia, almost every journey was full of uncertainty.  This picture was taken by the educators who traveled as part of the Fulbright-Hayes grant.  The last time I was part of such a picture, traveling with a group of volunteer educators, the bus teetered on the edge of an enormous puddle that looked as if it could gulp us down and not let us emerge until the end of rainy season.   In all the fluttering and twittering and anxiety of the moment, I read a book.

Checked out.

That’s because I used up my quota of road torment and anxiety when I was a kid and have no room for any more.  Every trip from the savannah up into the mountains had discomfort and fear.  As a teenager, I took a public bus from Addis Ababa to Jimma, riding with bumps and ceiling-bumping bounces and squawking chickens and dust and–of course–no public restrooms.

What can we cling to when the path is awful?

Sunday’s wisdom: hope and community.

Last week, the dire headline for my blog came mostly because I was listening to news of Irene as I typed…and thinking about life after disaster.  Sure enough, this blog post by one of my Vermont College MFA students shows how the winds and rains can dump us on our heads.

I won’t ever forget what that disorienting head-dump feels like…nor how hope and community helped me get through a flood.

Hope and community also helped me craft my story of getting through the flood.  My writers’ community still helps me keep stumbling along the artistic road, one hard book after another.

And nowhere has hope and community been more powerful for me than with Ethiopia Reads (, my volunteer effort to share stories with the country of my childhood.

Hope and community is particularly life-saving when the path takes a long, long time.

In the 1920s, Presbyterians started the very first school for girls in Ethiopia.  By the time I was a kid in Addis Ababa, the school already had deep roots, and I spent hours of my city life there, playing horse games behind the row of classrooms with my older sister and her best friend, loving the smell of the bere bere pepper that seeped into all the desks and curtains, listening to the girls as they ran and laughed and chanted the fidel.

In the late ’80s, my brother–a young teacher–took his family to Ethiopia and taught in that school. (That’s his second daughter in the picture, practicing her reading on the school compound.)  My older sister joined him a few years later.

 Last summer, we educators who were part of the Fulbright-Hayes group visited the school to hear a presentation by the art teacher, one of my brother’s friends from those teaching years.  We saw this proud young graduate getting ready for her big ceremony.

We also saw the big, empty room the school had built in hopes of a secondary library–a resource for the girls who attend that school in a place where only 13% of teenage girls are in school.

My brother got a bit of a scolding.  “How is it,” someone asked him, “that you have helped other schools get libraries and not this place where you used to climb the trees when you were a boy?”

Well, it’s tough planting a library.  It takes about $10,000, for one thing, and the shipping of thousands of books.

  That’s a toughness too daunting for most of us to imagine.  When I started volunteering with Ethiopia Reads, people asked me over and over if we had thought about approaching Oprah.  Others recommended the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation and other organizations and people with deep pockets.  Who would think that educators from places like North Dakota and Kansas (like this heroic retired teacher and retired principal) and writers and other artists and kids and ordinary families could do anything?

Well, they can.

Betsey (seen here with donated books that are now in Ethiopia) is one such writer and educator.  Years ago, she designed simple reading materials for Ethiopian children in Southwest Ethiopia when she worked there, overlapping with my family in beautiful Maji.  (I experimented with being an educator in Maji, myself, using my siblings and her children as my students when I was about eleven.)  With others at Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver, she raised the money for the library at that girls’ school.  (They also did a book drive–hard, muscle-stretching work as everyone who has tried one knows.)

Frew, Ethiopia Reads board member, knows.  He has organized dozens of book sales, including one that always happens around Ethiopian New Year this month.  He has involved his son and his son’s friends and the Key Club in Tracy, California and other volunteers…selling the books to help pay for the shipping and salaries of the Ethiopian staff who deal with the books when they arrive.

This summer, after years of effort, books arrived.

Remember the pictures on my blog of the






to get all the books stored in LeAnn Clark’s storage units in Kansas loaded into a truck to head to Books for Africa and from there to Ethiopia?

They arrived!

It takes a ton o money to get the English-language books to the libraries we’ve planted in Ethiopia.  (Yes, we do buy all the local language books available, too, and yes we continue to explore alternatives to shipping.)  This summer, we managed to get 80,000 books for new libraries to Ethiopia, thanks to LeAnn and to help from Books for Africa and Better World Books.

Once the books arrived, it took more money to hire the trucks and cranes and get the books plopped down on the ground in the right place.

It took–or, more accurately, takes–money to store the books and sort the books and for the Ethiopian staff to distribute the books to the new and existing libraries.  It’ll take more money to do the professional development for Ethiopian educators using those books.

More need for hope…

And community.

Sometimes it feels impossible.  But today the news came that the books gathered at Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver a few months ago have been delivered to the new girls’ school library.  Thanks to this summer’s efforts, that empty room is now full of 10,000 books.  When school starts this week, the library will be open for business.

 More new libraries will also be open for business for the first time, thanks to those books.  Some are in the capital city of Addis Ababa.

Some, like this one, are outside of the city, reaching some of the kids who struggle the most to get an education.  In fact, by the end of this school year, we hope there will be one model school library planted in each of Ethiopia’s 11 regions and city administrations.

Whew.  It feels impossible.  But I’ve seen that it’s not.

 What does a book represent?

What has reading books meant to you?

What has having a library done in your life?

I doubt I would be a children’s book author today if I hadn’t had that lovely little library in Trinidad, Colorado, where I brought home arm loads of books and read them to my three little kids.

So we celebrate books






This little boy has a life full of all of those things.

His family is the one who planted that library, now full of books, to honor the place of his birth and his reading grandfather.

Community…passing along the hope.