Archive for October, 2011

Teenage witch??

Writing retreats…yum!

I’ve been getting together with a group of fellow children’s book authors for more than ten years.  At first, we took a long weekend from our crowded lives to write, write, write–and read our writing to each other and discuss delicious books we’d read and also talk about each other’s work.

Then we started taking a whole week and sharing the cooking, too.  This year, we cooked on this old stove.  I made bread when it was my turn.  It reminded me of my mom pulling crusty, steamy loaves of bread from the wood-burning fireplace in Maji, Ethiopia.  That was always quite a production–needing to push small sticks in and nudge them out until the temperature got right enough for bread.  Mom would mix in a little white flour that came from Addis Ababa but mostly use the flour ground down at the mill my dad installed at the foot of one of Maji’s magnificent waterfalls (using a book to figure out how to do it).

Walking always jogs new ideas loose when I’m stuck, stuck, stuck.  This time, I got to walk down these stairs to the beach.  Water loosens ideas, too.  Walking by the water in the beautiful Massachusetts air was satisfyingly wonderful for my work in progress.

Being on retreat was perfect this year.  I spend so much time thinking about Ethiopia Reads and (recently) about how to find the right pieces of furniture for the new house.  We want them to be lovely…inexpensive…and to fit neatly right in the small spaces we have available.

Can anyone say Craigslist?

Any artist has to find spaces–claimed from the roly poly tumble bumble routine of life–to do the work.  Doing it with friends is a sumptuous pleasure.  Doing it in the Boston area is extra pleasurable for me because that’s where Jim taught me how to pay attention to birds when I was working on Lanie’s story.

With all the agonizingly hard effort and disappointment and stretch of writing a novel or picture book, it’s sometimes frustrating to me that readers, who also have to take time from the roly poly tumble bumble routine of life to be good readers, sometimes get careless and distracted.

We felt immersed in the National Book Award mess because Franny Billingsley, who goes on our retreat, had just gotten flipped by the most unfortunate of human errors.  When her book title was read aloud to those making the public announcements about the National Book Award finalists, the title of another book was heard–and announced.  Before the sorting was done, the error had caused lots of hurt and lots of flap…not good for the serenity needed for writing and revising.

To my irritation, I later read a brief magazine article that summed things up this way:  “They belatedly nominated Franny Billingsley’s CHIME (about a teenage witch) instead.”


No way does that parenthetical bit capture Franny’s book, which is about a girl who can hear the Old Ones who whisper in the swamps and are longing to not have their waters drained by the coming of modernity, a girl who has accepted terrible truths about herself and turned them into self-loathing, a girl who has started to courageously ask what’s true.  It doesn’t capture the delicious sentences and words of CHIME, the way Franny cares intensely about the musicality and craft of language.

On November 16, the National Book Award winners will be announced.  I will listen and remember sitting around this thick table, eating thick bread slices, having nourishing conversations, loving the community that keeps us going on this hard path.

Thank goodness for readers who care as much as writers about the satisfying thwuck of words on a page and for characters who seem so real–so having opened their fragile innards to you–that you close the book and imagine that when you step outside the door, you’ll see them.

Happiness and Terror

This fall when we visited the Little Family, we became part of the Big Soccer Scene of young athletes all over America.  Little Sweetie #2 dribbles naturally and easily, not looking at his feet, but in the game he waits for the ball to squirt out to him and doesn’t hurt people’s feelings for going after it.  His big sister has no such hesitations.

(Photos by their dad who got captivated by photography during a volunteer stint in Ethiopia and is itching to get back there and who also was the intense athlete of my three kids, leading to interesting life-weaving-in-circles moments for me watching soccer.)

Sports has always made sparks in my family.  My grandma (first left front) played on a basketball team that won all but one of its games for six years, starting when she was in seventh grade–and they tied that one.  When she played basketball at the College of Idaho, her father said he’d hoped she was ready to act like a young lady.  “But,” she wrote, “he never forbid my playing.”

Grandpa was one of the big kids in school.  He was hired to drive the covered wagon that Grandma rode in as a school bus, hot rocks wrapped in newspapers and blankets keeping everyone warm in winter time.  One Friday, some older boys asked the principal, “Can we go to Roswell this afternoon to play ball?”

The principal said, “Yes, you can.”   On Monday, he expelled them–on the basis of the difference between can and may.  Grandpa missed out on the rest of 8th grade.  Now that’s a serious grammar lesson.

Some people say sports should be zapped out of the school day.  Alas, I’ve also visited schools where reading aloud has been zapped out of the school day.  We can create smart, technologically adept, hard-working students if we pour their heads full of important facts…far, far better students than our grandparents were, our parents were, and we were.


Well, here’s the thing…brain research shows that what sticks is what rides in with passion.



Intense curiosity and wondering and sweat and clammy hands and giggles.

Powerful emotions make knowledge stick.

Sports are occasions for intense emotion.





Stories stir emotions, too.  They drench us with feelings.  They make the facts and understandings stick.

May all children have a chance to play with intensity.

May the children who are waiting for libraries get them.

May all children read and hear dazzling stories.

And as I arrive home, after my annual writing retreat, I say may I…and the other writers I love…learn how to write them, too.



A wonderful way to live; a terrible way to make a living

Must be brief!


I’m on a writing retreat with these author friends (and others) and I should be thinking about my fiction, NOT about Ethiopia Reads, NOT about my blog, NOT about all the other things that tug at authors including how am I going to pay the rent THIS month?

I often try to remind myself–when I get too whiny–that artists have never had an easy time of it in this world.  There’s a reason for the term starving artist.  Many artists these days are starved for time as much as money.

Yes, the chance to tell our stories–through black marks on a screen or white page, through painting, through sculpture, through the flex of muscles and the tighening of sinews as the body leaps or crouches or delivers a punch line–is precious and important.  My cowboy ancestors knew that one way to keep cold and chill and lonliness at arm’s length was to tell a story or pull out a guitar.

The arts are a wonderful way to live.

They’re just a terrible way (in most cases, for most people) to make a living.

I’m thankful this Monday morning for community…my author friends who gather with me every year to write together, talk about writing, talk about the brave new worlds of publishing, talk about what it’s like to make space for writing in often tough, usually busy lives…

…and the Vermont College MFA community–all the students and fellow faculty members and administrators and artists who keep it going and keep it strong.

This life in community is the sprinkly part of the cupcake, the thank-God-I-have-a-sleeping-bag in the howling wind brushing up against the side of the mountain where one happens to be barely stapled to a ledge.

In a world where many of our friends are virtual and rats nibble and lurk, well, YAY for retreat.

YAY for people to hold pinkies with.

YAY for families by choice and by default and by tenderness.

Onward we go.

Prickly, determined and fierce

After starting my last post with a “tag, you’re it!” I got somewhat distracted by the joys of reading and forgot where I was going with tag :>

Where I was going was to say that last weekend I played tag with three little kids–four, five and six, I think, for the first time in at least a year.

When we first moved to Lawrence, Kansas, I got to see the sweetie little kids who’d become part my life start playing with other little kids.  It’s kind of amazing and fascinating how quickly kids learn to sort themselves into who’s up, who’s down, and who’s occupying the space you want.

(Sort of like being an author, actually.)

I got to watch lots of little kids playing at the KU family housing playground.  English was never the language of choice for the adults hanging around the playground–they talked to each other mostly in Chinese, Korean, Arabic, or something else–but the children used both English and the language of bumps, shoves, giggles, and weepiness to carve out their spaces.

As I hung out in that playground over a couple of years, I was reminded that some people seem to come into this world already determined.  Sweetie kid #1 is like that.  When she was about four, she started wanting desperately to swing from the monkey bars in the KU playground–and, in the beginning, I used to hold her legs to give her enough support to make it from one side to the other.   She kept pushing.  One day, she could actually make it across by herself.  Heady with determination and success, she kept going until she could go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in any playground.  Her palms grew callouses.  When we visited Portland, my older sister told her that her arms were going to stretch out until her feet would touch the ground.  It didn’t slow her down for a second.

Last weekend, I held her little brother’s legs as he made his way across the monkey bars.  She loved the delicious scariness of hearing me galloping up behind her in the game of tag.  He didn’t.   Some kids come into the world prickly and determined.  Some come into the world sweet.

It was pretty clear in my own family that my older sister was the sweet one.  When I mentioned to my mom that some grandchildren–not to name any names–might just be more on the prickly and determined scale, she just laughed.  “You?” she said.  “You have descendents who are prickly and determined?”  I knew what she meant.

Oh well.  Even she would agree that those traits have been essential for anyone who wants to publish a book.

In the end, things tend to run in families.

Wisps of hair.

Reading habits.

Ways of looking at the world.

What we consider important and worthwhile in life.

I think of that these days as I work in my garden in the autumn Oregon rain and remember my dad’s garden in Ethiopia and how much he loved getting his hands into the dirt.  When I created Lanie and gave her a garden, it feels like I was warming up for my life this fall, compost bin and all.

I’ve been around long enough, by now, to know the truth of the old adage that it isn’t what we say but what we do that sticks.

What reading can do in Ethiopia and everywhere

Tag…you’re it.

I flew to Birmingham late last week for a visit to Jonathan, Hiwot + family and experienced the thrilldom of getting to hear Noh read out loud for the first time.  Wow.  I can tell that he’s spent years watching his older sister sound out words.  Being a second kid  has given him a lot of effective reading strategies.  Decoding is important.  But something magical happens as I watch young readers (a hard-to-describe something) that isn’t really about decoding–a kind of CLICK as sounds add themselves up into a pattern that turns into “I know that word!”

Skillful reading teachers teach kids to look at pictures as part of the overall clue for figuring out a word.  That’s one reason parents who sit and look at words and pictures with little kids are giving those kids huge benefits for their later reading lives.  It’s also one of the reasons that it’s tough to bring a reading culture to a place like Ethiopia.  Most of us in places like the U.S. and Canada and Europe aren’t even aware how much print and illustration is around us from the time we’re born.

We’re also not aware how many models we’ve had in parents, teachers, librarians, and others.  In Ethiopia, a child in school today might never have seen an adult reading.

Then there’s the complication of alphabet systems.  Ethiopia has the only alphabets to be developed in Africa that are still in use today.  (Ancient Egypt had several scripts for writing sounds and words, but those aren’t the scripts studied by children sitting in school and learning how to read now.)  And–further complication–Ethiopia has more than 80 different languages.  Not dialects.  Languages.  Ethiopian children are learning how to read in various local languages in their early years.  By high school, any child that hasn’t made the transition to reading in English, though, is unlikely to be in school at all.


 Ethiopia Reads ( has done a pretty good job of the really hard work of getting both English-language and local-language books onto the shelves of about 50 schools in Ethiopia.  That represents an enormous effort by a small number of determined volunteers, and it’s still pretty much a drop in the proverbial bucket.  But an equally enormous effort needs to be put into providing skills and ideas and approaches to a whole lot of Ethiopian adults who will be the bridge, connecting children in those schools with books.

When it comes to fundraising, it’s often easier to get those pennies for things that have a clear outcome.  A room for a library?




Books on the shelves in several languages?


But deep change comes as people have new visions and new skills and see how to take new ideas and adapt them and put them to work in their own communities.  So now it’s time to think well about professional development.

Luckily, I have a powerful vision pulling me forward through something I know may take decades if not generations.  I know what happened when my parents read to me and what happened when we read to our kids.



New thoughts.

New possibilities.

Stories that pulled us together and made us strong.

Those things are hard to measure but have meant everything to me.