Archive for November, 2011

Weird thanksgivings

My brother was reading aloud from something today that said depression rates are much higher in countries where people have more.

The gift of focus  appears when there are physical hardships that have to be overcome–and when the simple act of preparing shelter or food for a family is all-absorbing.

We know we should stay in the moment.

But can we?  Do we?

I know the gifts of being part of a disaster.  At first there was such a narrowing of attention.  Living in the day.

Later, I got to experience the pouring out of other people’s generosity and sympathy and care.

My own capacity for compassion and empathy grew, too, through experiencing the flood and having to walk away from a house and a neighborhood where so many memories and sensations were woven through.

What about failure?  Horrid failure?  The act of writing knocks the stuffing out of most people I know, including me.  It’s a much harder art form than I knew when I began.  I fail over and over again.

But there are gifts in the failure and the hair-tearing-out frustration.  I pay much better attention to the physical world when I’m writing a book.

I pay attention to the sensations inside of me, too, and to the patterns that compell and propel me through my days.  I always have something useful to do with vulnerability and humiliation.  Shaping characters who come up against obstacles and don’t do well with them is a big part of what fiction (and creative nonfiction) is all about.

Other Vermont College MFA faculty and I find ourselves saying to our writer students that it’s SUPPOSED to be hard.  What a mountain we’ve all set out to climb!  No easy, smooth, happy people need apply for the artist’s life.

Sometimes interesting words pop into my head as I think about my volunteer life with Ethiopia Reads.

You need joy.

They need books.

Want to trade?

Children everywhere need safe places to read and think and dream.

They need adult models in their lives and in the pages of books.

They need encouragement to believe in telling their own stories and finding roots and windows through other people’s stories.

 The other volunteers and I do what we do…we donate our time and money because (as this coffee expert said at one of the DC fundraisers) it gives us joy.

Yes, it’s hard.

The money is always tight.

The choices make our brains hurt.

We often want to respond to far more children than we’re able and the need is never-ending.

But I’m thankful for the toughness because it comes hand-in-hand with joy.



I ended up with four of them.

Sister relationships fill up my books and my author presentations–and now I’ve moved out to Portland where most of them live.  Feelings too deep for words are connected in weird and wonderful ways with those sisters.

My only older sister reminded us of this picture recently.  It makes me think about what novelists struggle with: human beings often wear their personalities and moods on their faces and in their bodies.  Older sister was the one, as someone said to my mom in Ethiopia (when that sister was only four), who was born a lady.  The expression on my face says irrepressible and mischief to me.  Note that I’m leaning on my older sister.

I basically wnated to be my older sister.

The sister a year younger than me looks cute and poised.  She still is.  It was thrilldom last year when she managed to get one of her boys to the Minneapolis American Girl store.

Sister Number Four looks dazed.  She’d probably been napping and her personality isn’t on her face–except that she looks calm and not easily flapped.  She’s deep and emotionally strong.  I used to wash her hair in boarding school–and she spent her college years living in the Illinois town where I had temporarily settled.

(Both that doll and the orangutan tee-shirt on the table will be part of an Ethiopia Reads fundraiser in Seattle on Dec. 17 to help kids in Ethiopia get books.)

When my brother wrote his first novel (first to get published, anyway), he created a scene where Pup gets all dressed up in finery, much to his digust.

Older sisters can be that way.  (Thanks to my son  for this one.)

So even a fun and funny book like The Pup Who Cried Wolf still embodies some of what the author knows about real life often from his or her life.

When we write and when we read, it may be partly about entertainment and distraction.  More often, it’s about deep connection–to our own lives and to the lives of other human beings.  That’s part of the power of being a reader.  Through mysterious connections in our brains, we empathize.  We see possibilities of how to live.  We come to know our sisters and brothers all over this wide and wonderful earth.

American girl, Ethiopian girl

The children’s book world is a small one.  No sooner do you insult someone in your publishing life than she shows up as the new marketing director who has absolute control over your new book :>  Authors support authors in many times and ways, too–laughing together, empathizing over the agony, celebrating the shiny spots.  It’s hard to get a big ego when you’re a children’s book author.  I love the generosity in places like the Vermont College MFA in Children’s and YA literature residencies.

So it was that one of my author friends met author Paul Acampora at Kindling Words and discovered that his daughter had posed for the Lanie books I wrote.  She dialed me up on her cell.  Next thing I knew, we were saying that a joint book signing would be a hoot.  I immediately thought…and let’s make it a fundraiser for Ethiopia Reads.

Paul told me that his daughter turned out to be eerily close to the Lanie character.

Here she is putting out food for birds.

It turned out she’s an outside girl, just like Lanie, and thinks of the little things she might do to make a difference in the lives of…well…birds.

And other living things.

I also found out that–like me–she was a more than a tad bit overwhelmed when she discovered what a big deal the Doll of the Year for American Girl really was.  She and I both had experiences when we were in American Girl stores and we were too shy to tell people in the store our connection to the big display all around us.

So we were bonded even before we met.

It took a whole year to figure out a venue that would work to have Gabrielle and me speak and sign copies of the Lanie books.

She lives near Philadelphia.

I lived, when we started this plan, in Kansas and now live in Portland.

But another generous writer friend–who has an adopted daughter from Ethiopia–ended up talking to her church near Doylestown, PA, which was putting a spotlight on reaching out to orphans one Sunday in November.

We did it!

We both got up on that stage in front of a whole room full of girls and dolls and moms and grandmas (and a few dads).

We signed books and met girls and moms and grandmas and dads who made donations to Ethiopia Reads and said things to us like, “Thanks for a fun, fun event and for the great reminders that everyone can figure out some ways to make a difference in this world.”

I’m always heartened by how much FUN people can have raising money.

It was really, really, really fun and joyful, even though the line for signing, as Gabrielle said, only seemed to get longer every time we looked up.

People really do like to gather and talk about stories and reading and writing and saving monarch butterflies and birds and plants and other precious things in our own back yards and around the world.

One of the most thrilldom things in this whole Lanie adventure has been for me to see the power of girls.

There are girls who are determined to save orangutans.

There are girls (one of them came to the event on Saturday) who go to Ethiopia when they are only in high school and volunteer in a library there.

There are girls who read stories about kids in other places and feel their curiosity and empathy genes being tickled.

There are girls who raise pumpkins and sell them or bring a book and buy a book (or do other kinds of fundraisers) to donate the proceeds to Ethiopia Reads so that girls in Ethiopia will have a chance at school…will have books to read.

Wowee.  Girl power.


Come let us reason together

My dad could sound his most Biblical and profound when he said the words, “Come let us reason together.”

I wonder if it’s maybe because he was only 18 when he joined his older brothers, left the farm in Adrian, Oregon, and went off to World War II.  He once said in an interview that when he came back, “The world was on my heart.”

Lots of those kids came back deeply changed, I know.  Not everybody ended up letting that change roll around inside his brain and heart and end up influencing him to decide to pack up three youngsters and head to Ethiopia, one of the countries devastated by World War II.

This weekend, I got to talk to two people who were in high school with me in Ethiopia.  The decisions our parents made so long ago led to feelings of alienation from our own cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents back in the U.S., in many cases, but gave us a family of cousins by shared experience rather than by blood–a family most of us then got uprooted from when WE became eighteen and left Ethiopia and sometimes never saw our Ethiopian friends and those grafted-on family members again.  (I’m the one on the right in this picture by the way.)

I fell into a conversation with one of my grafted cousins about how hard it seems for Americans to have civil conversation about important issues these days.

It’s hard for Ethiopians and Ethiopian-Americans, too.

Hard to find common ground across cultures and language lines.

Hard to find common ground within cultures and language lines.

I guess that must be part of the human condition.

Hard to listen.  Hard to not have our feeeeelings rise up and swamp us and make us mad at each other.

So weekends like mine in the DC and Philadelphia areas are particularly sweet.  Bete–on the right in this picture–is such a connector.  She planned an Ethiopia Reads event with some adoption parents that brought people together to have fun and make a difference for kids in Ethiopia.

One of the coolest things, I think, is that Bete went to high school in Addis Ababa at the girls’ school I hung around as a kid–and where my brother taught when he decided to return to Ethiopia in the 1980s.

(This is his basketball team, which won the championship that year.)

Bete and I have sweet memories of the same patches of ground in Ethiopia, even though we didn’t hang around those patches at the same time.

Now we also have sweet memories of spending time together in the school where she teaches and with our new mutual friends who put their efforts into raising money for libraries in places like this girls’ school.

We have new SWEET friends…

the best possible reason for finding a way to let our hearts respond to the words: come let us reason together.

Let’s tell our stories in the best and most honest ways we know how.

Let’s listen.

Let’s plant apple trees in Maji, where I grew up.

Let’s plant libraries in America and Ethiopia.

Let’s, like Lanie, find out we can make a difference in our own back yard or someplace far away.

Let’s create the places where we can all–big or little–feel the power of making life a little better for someone else.

Wowee, was I wrong!

Once upon a time, I was invited to be one of fourteen authors selected by Laura Bush to be part of Celebrate America’s Authors day.  Being here again in the DC area this week is making me remember.  I didn’t know that the First Lady got to choose the day before inauguration to shine a spotlight on something dear to her heart.  There was talk about bridging gaps, reaching across aisles (remember that time?), pulling people together.  And Laura Bush was an outspoken advocate for books.  I thought the next four years might lead to a joyful splash of reading in classrooms and libraries, new public money for children’s books, mini-explosions of creativity (due to newly open doors) for writers and illustrators.

Wowee, was I wrong.

I thought about that as I read author Susan Fletcher’s fascinating post about backward steps at

It’s definitely fun, productive–and, yes, embarrassing–to think about having been wrong.

An author friend laughs as she remembers talking with Kate DiCamillo about an idea Kate had for a first novel…when my friend was signing and Kate was hauling other people’s books around a warehouse.  It seemed as if Kate had some interesting ideas–but that title? My friend says,”I knew Because of Winn-Dixie would never work as a title.”

I can remember similarily embarrassing pronouncements that I made–I think only in my own mind–I hope only in my own mind about various creative projects I encountered over the years.

THAT will never fly.


I’m notoriously bad at guessing how my own books will do out in the world, too.  It was comforting to read that Mark Twain kept humiliatingly-nervously waiting and hoping with each new book that this would be the one that would make it big, big, BIG and ease his money worries.

Every time a new book comes out, I think THIS ONE.  No more starving artist.  (By the time it happened to Mark Twain, he had endured so much tragedy that he almost couldn’t enjoy the sumptuous success.)

As any bookseller can attest, just about the time you think you have consumers figured out and you order a bunch of copies of one title, it’ll be something else entirely that catches the fancy of the people attending that particular event.  It’s very hard to guess people’s tastes and what will tickle their fancies.  If it weren’t that hard, every book that authors, illustrators, editors have invested (often) years of their lives to create would make it financially out in the big, bad world.

Wowee have I been wrong about how readers would react to this book or that.  My editors have been wrong, too.  Publishing is a gambling enterprise.

Every once in a while, I’m right.

 Several years ago, I met this photographer and his niece (a reading specialist) at a DC event.  I thought then they were the kind of people who had big dreams and might be able to help sometime with my dream of getting books to Ethiopian kids.  Last night, I met them again.  Andarge Asfaw and his wife hosted an Ethiopia Reads event at Spa Mesu, their business.  They were generous hosts in an elegant place, and I walked away feeling energized and thrilled by all the volunteer effort that goes into Ethiopia Reads, from adoption families, Ethiopian Americans, and those who love reading and writing and children.

It should also be said, I knew the team that put this event together would succeed.

How did I know?

Well, I’d worked with Bete Yilma, one of the organizers before.  I met one of the adoptive moms at Julie’s event in LA last spring.  But I also knew they didn’t have much time and that it’s terrifically hard for volunteers to plan and organize and run something (especially without much time) and that people who might come to an event like this are insanely busy.

We all are.

Somehow, I knew it would be great.

On Thursday at 7, I’ll speak at Jefferson Middle School in Arlington and we’ll do a drawing for a Lanie doll and the school community will think about how they want to get involved with Ethiopia Reads in the coming year.

On the 12th, I’ll have the fun chance to meet (and present with) the artist who drew the pictures for the Lanie books and the girl who posed for those pictures.  We’ll talk about the creative process–what it’s like to be a writer, an illustrator, a model.  That event (hosted by Covenant Church in Doylestown, PA) will also be a benefit for Ethiopia Reads.

The Spa Mesu event is sending me into those events with a smile because wowee, was I right!  It was terrific.

Are you a philanthropist?

When I was in Seattle last month, I was startled to be introduced to the amazon employees who came to hear my presentation as a philanthropist.  I associate that word with a person who has a kind heart–maybe a deep ethical stance–and financial resources to share with the world.  Ummm…me?  That last bit is probably the opposite of my life as starving artist.

The more I think about it, though, the more I know I’ve met all kinds of philanthopists in the past 10 years of volunteering with Ethiopia Reads (  Some of those philanthropists are awfully young.  Some have almost no money left over to share once they pay their bills.  Some, like me, might laugh at the label.

When the Ethiopia Reads board had conversations last year about this time with Dana Roskey, founder of the Tesfa Foundation, about whether we might start some deep collaboration, he said that he always tries to make decisions first with the children of Ethiopia in mind.  Second, he said, he thinks about donors.  “Most of our donors aren’t rich–and they deserve to know the impact their efforts are making.  Philanthropy shouldn’t be reserved only for the rich.”

It struck me as just right.

Since then, I’ve gotten to see some of the faces of the kids he was talking about that day, the ones who are in school because of the Tesfa Foundation and now will have books and libraries because of Ethiopia Reads.  I’ve had hundreds of conversations with Dana about the challenges of getting information to donors and volunteers, always time consuming and sometimes so tough that we don’t do it well in spite of our determination.

These last two months of the year are times when a lot of people consider joy…think about hope flickering like a light at the edge of darkness.   It’s a time when I’ll be deeply thankful for the philanthropists on my team.

November 6, I’ll be talking about Ethiopia Reads in Silver Spring, MD, thanks to Bete and Cindy and their team.

November 10, I’ll be doing author presentations and talking about Ethiopia Reads at Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, VA, thanks to Randy, one of the Fulbright-Hayes team.

November 12, I’ll have a chance to do a presentation at Covenant Church in Doylestown, PA–a benefit for Ethiopia Reads–with the artist who created the pictures for my books about Lanie, American Girl Doll of the Year 2010 and with the girl who was his model for the pictures.  A big thank-you to Terry and her team.

December 15, I may or may not have the chance to be part of an event in New York City just being planned by Tigist and her team.

December 17, I’ll be speaking at an auction being organized by the mom of these young philanthropists in Seattle.  Thanks, Ellenore. for a few more details and some GREAT pictures.

A donor asked me today what keeps me enthused and going with Ethiopia Reads, knowing how draining and demanding volunteer work can be.  I found myself saying this…I believe almost anyone I know would respond if I said something like this: in your community, you can touch the most brilliant, motivated, determined kids and families and get them excited about books.

Well, that’s how it is in Ethiopia.

In many of our U.S. communities–since we’ve been pretty good problem solvers–the problems left are pretty intractible.  People like me without much time or money don’t know if we can make a difference.  When it comes to the projects in Ethiopia, not so.  I absolutely know that people like Julie and Ellenore and Tafesse and Dana and Tigist and Frew and Ann and Chris and so many others are flinging seeds that will root and grow.

 Being an artist is often like knocking myself against a rock.

Creating books takes everything I’ve got.

Selling them?


But sharing books through Ethiopia Reads?  Seeing readers respond to other readers and spread the stories?

Easy-peasy to figure that one out.

That’s joy.