Archive for January, 2012

Regale me with deliciousness

Being an writer breaks hearts left, right, center and all the time.  When I first met Toni Buzzeo, she was school librarian goddess of Maine, a smart and determined connector of kids and books.  I did an author visit in her school and said, “Wowee.  You have to write about how you do this!”

She agreed.  Toni and I wrote a book about terrific connections between schools and authors, illustrators, and storytellers.  But she was longing to publish a children’s book, herself, and she started a writing retreat in Maine (now near Boston) where she and I write and talk together every fall.

I remember the achey-breaky-heart retreat when Toni was in despair over having written so much, revised so much, submitted so much, and been rejected so much.  She wailed that she’d never get a book published.

Failure is a constant in our writing and publishing world.  Acccccccccccccccccck.  It’s enough to make anyone weep.

Well, guess what?  This week, Toni’s newest book has its debut–in the #10 spot of the New York Times Bestseller picture book list.

I remember when this book was a vague glimmer in Toni’s brain.

I remember watching her sit and laugh with one of our author friends on retreat as she shaped and re-shaped the story.

I remember giving suggestions and listening to various readings and cheering it on.  And of course I remember that retreat when she was in the depths of despair and thought she’d never get even one book published.

Toni and I first bonded over a story she’d written that came out of her first trip to Kenya.  Right now, she’s now on her way to author visits at international schools in Ethiopia and Kenya.  Via phone, we got to jump around some before she left.  I told her I needed her to regale me with the deliciousness of the whole cool story, and she did.

Triumph!  As Lanie would say, “Thrilldom!”  Every once in a while, everything clicks.

Author Philip Pullman, in his Isis lecture writes, “Writing a story feels to me like fishing in a boat at night. The sea is much bigger than you are, and the light of your little lamp doesn’t show you very much of it. You hope it’ll attract some curious fish, but perhaps you’ll sit here all night long and not get a bite.”

Most of my efforts–whether my pages of fiction or my volunteer work for Ethiopia Reads–don’t get a bite.

In Ethiopia, schools have creative ways of getting words and pictures to kids.  Books are expensive to produce.  A lot of classrooms have 0 books so, as my brother says, lots of kids are doing the hard work of learning to read–with no books TO read.

Why do he and I think that’s so awful?

Why do he and I donate so much time and effort to Ethiopia Reads when we should be writing more books?

Look at this picture of Opening Day and listen to Philip Pullman again:

“Stories are written to beguile, to entertain, to amuse, to move, to enchant, to horrify, to delight, to anger, to make us wonder.”


Those who focus on only standardized tests and fill in the blank sheets (for example) “seem to have completely forgotten the true purpose of literature, the everyday, humble, generous intention that lies behind every book, every story, every poem: to delight or to console, to help us enjoy life or endure it. That’s the true reason we should be giving books to children.”

So Opening Day this spring at the newest library in Ethiopia?  New partners in the work to share teacher-to-teacher, reader-to-reader in Ethiopia? Regale me with more of the deliciousness of THAT.


The gorgeous chaos

“Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world.”  Diane Ackerman

Here’s a powerful word.  GIRLPOD.

Have a girl?  Are a girl?  Want to make a difference for a girl?

Think about girlpods and “Hope by 12”:  “When a girl who lives in poverty turns twelve her life is in the hands of others.  We HOPE to catch that girl BY the age of TWELVE and give her a healthy future.”

Here’s another powerful word.   WATER.

Take a shower today?  Drink something clean and yummy?  If so, did you feel a sense of intense gratitude?

I remember visiting the very first library Ethiopia Reads opened and watching the hygiene program going on every Saturday for some of the kids who didn’t have a chance to wash their clothes or hair at home.  (This picture was taken at the mercato school where one of the newest libraries is going in.)

I also remember when Liz told me she was going to raise $150,000 to bring clean water to the area where her adopted Ethiopian son had been born.

$150,000?  The amount made us stagger back.

But she did it.  Her website says, “When the burden of water collection and water borne illness is lifted, girls can remain in school and women can invest more time on family life, agriculture and owning small businesses.”

Hope is a powerful word.

The community center of AHOPE cares for Ethiopian children with HIV, and Ethiopia Reads will be helping with professional development for the library manager who will help spread books to those children and their community.

This week, five moms of adopted children from Ethiopia, one Ethiopian educator whose life was changed by books, and two of us from Ethiopia Reads sat around a table and talked about what we dream for Ethiopian children for 2012.

Dream is a powerful word.

Collaboration is a powerful word.

Thank you, Molly and Liz and Habtamu and Jennifer and Meghan.

Isn’t is amazing what we think we can do?

May we all be creative together as we share words and worlds.

If you could…would you?

Recently I’ve been mulling this question:

If you could spend a modest amount of money or time and open the world of reading for the most brilliant, motivated, determined kids in your neighborhood, would you?

I think most of my friends wouldn’t pause to answer a big ol’ YES.

(The reader in this picture is the brilliant, motivated, determined young reader who was in my neighborhood once upon a time–my daughter, now in a PhD program in English literature.)

Many of my friends are teachers, librarians, writers…all of those avid readers…who have seen the thrilldom of watching the power of a book to open the world around and inside a child.

Pure joy.

And that’s the joy of volunteering for Ethiopia Reads (

I spent a lot of this week preparing for our annual board retreat that will happen in Denver next week.  I had a phone conversation with another I’m-hooked Ethiopia volunteer about a young Ethiopian man who will be part of planning conversations in Denver.  He was born into an unusual family in a remote part of Ethiopia and now has a masters degree and wants to figure out how to get books to young people in the area where he grew up.  His reading journey shows that even a thin lifeline will be grabbed by those with fierce determination and courage.  Lucky reader. Lucky us.

Yesterday, I spent an hour or more on the phone with Stephanie from Art Aid International who took this picture when she was visiting one of the libraries Ethiopia Reads planted in 2011.  An eagle appeared–no, literally–on her end while we were talking.

I feel powerful wings flapping around this particular chance to bring art and literature into the lives of kids.

How many readers in 2012 will see that brilliant, motivated, determined youngsters are in our neighborhood (even though they live in far-away Ethiopia) and we can spend modest amounts of money and time and get them books?

My experience tells me the answer is…a LOT.

Can you believe that in 2011 donors raised or gave money for a model school library in all but one of the eleven regions in Ethiopia?

I barely can believe it myself.

Stephanie volunteered in Ethiopia in December and wrote about this scene:

“Meanwhile, inside the library, a local Ethiopian artist named Aklilu was working with the kids on a project where children became the ‘canvas.’  They used what they found outside the school to turn themselves into beautiful flowers. The idea was to get them to think about the things around them every day that they can create with. They don’t have to wait for art class to be creative.  All one needs is imagination.”

A retreat takes imagination, too.

We’ll have to imagine outcomes and wrestle tough questions.

Should we set up literacy and library situations where we can have more control over quality or should we do what we can to work with overcrowded, intense government schools where thousands of kids are learning to read without ever holding a book?

Should we build schools in regions where there are none?  (Lots of money needed for that.)

Should we focus on improving schools?  (Money goes further, but can we make ENOUGH difference?)

Should we reach some communities with deep, inter-connected services or a lot of communities with a little bit–knowing even a little will surely be enough for some kids?

Can we find new creative ways to get books and reading to lots of kids?

We’ll experiment with all of the above in 2012 and hope to have some answers for 2013.

And while we experiment, we’ll feel the thrilldom you feel when you flip a last page and turn to someone and say, “Wow.  You have to read this!”

The thrilldom you feel when you watch a child whose mind seems to suddenly go…


The thrilldom of spending a modest amount of money and time and opening the world of reading for some resourceful, motivated, determined kids who share this earth with us.

Small consolations

Back home from Christmas wanderings, I just listened to a song that was shared this year by an author friend whose heart is deeply sweet and whose words are silky and rhythmic on the tongue:  As I listened, what I thought about…again…was losing the Christmas box in the flood of 1997.  When we threw away the soggy ornaments we’d collected during those years our kids were little–when we threw away the things they’d made in school…the handprints, the rock-and-roll angel–I lost a chunk of Christmas tree love.  Now it’s all just memory.

Today is Ethiopian Christmas.  More memory.

In Ethiopia, my dad would head out in mid-December to survey the cedar trees that stood in a circle in the compound where our family, a nurse, and a teacher lived, the only English-speakers of my world.  He’d find a branch and saw it off.  That was the Christmas tree.  My sisters and I helped Mom put on the same glass ornaments, one or two crinkling on the concrete floor into a pile of glass splinters.  We’d use the same silvery icicles each year.  They got shorter and more crumped each year.  Dad would put a mirror in the middle of the table and pile cotton around it and bend pipe cleaners to create skaters.

Skaters weren’t part of our world.  They were from his childhood…the frozen rivers and ponds of eastern Oregon where he and his brothers would slip and slide and warm up by the flaming barrels.

My sisters and I read about ice and snow.

It made us scoop up handfuls of dried grass that the school boys left lying when they took the small scythes to the long grasses in the compound.   We polished slabs of cardboard with that grass.  When the slabs were shiny, we took more grass and created paths down the hillside.  We spent hours zipping down the paths.

Was this what it was like to ride a sled down the snow hills like in the books?

One of my sisters ended up settling in Minnesota.  My dad loved to visit during winter time and help her kids create snow paths down the hill.  In those years in Maji, though, snow was only a dream, only something to read about, only something that seemed magical and amazing and always far, far away.

The year I was seven and we spent one year in Boise, Idaho, I got to experience snow.  Somehow it wasn’t like the snow of my dreams, the snow of the books.

Snow came to stand for not fitting in, the awkwardness of life in the United States when we visited.

I was thinking about all of this in a book discussion group this morning, talking about the luminous book Cutting for Stone. 

“We come unbidden into this life,” Abraham Verghese writes, “and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot.”

There is purpose to awkwardness.

There is purpose to isolation and feeling out of place and ill at ease.



there is the dream of a different way.

Sometimes there are words and songs and speeches and the other small consolations.  May we all find the small consolations…and the dreams.

Story power rippling on

A new year always seems to be a time to pause, raise my head, and look around.  Get my bearings.  Figure out not only what kinds of visions and resolutions pull me forward into the next year of my life but also where I’ve been–and perhaps don’t wish to go again!

Ethiopia celebrates the turning of the year in September when the rains are over and yellow meskel flowers dot the fields, so Jan. 1 meant nothing to me growing up–in fact, nothing until I happened to have a baby on Dec. 31.   In those days, we were often in Kansas for Christmas.  Jonathan felt cheated not to be with his friends for his birthday.  A New Year’s Eve birthday tends to get swallowed by Christmas.

Two years ago, I flew to Chicago on New Year’s Eve so that I could do my first Lanie signing in the Chicago American Girl store on Jan. 1 and introduce my character to the world.

Even though I knew the American Girl Doll of the Year was a Big Deal, I was unprepared for what it would be like to see a character that had been born in my brain and my fingers all huge and sprung to life.  I was stunned to find that families had waited for hours in the Chicago cold for the doors to open.In the daze, I felt the flutter of monarch wings in the air, sending hopeful bits out into 2010.  A few days ago, I read this article about Lanie readers and knew that those monarch wings did, indeed, have some power.

That’s the thrilldom of writing.

It’s pretty agonizing, crafting a novel.  For me, anyway, it’s a series of missteps, stumbling along through the haze, laying down path and ripping it up again when I turn out to have gone somewhere unfortunate.  Right now, I’m mourning the fact that I won’t be teaching at the Vermont College MFA residency this January (because I have international speaking this spring and also want some space to get my own writing done for a few months) where at least I get to have the sensation of groping through the fog with others crazy enough to have a passion for this tough journey of writing fiction.

I will get to have an Ethiopia Reads board retreat in Denver, though.  Just as it’s precious to have fellow writers around for the journey, I’ve learned that a huge part of my satisfaction as a volunteer is fellow volunteers.  2011 was a year of getting to know Stephanie, an artist who travels to Ethiopia once a year to do art with kids in the Tesfa schools that will now also have libraries and literacy projects, thanks to families like the amazing Angelidis family in Seattle.  Stephanie and I were agreeing that getting to share the art forms we’re passionate about makes all the volunteer hours a joy.  (Well, okay, it makes MOST of the volunteer hours a joy.)

Readers love to share a story that has made their hearts go pitter pat.

Have you ever said to a friend, “You HAVE to read this book”?

Have you ever giggled with a friend as you shared a story?

Have you ever been part of a book club?

Have you ever given one of your favorite books as a present to someone else?

If you’re a reader, I’m sure you have.

That’s the pleasure of Ethiopia Reads (

In 2012, I know there will be new volunteers, new donors who open new libraries and help ship books and provide the funding for professional development so that authors and teachers in Ethiopia get to grab hold of new skills to share books.  I can’t wait to get back to my own stories and to also see story power floating out into the world, rippling on.