Archive for March, 2017

Creating books

I’ve published an interesting bunch of 30+ books–fiction, nonfiction, picture books, easy readers, middle grade and young YA novels. I’ve written articles and short stories and magazine pieces and grant proposals and memos. (When I taught Business and Technical Writing at the University of North Dakota, one of my favorite assignments was a memo announcing a new no-smoking policy: words have weight and reverberations.)

Never before have I been the one in charge of shepherding books from a glimmering idea…an urge of a story wanting to be written…all the way to kids reading it for the first time.


But then along came Ready Set Go Books.

First, I got to inspire some illustrations and even try my own hand at some.


A few kids helped with writing the stories, but mostly that’s been the job of my older sister and me, two writers who used to love making up and acting out stories when we were kids in Ethiopia and who traveled back to that beloved spot last year.


We’re pretty tough editors of each other’s and our own writing, too.

But then came things I’ve never had to think about–like layout. One of my author-illustrator friends helped by creating thumbnails for one of the stories I’d written. (It was about a lion, and she’s published a book about lions!)

A young illustrator then took Jo’s thumbnails and turned them into characters for one of the Ready Set Go books.

2016 lionlion

It’s been great fun to think about the impact that page turns have on the pacing and interest of a story. Not as much fun…copy editing. LOTS of it.

WEEMA logoEastside display

But now, thanks to lots of guidance and help from Eastside Printing in Portland, donors, creative volunteers, and an NGO (WEEMA) that ordered 1000 books, I’ll soon get to see kids reading the first 10 books that exist (so far) in four languages.

Wowie zowie.   Ready.   Set.   Go.

at the printer


Travels and the writing life

When I talk to young writers and when I have conversations with MFA students in the Vermont College of Fine Arts program, I like to imagine I can take a bit of the mystery out of words like “inspiration” and “imagination” by pointing to ways that details and scenes in my books have grown out of observation.

An Icelandic proverb says, “Keen is the eye of the visitor.” Isn’t that one reason travel writing is so vivid and compelling?

When everything is off-balance, our senses go on high alert. When we can’t understand the language, we start relying on other ways of taking in information. I learned these things growing up in Ethiopia.


I experienced the Icelandic truth all over again recently traveling in Guatemala and doing an author visit in Russia.

tuk tuk

Embarrassing as it is to admit, Guatemala was only part of a blur of Central American countries until we visited Brian and Sandi, Presbyterian social workers living there and working on issues of women’s human rights to things like safety and education and jobs.

girl with her basket

I listened. I learned. I saw connections to my books…

boy with pigeons

Boy with pigeons in the park

The biggest thrilldom in Russia was getting two days of talking to readers and writers there–Russian, American, Canadian, Australian, Jamacian, Czech…so many word people from all over the world. So much to soak up. So much to share.



And oh the stories! Who knows how these images and feelings will seep into my writing.