Archive for the ‘Maji’ Category

A Woman Walked Into a Picture Book…


After decades of publishing books that have sometimes been called lyrical and important and poetic, I’m about to publish a picture book that my friend Carmen Bernier Grand calls hilarious.

Zoo poo

Thanks, Carmen.

Ironically, this book was born in a brainstorming session where my writer retreat friends and I were making each other laugh—and the idea for it wasn’t even mine. I was just the one who seriously wanted it. Now it’s about to come out and I’m terrified.

Aren’t you often terrified?

Art makes us vulnerable, and the sea can be so brutal.

My writer friends and I sometimes shout, “Back, back, Fearnando.”

Poor Fearnando. He just wants to protect us. As shame guru Brene Brown (she of the academic research around vulnerability) tells us, “The message is, do it! Get your courage on, but be clear that it won’t be easy. It’s going to feel like shit.”

(This is an appropriate message from someone who would write What Do They Do With All That Poo.)

zoo poo 2

Humor is, well, fun and games. Right up to the point someone slips on a banana peel.

I thank my lucky stars that one day I took a deep breath and began to sing as part of my Vermont College of Fine Arts lecture (which is another story) and Cate introduced herself afterwards and admitted she sings and…

VCFA singing

…Reader, we sang. (Singing in public is scary. It’s a lot like telling a joke. Do you feel—as I do at times—that you can die from scary? But do you also feel more alive when you’re taking risks?)

Cate also wrote her critical thesis on funny picture books, and since I was her adviser I got to think about all of this. A lot. (Thank you, Cate—and she’s going to post for all of us later this month and give us all kinds of wisdom about why women feel they are so shut out of humor in picture books.)

That’s why I read an article called “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian” ( about how humor dances on the edge of the unacceptable. Is often transgressive. As the article says, “Go purely light-hearted and you risk being toothless. Too edgy, and you’ll make people uncomfortable.”

It made me look inside for part of the answer. Good girls don’t bite. Luckily, I was born fierce. (So was my daughter, who demanded that her teachers have a sense of humor. So was my granddaughter–as you can see.)

My mom recently asked me, “When did you get to be so civilized?” Well, Mom, it happens to the best of us. But Mom herself was pretty unconventional–tough, but also witty. When I was growing up in rural Ethiopia and we were given a chicken to carry with us in the Jeep, I made her laugh and laugh by announcing, “I smell something foowwwwl.”

I did not win any good-kid awards in my family. I did get to feel the zingy power that comes from making someone laugh.

My dad loved a funny story, too. And in my family we didn’t get the memo that only boys get to take after Dad–because for a long time there weren’t any.

Humor. Often so uncivilized. I have a feeling we’ll have to push hard to wedge this particular door open wider because there’s a lot at stake in seeing women as sweet and ladylike. Grandmas? We wear aprons and are jolly and warm and comforting. In other words, on the other side of the door, a big sweaty mass is pushing back.

Brene Brown says, “I want to create. I want to make things that didn’t exist before I touched them. I want to show up and be seen in my work and in my life. And if you’re going to show up and be seen there is only one guarantee. And that is, you will get your ass kicked.”

I don’t like getting my ass kicked. I—like you, like all humans, probably–have been on a lifelong quest to get over shame. To actively…with big gulps…resist the idea that I was born to sit down and shut up and make myself small.


When the sea is brutal, there’s only one real boat for me.

The sisterhood.

sisters at beach

Yes, I mean my actual sisters (and my brother, too) who make me laugh harder than anybody else can.

I also mean my sisterhood of writer friends. For example, recently Jennifer Jacobson and I have been exchanging manuscripts and we ask each other for help in answering how can this story take more risks, be more inventive, be more muscular?

And I mean the sisterhood of teachers, librarians, academics, reviewers who can use their power to amplify the voices of the small peepers down here up to our eyeballs in sand.

Maybe a woman walked into a bar…and walked away with a black eye.

But maybe the sisters are there with ice packs and raw beef.

Didn’t we once, long ago, burn our bras together and feel the power?




2018 dawns full of emotion and the messy glory of life

Mid-January, I was battling both rain and snow (which of course = ice) at Vermont College of Fine Arts and loving doing the picture book workshop at residency with ten students eager to learn about this quirky genre + Liz Garton Scanlon + Ashley Wolff showing us how life looks from the illustrator’s point of view. VCFA

As I always do, I had one of my own manuscripts open–a picture book I’ve been working on–and as I sat through lectures and readings about the amazing and complicated craft of writing, I was jotting down ideas and zingy snippets that came to me. Doodling and moodling.

On a break, I listened to a voice mail from the hospice nurse who had been stopping in to visit my mom for nearly a year. “Please call me,” it said. I texted my sisters and asked someone to give me a call. “Please call me,” one of my sisters texted back, a few hours later.

Oh, Mom.

She was always so ready to go for it. So hard to pin down and box in. Such a lover of words and books. Someone whose life was saved by reading and by being intellectually curious and open to learning more, more, more.

For her memorial, we are taking donations to print the first set of Ready Set Go books in the language of Dizi, heart language of Maji, where most of my sisters and I learned to read and put down roots in this life, where we acted out stories and fell in love with the earth and life and family with its messy glories, as one of my author friends put it.

dog 5

Dogs and chickens may run in front of you. The thief may take advantage of chaos. Life may slam you and knock your feet out from under you, but stories are something to cling to when everything else is shaking.

Or so it has been for us–my parents and siblings riding the rapids in the same boat.




The joys and agonies of bookmaking

Early in 2016, my sister Caroline Kurtz and I took a group of artists to Maji, Ethiopia, the place where she and I spent long, magical days making up and acting out stories–and where I learned to read.

artist car

When we returned to Addis Ababa, we tried our hand at a bookmaking workshop–the first time I truly faced the challenges of actually creating books rather than being the person who writes the words.


Luckily for me, one of the artists from the trip–Troy Zaushny–took the individual pictures children had created after listening to Yacob and Nahosenay read the stories aloud and used digital design to create a digital version of a first book.


My dream was to have playful, appealing, colorful, culturally appropriate and easy-to-read books in local languages. Back in Portland, Caroline and I found ready volunteers to help with writing and illustration…we had to hunt much harder and follow many dead-end paths with translation and design. In the end, under the guidance of East Side Printing here in Portland, we did a lot of the layout ourselves, discovering why book publishers have to hire people to handle design, fonts, copy editing, etc. What an education!

But a year later, WEEMA, an NGO that works in the rural area of Kembata-Tembaro where they have built a public library and started some kindergartens, got a donation for 600 books. Caroline will also carry some books for an Ethiopia Reads school in Oromia when she travels to Ethiopia next month. What an accomplishment of volunteers using their talents to share book love!


Can’t wait to start on the next ten!


Don’t leave home without it…

A team, I mean.


Too many things go wrong on the road. People get sick or turn out to have needs or expectations that we were barely able to articulate ahead of time. Obstacles wave their tentacles until you can hardly think.  Even unexpected opportunities–like waterfalls–knock the day’s plans askew–let alone the day in Maji we suddenly got the chance to jump in the car and galumpf down the road that our family used every time we needed to meet or catch a plane when I was young.


Ato Marcos

Ato Marcos, one of our hosts in Maji, told Caroline that he hardly notices the flowers around him, and he was surprised to see the artists taking pictures of them. “I thought, if they think this little flower is beautiful, what will they think of nifas bir?” he said to her.  Nifas bir. Gate of the wind.  A spot of childhood nightmares for me.

more nifas bir

It’s hard to capture vast landscapes…how narrow the road is in this spot…how far it drops on both sides.  Far in the distance, you can see a mountain beyond which is Kenya.  You can see down, down into the lands where the Surma roam and where Odyssey I unfolded.

We were willing to set aside our plans that day–a carful of artists–and just go. I got to see what it was like in the artists’ vehicle and how their driver was part of the team, too, used to stopping and having them all leap out and snap photos.

road to nifas bir

Just like in my childhood, the car got hung up on a rock and couldn’t move, at one point, so Stephanie Schlatter and I walked ahead.  I got to see nifas bir through the eyes of a painter for a few minutes.

nifas bir with Stephanie

amazing note

Sometimes a team is hard because everyone’s priorities have to be taken into consideration. Sometimes, though, the team spurs you on and helps you see things through new eyes and gives you courage to carpe the diem and not miss something precious.

artist car

One of the most delightful parts of being on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts is the chance to hang around with fellow writers for 10 days every residency. And in Maji, I got to hang around with painters. I wish everyone the joy of being on a team with artists.

Holding pinkies around the globe

I know to my bones how important it is to be humble and playful as we dance up to the cultural divide and stare over.  Respectful curiosity goes a long way. Calmness goes a long way.  Hubris is a good thing to leave behind.

The community of third culture kids is deep and wide with many things to separate us from each other–but I’ve never met another third culture kid who didn’t seem a lot like me.  And when we talk about respect for other cultures…well…I think that’s really important, of course. But I also think there is a culture of women around the globe. There is a culture of readers and writers and artists.  We  have lots of common ground.

This is an Ethiopia Reads school being built.  It’s a great image for how I feel as I set out for Odyssey II.  Precarious. Hanging on the edge. But aware of those holding my hand.1 foundation of support for building projects

Three writers (one who is pretty good in Amharic), two American painters, an amateur photographer who wants to help document the trip, two Ethiopian painters…we’re going to see what we can do to create our own art together but also to start creating a body of simple, playful, culturally appropriate, local language books that can go into the schools and libraries where Ethiopian kids are just learning to read.

1 Stephanie

Stephanie Schlatter, the American artist here, has done a lot of art work with kids in Ethiopia.  As she and I have discussed, visual art dodges the language question that is so hard as we struggle with sharing books.  I believe we will find the shared language of art on this trip and we will come back changed…if nothing else from a week lived off the electric grid.

1 empowering women through strong models

Tough team.  Watch this space for more!

Stories circle the globe  I’m super jazzed to talk with my Vermont College of the Fine Arts students about how to think about the progression of a tale. I’m also super jazzed to see what this artistic collaboration can bring to some very simple, easy-to-read stories that can be used by Ethiopian educators, especially after they’re translated into various local languages.  I created this one from a story that’s told in Ethiopia and around the world…and Noh and Ellemae and I tried to teach ourselves a tiny bit about how illustrators work with perspective. See what you think.

01 turtle flower

She talked about flowers.

01 turtle ants

01 turtle wanted to touch clouds

01 turtle eagle

01 turtle touch clouds

01 turtle flying


01 turtle last picture

01 turtle goat friend



And another simple story for Ethiopia

01 secret a bag

01 secret what's inside

01 secret jumps01 secret thuds

01 secret

01 secret is out

01 secret last page

Our challenge to ourselves–a third grader, a fifth grader and me–was to think of American sayings or proverbs or idioms that we could turn into simple, easy-to-read stories.  These will be translated into various local languages. And of course part of the collection, ultimately, will be stories made from Ethiopian sayings or proverbs or idioms, too.