Posts Tagged ‘Ethiopia Reads’

Blogging for Ethiopia Reads

I’ve written a few blog posts to share the new bookmaking project with Ethiopia Reads supporters.  The second one just went up today:

Meanwhile, as I describe where the inspiration came from for these new stories, I am blown away by the powerful example of how Stephanie Schlatter as a painter gets similar flashes of inspiration from the world she sees:

The road between Tum and Maji as we returned one evening last month…acaciainspire2-3616.jpg

And one of Stephanie’s paintings.


I also was awash with warm memories of the Ethiopia Heritage and Culture Camp near DC as I looked through pictures of the time my son and his wife and their kids joined me.

Ellemae at camp

Noey at camp

Awwwww.  So glad they worked with me on creating these new stories for Ethiopia Reads.

Drinking water???

I like global projects that leave everyone surprised and a little more open-hearted.

I am significantThis photo is from a day when artist Stephanie Schlatter and her artist friend Aklilu decided to show kids in Ethiopia that anything can be a canvas–including YOU.

Today my neighbor was telling me about a time when he was a young man in Vietnam and talking to a farmer in a remote place. The guy wasn’t at all astonished when my neighbor hold him that Americans would soon land on the moon. Of course Americans would do that. He wasn’t fazed when my neighbor told him that when he returned home to Oregon, he was going to buy a car. But, my neighbor said, “when I told him that in America we wash our cars with drinking water, he leaped back in disbelief and shock.”

I like projects that illustrate community power–what happens when people put their skills and assets together to see what can be created.

1 empowering women through strong modelsI’ve helped raise money for school building and library planting in Ethiopia. The 2016 Maji trip will be different. I don’t yet know quite what it will look like. I do know that I’m drawn to a project of apple trees planted in the dream that some day apples can be sold to create, oh, a kindergarten, perhaps.

In my Portland neighborhood, the Woodlawn Triangle, we have a Facebook page called Foodlawn where people can arrange to trade food–last summer, for example, I traded tomatoes for duck eggs.  I also got to know a young neighbor who had a large sunny yard and neither time nor knowledge to grow vegetables. She and one of my sisters and I created a community vegetable garden with only three participants–not me, myself and I, but close.

Mid June (1)

In my own backyard, I’m creating wildlife habitat. I don’t really have either the sun or the flat spaces for edibles except in pots.


But three of us in the Woodlawn neighborhood putting what we have together = some new astonishment each time I got there.  This morning, for example…

Mid June (5)

almond tree

Mid June (6)


Mid June (8)


IMG_0932Abundance for all.


DCIM100MEDIATeacher strike averted. So, so glad that people like my bro–who takes time to sing with his third graders and fills their brains with good books AND has built a donkey for an Ethiopia Reads Bring a Book Buy a Book project is on the job and not on the picket line.

One thing that kills me is that in my lifetime as a teacher, I saw a lot of schools go from places where kids sat frozen in desks doing worksheets to places where kids had classroom libraries and wrote books and did lots of hands-on projects to places where kids are sitting frozen in desks doing worksheets.

DCIM100MEDIAWorksheets and tests are the way we gather data.  But our utter faith in gathering data is getting in the way of good instruction.  Up with making donkeys and learning about kids who love books and school a half a world away!

100_0213The Ethiopia Reads horse powered literacy project reaches kids too remote (so far) to have access to school. Sometimes as many as two hundred kids gather to listen and learn.

I’m thinking about reading and writing and learning because, this has been a week where I put on my own teacher hat and respond to what my Vermont College of the Fine Arts MFA students are sending in their packets. It always fascinates me to think about how people learn to write dazzling fiction. How did I learn? What helped along the way? Some people would say it can’t be taught. I know from my own experience that certain skills and approaches and useful ways of thinking about the words on the page CAN be taught.DSC04782

I’m re-reading Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf–seen here at her desk. I got to talk with her briefly in her office at Tufts about a project she’s been doing in Ethiopia that’s pretty fascinating.

What are we all capable of learning and doing?

As a teacher said to me last year, schools have gotten pretty good at gathering data but we gather far more than we have time (or sometimes expertise) to analyze well and use to draw useful conclusions. In the meantime, it seems we forget the basics of what we already know–that young kids like to do what the beloved adults in their lives like to do; thus, there is power in modeling a passion for reading and writing.  That people will do the hard work of reading when they are gripped by a story or an idea, and we need librarians and teachers who know and love books and know and love students and can match the two up. That humans are innately curious and nimble-minded and will often grab the slightest thread in their eagerness to learn and grow.  Read the article and see what I mean!

ChrislibOf course, it won’t surprise you that I think books and learning WITH a great teacher is even better.


Teacher strikes

1 teachersEmotions are sizzling in Portland as the public school teachers–including my brother and sister-in-law–go on strike next week. Eeek.

Overpaid whiners? People actually write that? In public? These days? Eeeek.

I’ve worked with so many amazing educators–classroom teachers and librarians–in the past 10 years.  And of course I am a teacher. I’m on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts in the MFA program. cookingI started my adult life as a teacher of writing in an alternative school–here are some of my students cooking up something to write about. And what I know is that teaching is hard. Exhilarating. But hard.

mishmash 009So much of what people think they know about teaching and learning comes from their own days as a student or from what seems as if it would make sense. Learning to read, for instance, seems to be a matter of associating sounds with letters…and for many (most?) people it does start that way. But everyone who has watched a person start to read knows that something mysterious happens, too. Skillful readers look at black marks on a white page and somehow absorb a lot of information in a flash–including context clues having to do with pictures and the other words in the sentence–that allows them to recognize words and also infer what’s beyond the words.

Brain research shows that information that comes associated with emotion tends to stick.  Stories, anyone?kids with netelas

And yet a lot of educational policy is constructed as if teaching and learning were simple. As if it didn’t take innovative, thoughtful, patient, hopeful people with lots and lots of different skills and the willingness to try and adjust and re-try and be kind in the process.

Chris readingMy brother and I have taught together, done author visits together, taken teacher groups to Ethiopia to share skills and ideas with educators there. I trust him to make learning interesting and fun.  I know him to be someone who never stops thinking about how to be a better writer, a better reader, and a better teacher.

KSGreat educators–like this Kansas librarian who has helped with Ethiopia Reads and with the research for Anna Was Here–know books and know kids and know how to connect them. They know what’s working and what isn’t in schools. Are we listening?

As an Oregon parent wrote in her blog, it’s great to have lots of ideas about how to make things better for kids in school everywhere. “However, no matter how we envision public education in this country, one thing seems obvious to me: teachers are the heart of our system. If you’ve gone through school—any school—you know this is true: for a student, a good teacher can make any school situation bearable, and a bad teacher can mar the best of institutions. You can have all the ‘extras’ you want: money for athletics, art programs, and gyms, and even a healthy budget (what’s that?), but if you don’t have well-qualified, talented, inspired, and happy teachers, you have nothing.”

Parents, teachers, grandparents unite! If we don’t have good teachers who are given reasonable resources and who are given room to do what they know how to do well, we don’t have anything!


Crowdfunding, teamwork and beating the blues

As 2013 draws to an end, I’ve had the crowdfunding blues a bit.

I’ve joined the crowdfunding team in the past year or so, but only as a contributor.  Here and there, I’ve pitched a few pennies toward projects launched by friends of mine.  Mostly I do philanthropy the old-fashioned way.  I write checks.  I buy copies of my books and donate them or give them away.

2013-12-14 18.05.19


Mostly, I tell stories.  Sometimes those stories inspire other people to give their money to help spread reading in Ethiopia.  So what possessed me to try raising money through crowdfunding?

Mostly, I encourage people to put their money toward administration and staff–the things I support with my own money–because, as friends and I agree, it’s the UNFUN money to raise and administration, when it’s good, makes everything shine.

2013-12-14 18.05.43


Volunteers can’t be volunteers without someone to guide and coordinate them.

But late in 2013 I lost my heart to a project.  School Power through Painting Joy.

1 Stephanie


Part of the pittery pattery of my heart for this project is that pity makes me squirmy.  I’ve seen it do screwy things with families and communities even when intentions are good.  And as an Ethiopian friend said this fall, when she hears a lot of people talk about projects in Ethiopia, she starts feeling smaller and smaller and smaller.  But collaboration?  Sharing what we love across boundaries.   That makes us all bigger.

Stephanie is joyful and she shares joy where she goes.  Even though she says she hates fundraising, she’s good at it because people tend to follow the energy.  I want her on our team always.

1 first year focus on reading at the merkato kindergarten


I love the way Stephanie returns from Ethiopia with stories and pictures that help us all see the impact of our hard work.  I want her telling the stories of southern Ethiopia and the Ethiopia Reads schools and libraries there.  Her team this time has three other artists, one American and two Ethiopian who will build on ancient beauty and traditions to talk about what’s strong in southern Ethiopia including Kololo School.

I am significantart project


The project also has my heart because I grew up in southwest Ethiopia.  Young men worked in our house to earn money for school supplies because they were getting a shot at school for the first time.  They were like big brothers–even to teasing us and threatening to cut off our ears if we misbehaved.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve known some of those guys all my life.

Now I see girls in Kololo School who are 15 years old sitting with the little kids.

15 year old getting to go to schoolKololo classAs one of the teachers at Kololo School says, in this rural area 12-year-old girls are  forced into marriage.  But when a woman is educated, all of her children are, too.

kids around Ethiopia (6)


I’ve discovered crowdfunding isn’t as easy as it might look.  So far, it’s been my sweet family and friends that have mostly helped out.

1 foundation of support for building projects


But wherever the support has come from, it’s coming in!  Crowdfunding is teamwork. Here at the end of 2013, I’m full of love and admiration for my own team and the team that will be traveling.  I can’t wait to see where their travels and adventures in southern Ethiopia take them.

Chris in front of houseon tripBring on 2014–with VCFA residency and new writing and teamwork.




Author Power

It’s tough times for writers of children’s books.

All of the things that hit education and libraries in the United States also hit children’s books.  And families live busy, distracted lives–sometimes too busy to read; sometimes too busy to visit a bookstore.  And publishing is centered in a city of devastatingly expensive real estate.

AG 105 AG 092I took these pictures when I was in NYC signing copies of my Lanie books at the American Girl store.  It was thrilldom seeing a character that created taking up a whole window in that amazing city.  But most books don’t get that kind of marketing pizzazz.

To say the least.

So I loved spending last weekend in Chicago for the American Library Association conference, getting to talk to friends (who are also powerful book ambassadors) about my new book, Anna Was Here.  This is a time when the NEW and DEBUT is celebrated.  Why not?  I was once a new author and I loved the extra boost.

I also love the long life of growing in craft.

DSC00712I’ve been going on a writing retreat with author friends for years. ???????????????????????????????

One of the people who dreamed up this retreat was Toni Buzzeo.  She was Maine School Librarian of the year when I met her–loving books, loving her students, matching up the two.  I did an author visit at her school, and she KNEW her teachers and her library and how to make an author (and her books) sparkle there.  She was longing to publish a book and she was determined to learn how.  I’m proud to say we were once mentor and mentee.

DSC02506Now Toni and I have now been tight friends for years.  We’ve shared lots of life moments.  I got weepy at her son’s wedding…and I’ve also choked up sometimes in asking her advice for the hard work of Ethiopia Reads or in hearing “it’s not working” about things in my manuscripts.

So imagine the thrilldom of getting to see her this month as Caldecott Princess!

DSC04485Off to the banquet. One Cool Friend coversAnd signing with the talented illustrator who, okay, actually got the Caldecott Honor for One Cool Friend, a book I remember when it was words on a page and a giggle in the corner of retreat.



I wish for every writer the sweetness of retreat and the pinky holding in the weepy times and the swelling pride of the times when it all clicks

retreatUp with writer friends.ALAUp with ALA.



Sorrow and what we do with it

Anna+was+HereIt was a super busy week–the ending of the semester for Vermont College of the Fine Arts students and faculty.  I don’t know where my brain was when I drew up the semester’s schedule.  Oh wait.  As I wrote to several of my students…it was on painkillers.  So when I got a box of the Advanced Reader Copies of my new novel, I didn’t even have time to open it.

About the only thing I let squeeze into the week was some phone conversations about the venue for the Seattle fundraiser for Ethiopia Reads, Open Hearts Big Dreams.

from CienIt started out as a fundraiser mostly to support the merkato school in Addis Ababa but has grown to be a fundraiser to support all of what Ethiopia Reads is doing.  SO important!  I loved having the conversations, too, and thinking about next Dec. 14.



A new book.  In some ways, this book began when we evacuated from our house in North Dakota because the Red River was sprouting through holes in the dikes.

neighborhood in floodIn some ways it began when we left Colorado and moved to North Dakota, taking our cat.  Or with the cat before that who was killed by a car, much to our sorrow.

Midnight H Cat

In some ways, it began when I was a kid in Ethiopia looking around and wondering…if God watches over sparrows and us, why do bad things happen to good kids?  Why do the girls in Maji mostly not go to school?  Why don’t some people have clean water to drink?  Why?  Why?  Why?

Off to Kololo 050


What do we do with it?

Sometimes we volunteer.  Sometimes we suffer silently.  Or noisily.  Sometimes we pour all of our questions and our few puny answers into art.

Following the Big Duck

My dad did not love school.

Harold on Adrian farm

He did not love reading (or at least not until my mom had hold of him for many years :>)  He had a curious mind, though, and a way of grabbing hold of baffling ideas and wrestling them through and then turning his conclusions into stories.  Growing up in a homesteading family that burned sagebrush to keep warm and lived in an house dug into the ground, he was schooled to find practical solutions to overwhelming problems, and he believed solutions could be found, step step step.  Sometimes he found those solutions outdoors.  Sometimes in books.

1 dad as young thing

So I grew up watching him learn to inoculate mules against sleeping sickness.  To hold down a grass roof that seemed determined to blow away in a gale and sail down the valley.  To harness waterfall power for a mill that would grind flour for Maji and also bring running water to our house.  To fly a plane.


It wasn’t easy when the Big Duck had something on his mind to be a little duckling paddling along behind, trying to keep up, not sure he even remembered I was there.   But from as far back as I can remember, he was always up to something interesting and engaging, always full of life.




When he came back to Portland, he turned his back yard into a place of berries and fruit trees and compost and habitat long before those things had caught on as good ideas.  I think of him almost every time I have my fingers in the dirt.  I think of him as I find my own path as a grandparent.


David 1

Jonathan 2

But he didn’t always have time or attention for us.  His mind was on the big world a lot of the time–and during those years he lived in Portland, he still traveled (a LOT) and asked questions and told stories all over that big world.

reindeer woman

Missing you today, Dad, and thinking about those big old footsteps walking on ahead while I ran to keep up…and mulling all the things that ripple on.  Family connections.  Ethiopia connections.  Stories.

1 Jon with Noh


Inku and beach 017




One thing

Do one thing.

It’s a comforting thought, isn’t it?  In The Oregonian article I was reading while keeping my mom company this morning, the one thing was to ditch harmful chemicals used to clean toilet bowls and, instead, sprinkle baking soda in the evening and wake to sparkling white.  Hmmm.

So much to do in my life that feels important.  Reading.  Writing.  Teaching.  Family celebrations.


Volunteering, too.  So many kids who deserve a thinking, active, reading education in Ethiopia–like these kids who gathered around the Ethiopia Reads mobile horse library near Kololo.

Off to Kololo 052

It can be overwhelming.

And now so many weeds to pull.

1 weeds (2)

Last week, I had my visit from the volunteer from the Portland Backyard Habitat Certification Program–and I got some surprises.  This one, for example, isn’t invasive.  Oh, it might take over and dig its roots deep deep deep, but it’s not competing with Oregon wildflowers and dominating public spaces.

English ivy is.  My visiting sweeties loved the clip and snip of helping me fill this city compost bin with it (one bin down, hundreds more to go).


Pokeweed is.  Last year, I kept wondering, What is that plant??  This year, after the backyard visit, I dug in to try to dig out its roots.  (This is only the crown.)


Creeping buttercup is.  I only had a small infestation (I think), which I replaced with wood and rocks that I gathered from other places in the yard.


It’ll take years to turn my back yard into a place Lanie could be proud of.  But I can do one thing.  Or two. Or three.  And when one of my sweeties got back home, she sent me a picture of a weed to ask if it was one of the bad ones.


When we do one thing and the kids of the earth see us, who knows what one-two-three things they’ll do, too?


Brave mothers

Long plane trips between continents…learning how to manage life in Addis Ababa and then in the countryside where (at first) water arrived at our house on the backs of donkeys and cooking was done on and in a wood-burning stove…landing on the hot savannah and standing under the wing of an airplane for shade…creeping up the mountain road squashed together in a lumpy, bumpy Jeep…creating school in a bedroom…like all kids, I never questioned the elements of my childhood.  These things were what families did.  They were what MY family did.

1 airplane748

It wasn’t until much later, when I was working on my book JANE KURTZ AND YOU, that I even thought to ask my mom how all of those adventures felt to her.

small JK&U“What was that first trip like?” I asked.  “You’d never even been outside the country before and here you were with a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and a one-year-old taking a ship and then airplanes all the way to Ethiopia.”

She said that the airlines gave her a questionnaire to fill out because they wanted to encourage more families to travel.  What did she suggest?  “A bigger size of diaper.”

She handled each adventure with calm practicality–living in a house with a grass roof and a pole in the middle of the living room–having more babies–figuring out how to bake bread with flour milled down the path at the waterfall.  Adventure after adventure.  She wrestled solutions out and never stopped making puns and wry, truthful comments along the way.


But why not?  She grew up in a world of clothes made from feed sacks and unending hard work and poverty.  She left home at fourteen so she could finish high school and eventually go to college.  She always knew life wasn’t going to hand her any smooth, clean solutions to any of her dilemmas.   Her younger sister in this photo looks dreamy.  My mom looks wary–and ready for anything.  Not easily swayed.  Not easily bowled over.

Mom with Ruth

She passed on that tough survivor spirit and gave her children lives of adventure, conversation, laughter, and books.


I’m surrounded these days by more moms making tough, practical choices, including my students in the Vermont College MFA program determined to have artistic lives in the middle of domestic demands or including the moms out there raising money for Ethiopia Reads so that all mothers’ kids will have a shot at education and dreams, including the Ethiopian moms I’ve seen–like this one–determined and hopeful in spite of tough and terrible odds.

kindergarten Feruza at home

Thanks, Mom.  Happy Mother’s Day.

Harold and Polly