Posts Tagged ‘libraries’

Come on, Mother Nature, give peace a chance

On Saturday, I was honored to speak at a young author’s conference in southern Washington, and was it ever special. These days, it takes almost heroic effort to pull off such things–teachers, parents, kids all choosing to be part of a reading and writing event instead of all the other things tugging at them. On the way home, my sister Cathy and I stopped at Hortlandia. I wanted to look for native Oregon plants. Writing the Lanie books woke me up to what a difference we can make with native plants that support native insects eaten by native birds–and now I have a garden to play with.

1 weeds (2)Alas and alack, one of the plants I bought shows up on some lists of noxious and maybe even invasive plants, which sent me back to trying to learn more about the weeds in my back yard–like this one.  More and more I realize that the things in my back yard are unwanted.  I’m learning all kinds of new vocabulary from “vigorous” to “pushy” to “thug.”  My weekend reading made me see in a new way that invasive plants are crowding out Oregon native wildflowers and ground cover because they are just so bold and strong and overpowering, and I should be doing my bit to not add to the problem.


???????????????????????????????I like moss.  I’m happy to live with a lot of things other people call weeds.  I’m having fun playing with the stones I dig out of my dirt.  But a lot of the weeds hanging around my back yard are the really bad ones that will bully other plants around–and now I know I need to learn more about weed identification and weed pulling.

Come on!  Why can’t at least some of the weeds that have invited themselves in be nice native plants that will behave themselves?  Why are ALL of them the bullies?

t189The only hopeful thought of the day is a metaphorical one.  My friend Ann Porter in ND introduced me to Betty who grew up in Ethiopia without all the coaxing and tending of reading habits that goes on in the United States.  No reading teacher.  No library.  No tutor.  No ELL teacher.  No special stories crafted just for her interests…and yet that seed of reading fell, anyway, and she ended up loving to read…and her reading opened doors for her to eventually get an advanced degree…and now she’s running a marathon so that kids in Ethiopia can have more. books.

Bertuan KebedeThis teacher of a new Ethiopia Reads school explained to an interviewer that she has made it a mission to protect young girls from the practice of forced marriage. “Being a woman in this society, you aren’t supposed to speak. Being a teacher, I now have a voice” Girls who are not in school are frequently forced to marry as young as 12 years old. Kololo opened this school year with children as old as 12 years old starting in kindergarten and first grade. “I’m helping the girls by empowering them. If they are educated, they can be heard.”

This week, I’ll fly out to Denver…and from there to Kansas and NYC where Ethiopia Reads volunteers have organized events to help us keep going on our efforts.  I’ll leave the garden and yard weeds behind for a while and think about reading seeds that, thankfully, grow in the strangest places.


The pain and glory of change

As I travel to Minneapolis for an Ethiopia Reads ( board retreat, I’m getting my bearings by–what else?–reading a book.  My very smart baby sister recommended it because it helped her in her work at Reed College.  Managing Transition: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges is written just for times like these in the life of organizations.

Started out bravely dreaming a dream and launching a venture?

It might be anything.

A garden.

A fig tree.

A book.

A nonprofit organization to bring books to Ethiopian kids.

The dreamers imagine and plan and jot things down and poke around the edges trying to figure out what we’re doing.  The as we launch, we blast through a draft or start selling something or open the doors of a book center.  The people doing things at this stage have to be good at improvising and making up STUFF according to the vision of where they’re trying to end up.

I think with Ethiopia Reads we’re at the Getting Organized stage of learning to do things in standardized ways, moving beyond the “natural energy” of the founders and getting to “a more predictable set of activities by a growing number of people.”

Maybe we can’t get predictable.

So many new things have to get solved every day–and we’re still inventing and assessing and asking questions and trying solutions. It’s fun to see new things like these teachers taking qualifying exams in a school that wasn’t even built when the school year began in 2011.  But every step involves new problems.

Every step involves change.  And change, says William Bridges, means a time of transition.

Endings–and grief is a hard train to ride, weird and wild.

A neutral zone, where we muddle and sort and stay entrepreneurial, celebrating opportunities, being willing to take risks.  “How can we come out of this waiting time better than we were before the transition started?”  That’s the kind of question to ask.  And…”what would I like to try that I’ve never experimented with before?”

Stuck on something like, say, a novel revision?

Find 10 or 20 new answers–the crazier the better, says this author.

Restrain the impulse to push prematurely for certainty and closure.

Finally…a new beginning.

“Like any organic process,” the author writes, “beginings cannot be made to happen by a word or act.  They happen when the timing of the transition process allows them to happen, just as flowers and fruit appear on a schedule that is natural and not subject to anyone’s will.”

How to move your own resisting brain or a group of people into a new beginning?

Make sure the problem is vivid.  If you believe your novel is working, it’s going to be hard to convince yourself to try new solutions.

If you think the organization is trotting along just fine as it is, you are not going to want to go through the grieving of endings and the uncertainty of the neutral time.

Clarify purpose.

For a novel this can be “effect wanted.”

For an organization, the purpose should come from its “will, abilities, resources, and character.”

Create a picture.

Realize that some people grab a new vision instantly.  Others shuffle.  Don’t be overwhelming with a picture that’s intimidating, not exciting.  Know that a compelling picture is all about the right details.

When Julie said, “I want to be sure there’s a school in the area where my children were born,” I don’t know whether she envisioned this blue-green building rising amidst the crops.

It makes a powerful picture for the next steps, though.

What a dream…kids learning about their own power–through ideas, through books, through art, through experimenting with taking the old beauty and turning it into new dreams.


Facing down terror

Writing a book starts with a totally empty page.  Or screen.


I didn’t find it so when I was starting out.  I always felt charged up and confident and bubbling with ideas and words and details.  (John Gardner said details are the life blood of fiction.)

Now I guess I understand how long the journey is really going to be before I have, oh, 200 pages all full of clever ideas and just-right words and surprising, vivid details that all fit together in an unpredictable yet satisfying pattern.

I also understand what a team effort a book is…with editors needing to step up when it’s their turn and strong ambassadors (parents, booksellers, librarians, teachers) taking their turn when it’s time to put a book into the hands of young readers.

Readers, as I told the kids yesterday, are on the team, too.

Nobody reading?

No fun to write.


My volunteer life is equally terrifying at times.  We dream a project…hey, let’s BUILD a library as a team with a young Ethiopian man who has been trying to make a library a reality for his community since he was the first youngster to go off to college.

Hey, let’s develop a health curriculum that can tackle the most common diseases in a community…and share it in the library.

Hey!  Let’s craft great professional development to make sure the smart thinking behind good literacy gets really and truly shared in that library and every other place we can.

The power of any project is in PEOPLE.


Hey…let’s…um…raise some money.

Oops.  Bring on the terror.

I would be lying down with a cold cloth right about now except–astonishingly–a team does seem to emerge in the most surprising ways.  Today, for example, I’m going to meet a young Iowa famly that adopted two kids from Ethiopia.  When they ended up with some unexpected money, they decided to invest it in a school for the area where their kids were born.

Who could make up something like that?

And they were inspired by Julie, who wanted to build a school for the area where HER kids were born.  I talked to her when that idea was like the first blank page of a novel…a dream.

Which writer was it who said I dream an eagle and give birth to a hummingbird?

Such a long way between the dream and the thing itself.

Probably most people wouldn’t have given Julie great odds.

She didn’t have a pile of money to start her off and she didn’t have years of experience with fundraising and she didn’t have powerful backers (except in the way friendship can be powerful).

She didn’t know Oprah.

(I can’t tell you how many people–over my years of volunteering with Ethiopia Reads have asked if we’ve gotten in touch with Oprah.)

The land the community was willing to donate for a school was terrifyingly like that blank page.

But a writer sits down.

Picks up a pen or puts fingers on the keyboard.

Ekes out some words.

Crosses things out.



Oonches out a bit more.

A dreaner…a fundraiser…does something of the same thing, coaxing out ideas and leads and hope hope hoping a few people are out there who will say, “What can I do?”

Julie’s school gradually began to get a shape.

The dream got less hazy.  More real.

This is the room that will become a library and will soon be full of the rustle of book pages.  I love the way the people standing there can see for miles and miles.

Someone said books give us mirrors to look into ourselves and windows to look out at the world.

Kids in this room will have mirrors and windows.  They will have all the things books give us including curiosity and empathy and skills and complicated thoughts.

This week, the finished building got painted a sea-foam green.

This month, these kids will have a school that is right in their back yard and not miles away.

Today, other families pick up the baton and face their own blank pages and dream their own dreams.

I’m scared…I sure am.

But I’m also amazed.

Go team!



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.

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.

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.

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.