Posts Tagged ‘reading’

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.


What we leave behind

I think I’m addicted to Ethiopia Reads.

How can I resist with this kind of email popping into my life?

“Hi we are Sami Phelps and Anna Hilterbrand, two 11 year olds who have been fundraising for Ethiopia Reads. The first thing we did to raise money is doing a lemonade stand where we made exactly 60 dollars. Right now we are asking for pledges for every book  we read this summer we are also going to have a bake sale and sell book marks  at the local library . Mrs. Cole said she mentioned us to you.We look forward to skyping with you, we are very optimistic about helping Ethiopia.”

Sami and Anna!  Wowee.  It seems like every week brings a jolt of joy like their email.

It’s thrilldom to see how many people love reading so deeply and want to share the experience.  People have such intense faith that they can do something important.

And they can.

One of the realities in Ethiopia is that families and schools and individuals in the US can raise the money pretty easily to hire someone who can work for literacy full time.  Ethiopia Reads has five young Ethiopians who are encouraging things like book clubs in the schools where Ethiopia Reads has planted libraries.  Take a look at a happening book club!

Dr. Laurie Curtis from K-State, who just volunteered for Ethiopia Reads, writes, “I was very impressed with the passion of the Ethiopia Reads staff and the work they did.  I had never had the chance to work in Ethiopia with the staff in place as you were in transition when I was in Ethiopia in 2010- they were an amazing group of folks! I was incredibly humbled by the hard work and dedication of the teachers/ librarians that I had the good fortune to meet.”

Volunteers come to Ethiopia Reads through long and short and winding paths.  LeAnn Clark was the incoming president of Kansas Reading Association when I moved to Kansas.  She stopped by my house while I was still unpacking boxes.  She recruited Kristina, who had been a student teacher in her third grade classroom, and packed her bags to be part of a teacher-to-teacher project in Ethiopia in 2007.  She’s been back three times–and when she’s in Kansas, she spends huge chunks of her life gathering and storing and sorting and packing and shipping donated books.

People send her books from all over the country.  She loves sharing some of their stories with me–and no one tickled her more than Robert Quade, a professor at Centenary College and a proud grandpa of a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia.

When LeAnn got back from her latest volunteer trip to Ethiopia this summer, she told me that heaven had another reading angel.  She writes, “As a volunteer for Ethiopia Reads, I came to know Bob through his determined work to supply books for Caitlin’s Peace Corps library in Adet. Bob’s never-give-up attitude moved books across oceans and mountains and into the hands of eager readers. As I visited Ethiopia Reads’ libraries in Ethiopia last week, I knew Bob’s footprints had left a lasting mark not only for today, but for generations of Ethiopian children in the future. I will cherish his witty email messages and spirited conversations.” He will be greatly missed by his family and friends, and one woman on the Kansas prairie. He was truly a Reading Angel.”

Robert Quade’s students shared comments about his passion for teaching and how he wanted his students to succeed.



An outrageous sense of humor.

He will be missed by the Ethiopia Reads family.

But his compassion, his service, and, yes, his humor will live on in our stories and in those books he cared so much about.

This fall, the Bring a Book Buy a Book volunteers will all pick up the torch and raise the money to move those books on from Kansas to Ethiopia.  And educators will volunteer their time to work with the adults who will put books into kids’ hands.

What an amazing and joyful project to work on.  What a thing to leave behind.

The torment of step step step

Do you have a project that baffles or befuddles you?  Something that no matter how hard you lean on it, you can’t get it to budge?   A door that refuses to open?

My writing is often that way.

Right in the middle of a novel, I think about that delicious other novel I’ve always wanted to write.  Or I sit and stare at a paper or screen and decide I’ll never have a clever, wondrous idea again.  Sometimes I envy my Vermont College students their deadlines and feedback.

Every one of my published picture books and novels carries an invisible trail of despair, dead ends, and almost-gave-up spots.

My volunteer life with Ethiopia Reads is that way, too.

I saw kids in Maji coming to school when I was four years old and desperately wanted to go to school, too.  Some of the students who walked into that building every morning were actually young men, not kids, but they weren’t about to let go of their chance at an education.

Well, many years later, it’s still tough to get good education to every kid in Ethiopia.

When I look at this school picture with my dad and one of his brothers, I remember that it wasn’t easy to get education to their farm community in eastern Oregon in the days when they were kids, either.

Some things take a long, stubborn, determined effort.

Then there’s my Portland garden.

Every morning, I can’t wait to go outside and see what the Oregon rains have wrought.  Nothing seems stalled out or in a hopeless mood.

All the plants are chug chugging along, including the weeds.  We have so much oregano (three different kinds) that we could open a massive pizza place and still never be able to use it all.

I’m trying to remember that it’s okay to not use all my herbs.  They still make a nice-smelling bug-free contribution to a garden.

These days, I’m particularly in love with thyme.  Time doesn’t creep, but thyme does.

When we went to the farmers’ market last Sunday, I bought a plant–creeping thyme–and liked it so much after I got it in the ground that I went back and bought two more plants.  This early in the season, not a lot of produce was available in the farmers’ maket…we bought beets and chard, though, and admired the balloon animals and bread and sheep cheeses.

I was wishing for some zucchini or a home grown tomato or two.  Then my big sister delivered tomato plants.  And flowers.  And more herbs.  With something new arriving every day, you’d think I would never have the garden equivalent of writers’ block or mission burn-out.

But I noticed something this week.  I’ve bought a lot of creeping plants that will spread…sometimes spread fast…and I noticed that I was impatiently checking back every few hours to see what was happening.

Apparently, I want everything to grow faster than it actually does.

In my heart, I know much that matters comes slowly.  We put our whole self in.  We try to look away and hum as if we’re not impatient at all.  We dig in for the long haul and step step step.

Powerful Pinky Touches

Hands across continents.  This spring, middle school students in Grand Forks, ND fanned out into their community for a work day to raise money for a library that will be planted by Ethiopia Reads ( in the Somali region of Ethiopia.

A former Ethiopian national football player–now working on his PhD at AAMU–visited the school when he was back in Ethiopia earlier this year.  He reported that the school has 1973 female students and 28 female teachers: “very unusual for Somalis to have this many female students and teachers.”  He added that most of the students travel from 5 to 10 kilometers to get to school.  “There is a library building that does not have anything in it with a hope of being furnished one day.”

Kids and little dogs in Grand Forks are making sure that day will come in 2012.

When I was inventing a character for American Girl in 2009, I researched a lot of projects where kids are doing citizen science.  Lanie discovers that the littlest efforts can make a difference–the plants we choose to plant, the ladybug spots we count, protecting a caterpillar climbing on milkweed.

What about words and pictures?

Kids in a school in Boston where I did an author visit this spring made books and sent them to Ethiopia with Liz McGovern from Mudula Water (  She delivered them to the Ethiopia Reads/Tesfa Foundation mercato school along with supplies for kids to make their own books.

It’s a powerful thing, getting to tell our stories.

Kids in Ethiopia are in school in increasing numbers.  There’s wide open opportunity for team work pinky touches in those schools.

This fall, some schools are going to do it through Bring a Book,  Buy a Book days to raise money to get books to kids in Ethiopia.

And then there’s the impact teachers can make by sharing skills and ideas.  This month, my brother from Portland, a teacher from the UK, and two educators from Kansas are in Ethiopia doing that kind of pinky touch.

The PhD student who visited Somali wrote, “I had a great time staying in that area talking and walking with those individuals and learning from them as I observed what is going on in and out of the school environment.”

Walking and talking are powerful.

Sharing and listening are powerful.

Up with students and teachers, readers and writers, doing their everyday powerful work across this world.

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.

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!



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.


“And…” (people keep asking me)

“What was Seattle like??”

Adjectives fail me.

First of all, the dinner was sold out, which so rarely happens in my world.  Ellenore, the organizer, had set a goal of 100, but 170 people bought tickets.  Bidding on auction items was brisk and cheerful.  The room was full of dancing and poetry and Ethiopians and Americans who care about reading and art and kids and, well, about Ellenore and her family.

People give to people.

One of the zingy things about being a volunteer for Ethiopia Reads has been meeting fellow volunteers.

In Ethiopia, I notice that people still seem to be on a default setting that one’s life will get better if a patron comes along to bestow good things.  After all, Ethiopia had a society for centuries much like the medieval societies we study in school…and I’ll bet the serfs in Europe never sat around the fire chatting about how they could pool their money and ideas and skills to make things better.

We talk about America being the land where the individual can succeed.  In some ways, as many emigrant families will tell you, it still is that way (for a lot of individuals)–because some of the systems that squash people around the world are a little less entrenched, here, than they are in a place like, say, Ethiopia.

Most of us in America don’t live in villages, for example, where our families have lived for so many generations that the patterns and antagonisms and frustrations are entrenched and seem hard to ever overcome or change.  Class and ethnic tensions certainly are real in America, but we still have more wiggle room than in a lot of places around the world.

It’s true that a lot of individuals in places like Ethiopia are longing to come to America even now when things are relatively tough here.

People everywhere are pretty determined to make their children’s lives better.

But that story about America as the place where individuals pull themselves up by their bootstraps?  My research for Bicycle Madness, featuring the real-life reformer Frances Willard (who learned to ride a bike in her fifties with her skirts down to her ankles to show what women could do), convinced me that America is the place where a lot of people really GOT IT that ordinary human beings can put their resources together to make things better.

The power of ordinary people working together.

Frances Willard and the other reformers in the late 1800s were determined to make America live up to its rhetoric.  Children were working in factories.  (Their little fingers were helpful for many of the machines.)  Women had no way to support themselves and their families if men let them down (taking themselves and their wages off to the saloon, for instance).  Frances Willard and other writers and speakers and photographers worked together to spread the stories and images of suffering, struggling people–and they brought change.

Ordinary people holding hands can bring change.

That’s what Seattle was about.

The event was held in the Norwest African American museum–a place that fit it delightfully well.

Ellenore and her team of volunteers had gathered lots of cool stuff for the auction.  People donated those things.  People bought those things…and other people just raised the paddle to make donations.  (Ethiopia Reads board member Frew Tibebu won the stay in the apartment in Paris and I can’t wait to hear what the trip is like for his family.)

The totals aren’t in, yet, but I know the event met and exceeded Ellenore’s goal of $25,000 to bring reading to the mercato school and community around it.

Reading is one of the ways to share the power tools of the world.

When Stephanie, who just did her own fundraiser for art in the school, visited Ethiopia this month, the kids used themselves as the canvas for one project.  My brother and I, in our brief talk at the event, paired some of Stephanie’s photos with the words of a teacher who traveled with my brother last summer.

The mercato school captured our hearts.

Each little face drawing your eyes.

Look at me.

See me.

Saying, “I am significant.”

What makes someone like Ellenore brave enough to believe she can make up a fundraiser auction?

What makes her determined enough to give up most of her own pre-Christmas preparation time to put in the time to something like this event?

What made artist Yadesa Bojia contribute his hours and two paintings to spread joy in the mercato neighborhood where he grew up?

What makes all the volunteers of this world believe that they should give up the time they could be spending with their families and businesses and hobbies and instead believe they can help spread clean water and food and health care and education in places where those are precious and rare?

It’s baffling.

And powerful.

And sweet.