From the outside, it appears as if the publication of Fire on the Mountain made my life click into gear and roll sweetly down the hill. I had at least one new book published every year…a current grand total of 27 once Martin’s Dream (Simon & Schuster), my new ready-to-read book comes out this month.
The view from inside was considerably messier. By the time my first book was published, I knew exactly how rejection felt—I just didn’t know how much rejection was lined up and waiting for me after publication. I naively thought once a book existed, readers would find it. And read it. And buy it. And love it. Actually, most of us only have to ask ourselves how many new hardcover books we buy in any given year to realize what a chilly world it is for books, especially in a time of pinched funding for schools and libraries.
Still, the day came when I stood up to begin a school visit, glanced at the table beside me, and thought, Whoa…I have a LOT of books published. I even started to be brave enough to put “author” on forms (along with “teacher”). I experienced the thrill of speaking at schools or conferences where students and teachers had either no picture or only grim pictures of Ethiopia in their minds and, after reading my books, let the sunshine in. Once, I was in a school that had done a terrific job of crafting a big author celebration. A girl turned to the boy next to her and asked—in my hearing—“Are you from Ethiopia, too?”
The boy nodded uncertainly.
“Wow,” she said, breathing out with a small sigh. “You’re lucky.”
For a long time, her words made all the agonies of travel feel fine.
With my own children growing up in North Dakota, I found myself more homesick than ever. I imagined I would never see Ethiopia again. My brother went back as a teacher during the time of the Marxist government. Then my older sister. Another sister went to Togo to repair helicopters used to spray for river blindness. I was stuck in the frozen northland. Then, to my astonishment, in 1997 I was asked by the international school, the British school, and a mission school to come to Addis Ababa as a visiting author.
I’ve written on my website about what it was like to go back for the first time in 20 years. That event launched a period of international speaking for me. I’ve gotten to talk to book lovers in Uganda, Kenya, Botswana, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Romania, England, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Indonesia, and Cambodia. India and Morocco and Norway are on the horizon. One year, educators in both Uganda and Nigeria asked me, “How can we begin to plant a reading culture here as you have in America?”
I began to mull the answer to that question, thinking about the role that libraries, public education, publishers, writers, illustrators, and literate parents play in the children’s book world in the United States. It was an interesting question, but a somewhat academic one, until the day I got an email from Yohannes Gebregeorgis, a children’s librarian in San Francisco. He told me he’d never held a book, outside of school, until he was 19. He wrote, “I want to go back to Ethiopia to start publishing books. You know how much Ethiopian children are deprived of the joys that books bring. I know that you have great love for the country you grew up in, and I want to ask you if you can join me in making this idea a reality.”
I was fascinated…and stunned. Such a huge problem. Two people with little power or money. But as he wrote, “We have to start somewhere.”
Start somewhere, we did, with the help of an adoptive mom, Maureen Evans, who interviewed Yohannes and wrote down some of his ideas for beginning. The story has been told beautifully—by Melissa Faye Greene in last October’s issue of Good Housekeeping and a recent article in Rocky Mountain News, and on my website and at Ethiopia Reads.
The dream that is now Ethiopia Reads has showed me the amazing power of ordinary human beings to do something important. Something big. We started by publishing the first color children’s book for Ethiopian kids and opening the first free library for children in Addis Ababa, a city of five million people. A few years down the road, we’ve planted 16 school libraries; we operate two community libraries; we’re the proud owners of a donkey mobile library; and we have funding for 12 more school libraries and several more donkey mobile libraries. The staff in Ethiopia has recorded more than 100,000 visits from children per year.
We want more, more, more.
The dream has also gobbled up a chunk of my life. We’re a tiny group trying to do so much. Never again will I make snarky comments about money that goes to administration. No, I’ve seen the light: without creative and thoughtful administration—without money for infrastructure—programs may have heart-stopping impact but they are always piecemeal, often herky-jerky, inevitably only an experiment. We’ve shown ourselves to be a great experiment. Now we have to see if we can turn ourselves into an organization that will change the future for Ethiopian children everywhere.
In the dark, hard moments, I have several thoughts I hang onto: Need is everywhere, opportunity isn’t. And Money isn’t always the answer; in this case, it is.
I also take comfort in what teachers everywhere know: the reality of ripple effect. Andualem, the shoeshine boy from Only a Pigeon did so well on the test students take after high school that he got to attend Addis Ababa University and went on to work for Ethiopian Airlines and Northwest Airlines. One of the young Ethiopian women who worked for Ethiopia Reads loved translating my first book, Fire on the Mountain, for children at Shola Library so much that she approached Simon & Schuster and got permission to publish an Ethiopian version. You can read about her work HERE.
The most important ripple effect? Two Ethiopian-American grandchildren. (When my son and daughter went to Ethiopia to volunteer at Shola Library, my son fell in love with one of the young women working there.) Could anything be sweeter?
I’m often asked what adoptive parents can do to help their children celebrate their Ethiopian heritage. I wonder the same thing with my own grandbabies. A few completely biased answers are here: 1) Bring my books and any other books you can find about Ethiopia into your homes, your schools, your libraries, so that your own family members and community will see positive images of Ethiopia. No book stays around forever. Grab them while they’re in the world! (I, myself, was caught without any copies of Trouble when it went out of print.) 2) Support other people’s efforts. Treasure the adoption camps that are growing up in different geographic areas. Get to know your local Ethiopian community if one exists. Bring beautiful images of Ethiopia into your homes and lives. When my son, a photojournalism major at KU, went back to Ethiopia last summer, I asked him to remember adoptive families as he traveled around looking for stories to tell. Some of the results are HERE. 3) Healing for me, a bi-cultural child, has come as I reach back to the land of my childhood and believe I’m making a difference for those children I once felt helpless to help. Come on over. Give me a hand with Ethiopia Reads. (If you don’t know how, just email me and ask.)
As Yohannes says, “"The real heroes are the children who collect pennies, the people who help us bring books to Ethiopia. It was my idea, my dream. But the people who help us, they are the dream realizers."
* Note from Julie...
There are still a few days left to vote for Yohannes, although I think the nomination committee made a mistake by not including Jane as well. The winner will be announced on CNN on Thanksgiving. You can vote more than once.
To Donate to Ethiopia Reads, click HERE.
Thank you such much for doing this series. You are truly an inspiration. I can't wait to share your books with my children.