Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday Friend or Family Feature: Guest Blogger Edition-Jane Kurtz, Part Two: On to publication...agony and joy.

By the time I was in high school in Ethiopia, I thought of myself as a writer. Good Shepherd School, where I got most of my education, existed thanks to the Presbyterian, Baptist, Southern Baptist, Lutheran, and Mennonite churches, and—while most of my teachers might not have known some of the things many teachers today know about writing (thanks to superb advice from Lucy Caulkins, Katie Wood Ray, Ralph Fletcher and others)—my love of reading was nurtured during elementary school through lots of read-aloud time and a visits to our small library. In high school, though, a new teacher came into my life. Stan Kano.

As the only freshman to be invited into Stan Kano’s Honors English class (full of vigorous conversation about novels), I was shiny with pride. At last I was on the edge of the circle that included my older sister, someone I actually wanted to be but at least was thrilled to be around. Stan roared with a great belly laugh when any of us had an opinion that was outrageous but well-supported. He encouraged me to take risks in my writing—not play it safe—and to quit using the word “it.” I took umbrage at all the red-pen marks on my papers, but now I know he did me the favor of being a tough editor and critic.

I headed off to Monmouth College to be an English major. But I was only seventeen when I dived into a sophomore level course in Old English Literature—and promptly switched my major to psychology. Still, I enrolled in creative writing as many times as the college would let me, and I emerged from my early academic years thinking of myself as A Writer…only with no idea how to get a book published, no clue about how to craft the plot of a novel, no practice in deep-to-the-bones revision, and no guess that one day I would long to write a picture book.

Having children changed all that.

My early story ideas were drawn from my children’s lives. Some of those ideas did eventually turn into books, although not before ten years of rejection letters, which led to my giving myself an immense, lengthy course in really becoming a writer. The initial idea for Do Kangaroos Wear Seatbelts? popped into my head as I zipped and buttoned and buckled in my toddlers. (Ironically, it didn’t get published until I had my first baby granddaughter.) Rain Romp, my hymn to family love--even when we don’t want to get up, even when we’re having grouchy days—was inspired by my six-year-old daughter but didn’t click together until she was in middle school and our family was living in a FEMA trailer after the Red River flood of 1997.

In those years when I was slogging the path toward becoming a published author…convinced that Americans weren’t interested in the world outside of their noses…tired of feeling like an outsider…I rarely talked about Ethiopia with anyone. But, to my astonishment, in 1994 I was given the gift of my voice. Fire on the Mountain was published by Simon & Schuster, illustrated in moving and memorable scenes by an artist who had never published a book before, and chosen as a Book of the Month Club alternate selection.

I had discovered that by writing picture books and, later, novels for young readers, I could offer glimpses of what I knew best and cared about most when I was a young reader. Luckily for me, in those days librarians and teachers were asking for (and had budgets to buy) books that showed the lives of children in other countries. So editors, one by one, agreed to bring my Ethiopia-connected stories into the world: retellings of Ethiopian folktales (re-cast with the children of my childhood)--Fire on the Mountain, Pulling the Lion’s Tail, Trouble-- my contemporary stories—Only a Pigeon, Faraway Home, Water Hole Waiting, Jakarta Missing--my historical fiction—The Storyteller’s Beads, Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot—even a fantasy novel that drew heavily on my memories of Ethiopia, The Feverbird’s Claw.

Here are answers to a reader’s (Cindy's) questions about Trouble.

1.) "Tef" and "hyenas" are things I've learned to associate with Ethiopia and both are noticeably absent in Trouble. Did you have any experience or run-ins with hyenas growing up in Ethiopia?

I fell asleep listening to the weird cries of hyenas almost every night in Addis Ababa—where I lived on what was then the outskirts of the city--and captured that memory in Faraway Home. Outside the city of Harrar, I long ago watched the Hyena Man feed hyenas at dusk (something my granddaughter also did last summer). And I used real stories of hyena encounters (though not my own) in Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot. Although I usually ate injera made from tef, I also lived and traveled in areas where injera was made from corn or where people ate foods that weren’t wat and injera, including bread made from false banana roots. Ethiopia is diverse…in cuisine, in climate, and in terrain.

2.) Both Notes from the Hyena's Belly and Trouble give the impression that a childhood in Ethiopia could well be wrought with mischief. From other sources, I've learned that Ethiopian mothers are charged with raising children to have deep respect for their elders such that it is considered disrespectful even for children to look at the eyes of an adult when being spoken to. How do you reconcile the theme of childhood mischief with the obedience and respect that the Ethiopian culture demands from kids?

It’s so true that children were traditionally raised (and to some extent still are raised) to respect elders. (Although, as in many places, boys always have been given more leeway than girls.) In fact, I used this reality to help me shape the plot in my retelling of a folktale, Pulling the Lion’s Tail. One could argue that a similar culture prevailed in the times Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about—yet in the Little House in the Big Woods and other books, the author doesn’t give a picture of children behaving perfectly. I think kids everywhere will find some ways to fly under the radar and make mischief.

3.) How do you feel about the reported tension between Eritrea and Ethiopia even now, given that it is not uncommon to read news stories about conflicts between the two countries?

Yes, it’s my impression, too, that the undercurrent of tension is still strong. After all, the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia existed—sometimes in a bubbling way, sometimes in a ferocious way—for more than thirty years. I am no expert on Eritrea, having only been a visitor there, myself (in the days when the Ethiopian boundaries included Eritrea). I was inspired to set Trouble in Eritrea because of Ethiopian-Eritrean friends who feel torn by their love of both countries. A former Eritrean classmate (and roommate) of my sister Cathy looked over both text and rough sketches before the book was published and caught some picture errors.

In 2005, I was asked to write a book for older children, teachers, and parents that would show how I have used my real life in my fiction and would also highlight some of the skills I learned and practiced over the years of becoming a published writer. Jane Kurtz and You is a book I’d love to see in every library where Ethiopian-American children go to school. It’s full of pictures and the true stories of my childhood, and I hope it will also inspire those children who struggle—like me—to know exactly where they belong and encourage them to write about their experiences, to try the approaches and techniques that helped me share my world.

However, it seems all good things come to an end. For a variety of reasons, big publishers became less and less able to take a chance on what’s often called “multicultural literature.” Pulling the Lion’s Tail, Trouble, Only a Pigeon, Jakarta Missing, The Feverbird’s Claw and Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot all went out of print, something that happens whenever sales drop under a certain level in a given year. In some cases, I have a small stash of my own books; volunteers for Ethiopia Reads sell both Saba and Only a Pigeon on In other cases, I’ve scrambled to find copies. People pass along ideas of books they want me to write, but I don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to publish an Ethiopia-connected book again. Sheer economics is not on my side. Thus, I often remind parents and teachers and librarians of Ethiopian-American children to be sure they buy the books of mine that are still around, since I’ve learned from bitter experience that any book, alas, can go out of print very suddenly.

In the meantime, I treasure all the contacts I’ve had with adoptive families and Ethiopian-American families who’ve written to say such things as, “My child fell asleep with his hand on your book every night.” Those who read and treasure my books feel like my extended family, a family I couldn’t survive (literally and emotionally) without.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Summer Vacation ??

Autumn chill got you down? Had to pull that fleece out of the closet last night? The thought of daylights' savings throwing you for a loop?

Start planning your summer!!!

I am so excited to announce two fantastic opportunities for adoptive families...

First, coming up in June...

Re Union '09
in Tulsa, Oklahoma (where I hear the wind comes sweeping down the plains).

I don't know what this song means, but I like it!

Then, in August, in my sweet home Chicago,

BU '09

What is a blog union like? I think Lori described it best. You are going to want to read the whole post. You may want to bring Kleenex.

I have been spending a lot of time with Lori lately, well, with her blog. I have been reading her archives for strength. She's got some to spare. She has an adoption story that includes a phrase similar to, "They told us this is the first time this has ever happened.' Her road to her Abie baby was bumpy. Her strength is inspiring.

I have also being spending time with my friend Katy. I am looking back at her waiting posts. She wasn't happy. Then I look at this post and can literally feel the joy radiating off the page.

This blog thing. WOW, crazy powerful.

Speaking of which, I was wondering if you would help me support a new blogger. I met Kat a couple of weeks ago. How shall I put this...

I feel incredibly lucky to have a supportive family. Some people don't always get the support they need from their families. Sometimes they need strangers in the internet many times can I say support? I sound like a bra commercial. Just, please, go over to her blog and say "Hello, We've got your back." She is working with Gladney and she lives in my hood, and look how cute her blog banner is...

So blog on you beautiful bloggers. See you in the midwest!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Weight of the World.


I am sick again. I have been since last Wednesday. It is evident that there are three 'sure things' that I receive from my part-time gig as a surly, substitute teacher; dirty looks from parents who say,"Oh no! You're here?! What happened to Miss Perky McPerfectson today?" An exposure to every known cough, cold, or virus known to man, 'Please greet each student with a firm handshake,' (No amount of Purell can combat sneezy second graders), and a measly daily rate.

I also got Steven sick, but at least we are sick at the same time, and not too worried about accidentally drinking out of each others' tea cups (not a euphemism).

I am also mentally depleted.I am depressed. What is on my mind? Oh the usual- death, cancer, politics, starvation, gay rights, ugliness, grief. HAPPY MONDAY!

My friend Lori brought my attention to this post. Check out the comments. I would like to thank Becca for posting this. I really appreciate it. It is one thing for someone like me (agnostic on a good day, liberal, theatre major) to say something, but for her to be so strong and take a stand, well that is inspiring and brave. Some of the comments on her post made me physically sick to my stomach. There were people who actually said that it would be better for an orphan to die than to be placed with a gay couple. Knowing that there are people like this in the world, makes me want to crawl under the covers and never come out.

Beautiful Becca, thanks for speaking out.

Does anyone else feel like they are just biding their time until the next cancer diagnosis? Is there anyone out there who is NOT dealing with cancer in some way? When I first heard about my mother-in-law's diagnosis, I immediately consulted Dr. Google. Look what I found. Steel yourself first...

Baby Emily
(Not an adoption blog unfortunately).

Joseph (Yeah, you read those dates right).

Then, last week, there was news from a friend who found out that her fifteen year old nephew was facing a diagnosis of his own.

Then there is a friend that Steven has known longer than he has known me. This friend called because his father also has a glioblastoma. His father had surgery on Thursday. Steven spent part of his weekend explaining to his friend some of the exercises he could do with his father to help him recover.

And what about Abby ?

Epidemic. Cancer is an epidemic. Why is there not more research on what causes cancer? There are millions and millions of dollars pumped into researching treatment options and new drugs.
Like this one.

Guess how much that helped Chris? Not at all. It turned her green like the Incredible Hulk. It did not help her in any way. Not in any way.

When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer the doctors asked me if I grew up near a nuclear power plant. Uhm, no I didn't. What is your next guess doc?

I am frustrated. I am scared. I am angry. I don't want to lose any more family members, fleshy or furry, to cancer. I don't want you to either. But we will. We will all continue to lose our loved ones to cancer.

I know what you are thinking.... "Bring back Jane Kurtz!!" (She'll be back on Friday).

Cancer. Gay Rights. What on earth am I trying to say and why am I saying it on my adoption blog?

Life is short.

Live fully.

Hug longer.

Gaze into each other's eyes.



For a few of the people who commented on Becca's post...

If you happen to meet someone who loves someone of their same sex, open your arms, your minds, and your hearts. Congratulate them on their happiness. Let go of your anger, and your prejudice.

It is ugly.

It is as ugly as cancer.

Music Playlist at

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Friend or Family Feature: Guest Blogger Edition-Jane Kurtz, Part One: My magical, confusing Ethiopian-American childhood.

With World War II raging and sacrifice a word thousands of families were learning from the inside out, my father and his four brothers, each one in turn, left their family farm in the dry, sagebrush hills of eastern Oregon (a place that seemed so isolated my dad, as a boy, assumed he’d never even get to see the capital city of Oregon) and headed to Europe. My dad’s turn came when he was 18. Later, in an interview, he said, “When I came back, the world was on my heart.” Having seen a world at war, he thought there had to be a better way.

In Monmouth , Illinois , he met my mom at a small Presbyterian college, which he was able to attend thanks to the G.I. bill. On a recent author trip, the husband of my librarian hostess (a history buff) told me that as the original G.I. bill nearly stalled in Congress in 1944, presidents of major U.S. universities argued against it and the riff-raff that would flow into in the American college system if it passed. I’m sure my dad was more-or-less the type of riff-raff they had in mind. After graduating from college and a Presbyterian seminary in Pittsburgh , my dad—who was a challenged but motivated student--headed to Portland , Oregon . That’s where I was born.

During those years, a lot had been happening in Ethiopia . The emperor Haile Selassie had returned from exile to discover that the Italian occupation of his country had resulted in the wiping out of a generation of educated Ethiopians. This place--fiercely proud of its independence, a country that had long fought to keep outsiders out—began to invite outsiders in. TWA advisors and pilots came to help with what would become Ethiopian Airlines, often named one of the best airlines in Africa . Church groups also responded. Each was assigned a different section of Ethiopia and charged with starting schools and hospitals where none had ever been. The Presbyterians, who had already established the country’s first school for girls (in Addis Ababa), were asked to concentrate on part of southwest Ethiopia, a rugged area of multiple distinct ethnic groups and languages.

Someone in the United States heard about this opportunity and told my dad he’d be great in this kind of role—a storyteller, an idealistic but pragmatic person with lots of skills in patching things together and making them run. My dad agreed. He also saw a way to respond to the world on his heart. A family photo shows two-year-old me in chilly post-war England …on the way to Ethiopia …on a leash.

We landed in a capital city where hyenas provided garbage-control, skulking along the streets at night (as they still do) and where we trundled here and there on my dad’s bicycle or in a small, horse-drawn taxi called a gari. My mom had to figure out diapers for two toddlers, household necessities and food for all of us, and a hospital for the baby on the way. When my first little brother, died at four months—crib death, it was assumed—my parents’ neighbors and Amharic tutors came to simply sit, silently, in our living room. Ethiopian customs dictate that people should be not be left alone with their grief. Later, my father said it was a strong message that the people he had come to minister to would, in fact, minister to us.

I say I grew up in Maji, a magical place of fog and waterfalls, of frogs and fern-tips we picked and called our water babies, of mule trips and stories around the fire at night and bursts of music and spear-shaking dancing. Maji is where my mom taught me to read and to love books and words. It’s the place where I had Ethiopian playmates until I was about six or seven. After that, Ethiopian girls had to work in their own houses, not come to play, not go to the school my mom and dad helped with. It’s where—without television—I learned to invent games and act out stories with my siblings, eventually four sisters and one brother.

My childhood was really more complicated than that, though. It included two initial language-study years in Addis Ababa where I picked up Amharic from hearing it around me—and dashed in, during a rainstorm, to announce, “It’s zin-ah-bing..” It included two awkward trips to the United States (when I was 7 and when I was 13) where other kids asked, “Did you see Tarzan?” and where, in a New York City elevator, my sisters and I struggled to know how to answer the man who asked, “Where are you from?” (finally deciding the correct answer must be, “We’re from America ”). It also included five years in boarding school in Addis Ababa, where I loved getting the chance to have classmates, teachers (who were not my mother), and a library, but where I learned about pillow-crying at night and homesickness.

Even after I, too, trekked to college in Monmouth , Illinois , I didn’t lose the idea of Ethiopia as home until my parents left in 1977, three years after the Marxists overthrew the last emperor--His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, who had first invited my mom and dad (and others) in. During those mid-1970s years, I was a visitor, a question-er, someone still scrambling to find an answer to the question, “Where are you from?” Once my parents were back in Portland, Oregon , I tried to put Ethiopia away in a little memory box and simply learn how to be an American—a teacher, an aspiring writer, and a mom.

To be continued...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday to my mom!! I am so grateful for her.

Here is her feature.

Speaking of cool moms, tomorrow is the first of three Friday posts written by author Jane Kurtz.

You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Oh for the Love of Pete.Tagged. Enough Already!

So I was tagged, and I responded here.

I am still getting tagged, so for the two of you who aren't completely sick of me blathering endlessly about myself, here ya go...

One of the first jobs I had here in Los Angeles was as an SAT tutor. I could only teach the verbal portion. I need tutoring of my own in math. I hate math. I was assigned my very first student. I arrived at a very beautiful home in Santa Monica. My student had not yet arrived home. He was with his dad in Chinatown, getting acupuncture. I chatted with his mom for a bit. I realized after about four seconds, that the child I would be tutoring, my very first student ever, was the son of OLIVER FRIGGIN STONE. Let's just put it this way, the kid did not need tutoring. He knew more vocabulary than I did. He was brilliant. A couple of years later, Oliver Stone thanked me for helping his son get into Princeton. Uhm, the kid was a shoe-in.

Speaking of tutoring, I used to do a lot of tutoring in Malibu. On MORE THAN ONE occasion, I was asked to move my car.

The families didn't want my vehicle anywhere near their homes. They did not want to catch a glimpse of my sturdy Subaru through their windows. Snooty McSnootersons.

I admit, the car is no beaut, and I could write an entire week's worth of posts about my fights with Steven when we reached an impasse on the viability of said vehicle. Here is where it is now...

(But that was years later, those Malibuites were really snobby.)

I was a vegetarian for twenty years. Steven was one for fifteen. The day we went back to meat... well, that was one hell of a beautiful day....

I wish my husband felt more like this...

and less like this...

Grief is a bitch.

I was yelled at this summer for standing too close to a melting ice sculpture at LACMA...

I like my neighborhood because of things like this...

I got myself a P.O. Box for this blog. The address is on my sidebar. I got it because I have to have an address for a Stage 9 Project that I am working on, and because this letter from the Peevish Postmaster Lire was a bright spot in a truly craptastic summer.

Lastly, a current picture taken by Julie's husband Marshall has confirmed my twin-dom with the world's oldest woman. Note to you young people, don't raise your eyebrows every two seconds, you will get wrinkles...Lots of them. Take heed.

Okay, there you have it you tag happy bloggers, now go and do a movie/music soundtrack tag .

Oh, and an extra bonus because I love you guys...

I know where God keeps his books...

Big Sur.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Message From Jane Kurtz...

"Hi Julie,
I wanted to be sure you knew about this (article below), I believe in all my bones and cells that education of the next (or NEXT) generation is going to ultimately be the only way Ethiopians are going to start solving their country's problems. This is the most heroic person I know to come along to tackle the issue of literacy--and we've planted 16 libraries where children used to have no books. But we're also really on the edge because the more our donations grow, the more we try to DO things in Ethiopia. Please let everyone know to vote for Yohannes (it literally takes minutes--and people can vote more than once). We have volunteers who've mobilized schools and Girl Scout troops, and colleges, and churches and other organizations to vote, too. And will you ask people to consider even a small donation to Ethiopia Reads? We're on the edge of great things but it feels more like purely on The Edge :> Hope you might get to meet Yohannes in star-studded LA. Thanks! Jane"

Yohannes Gebregeorgis, a native of Ethiopia and children's literacy advocate, has been named a Top 10 Hero of the Year by CNN. Mr. Gebregeorgis was selected from more than 3,000 individuals nominated by viewers throughout the year. Finalists were selected by a Blue Ribbon panel of judges that includes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jane Goodall and Deepak Chopra. The Top 10 Heroes will be recognized in CNN's "All-Star Tribute" to air on Thanksgiving.

Yohannes was first recognized as a "hero" by CNN in May for his work championing children in Ethiopia.. A former political refugee who worked as a librarian at San Francisco Public Library, Yohannes is the co-founder of Ethiopia Reads, a non-profit organization that works to create a reading culture in Ethiopia by connecting children with books. In a country where 99% of schools have no libraries, Yohannes and Ethiopia Reads are improving lives, one book at a time.

Here is a cool video about Yohannes' Donkey Mobile Library...

For more on Ethiopia Reads go HERE.

For more on Jane Kurtz go HERE.

Jane has agreed to do some 'guest blogging' here. If you have any questions for her, please e-mail them to me!

I will post this over at Eyes on Books too.

Oh, and check out this inspirational family. I am in love with the Chilly Ethiopian family ! They are amazing.

Happy Monday!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday Friend or Family Feature...

No new feature today, just an addendum to a Former Feature who continues to astonish me with her generosity.

From Deb...

"Thank you for yesterday's (Wednesday's) post. I made a monthly donation (for the next year) to the Fistula Foundation. I will continue to think of ways that I can make a difference."

Speaking of donations, please read THIS POST; an eye-opening reminder that we all must dig deeper in order to find out who is the neediest.

I am off to sub for the first grade. First grade is my absolute favorite. I love it. These kids however, are getting really tired of story time being All Ethiopia/All Jane Kurtz/All the time. Too bad small people, I get to pick the story!

The beautiful photo is from Niall Crotty.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Carry Each Other...

I wanted to use these photos yesterday, but I didn't get permission until now.

"Damot Pulasa and its neighbouring districts in the South of Ethiopia have been severely affected by unusual weather patterns in 2008. The previous year heavy rainfall destroyed crops. 2008 a drought has left people with empty bellies. Ato Mengistu Godana, vice-administrator of Damot Pulasa, says: “This district is usually known for producing surplus crops but this year we are facing an unprecedented drought. All 23 villages in the district are affected. Mothers and children suffer the most.” Photo: Jose Cendon/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Mothers and their children at a Red Cross Red Crescent centre in the Wolayita region in the South of Ethiopia. Photo: Jose Cendon/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Photo: Jose Cendon/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Photo: Jose Cendon/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Photo: Jose Cendon/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Heads of families are waiting at a Red Cross distribution centre in Wolayita, Ethiopia. Photo: Jose Cendon/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Music Playlist at