Jane Kurtz always amazes me with her tremendous energy and capacity to do good. I’m fascinated by her remarks today. Jane, thank you for being my Featured Guest.
Hi David. This is part of a recent speech.
Last year, I traveled all over the US and to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, and Norway, talking about my new book character, Lanie (American Girl Doll of the Year). The problem is that when you travel out into the world, the world is always on your heart.
My dad grew up in Eastern Oregon, land of sagebrush and jackrabbits, where snow blew into the house and drifted onto his bed. He thought he’d go his entire life without ever seeing the capital city of Oregon. But when he was eighteen, he went off to WWII. That’s what later made him want to go to Ethiopia to help rebuild after the war.
Well, when Jane Goodall (Lanie’s hero) first decided to study chimpanzees, the authorities in Tanzania said she needed an escort. Only one person believed in her enough to go. Her mom.
In Ethiopia, someone commented my older sister was “born a lady.” I—then two years old–was more like the main character in my book Trouble. We ended up in a magical place of fog, hyenas and mountains.
I couldn’t go to school in Maji, Ethiopia because the only school there had classes in Amharic. My friends also couldn’t go to school…because they were girls. So Maji, magical as it was, also filled me with helpless outsider feelings. But in two visits to the U.S., I quickly realized I would feel like an outsider in America, too, thus my picture book In the Small Small Night, the story of thousands of children in our schools—and also my seven-year-old story.
My sisters and I acted out stories and camped on the hot and crackling savannah, by Rift Valley lakes where flamingoes filled up the sky, near the ancient capital of Gondar, and when I came to Illinois for college, Ethiopia became my faraway, not-talked-about home. The author of Writing Life Stories says that after skin and bone, memory is what people are made of. And if memory is what people are made of, people are made of loss.
When I’m talking about gathering details for writing, I talk first about memory.
Lanie is a scientist. She declares she was born with outside genes. (My dad’s outside genes pulled us into a world of waterfalls and fog, watercress and elephant footsteps.) Her family, Lanie says, has inside genes. (When we went camping, my mom put on her lipstick and read books.)
Writers also draw details from observation. Observing flood gave me the details for River Friendly River Wild. As I created Lanie, I learned to observe birds, those tiny visitors from a world of wind currents and clouds that pop onto our lawns and fences.
When a gardener helped me see birds can’t chomp any old insect and insects can’t chow down on any old plant—that native plants attract native insects support native birds–I began to research monarchs and ladybugs and dirt.
Research is the third way I gather details for my books.
Eventually, Lanie discovers just as orangutans can’t live without trees, monarch caterpillars can’t live without milkweed. She can make a difference with animals in her own back yard. For a while, my way of making a difference was writing the stories of beautiful Ethiopia, but ten years ago, I got involved in a huge volunteer effort to plant some of the first libraries for children in Ethiopia, a place where many kids learn to read and never get to read one book.
When Lady Bird Johnson was asked why all the work to create the National Wildflower Research Center, she said it was a way of “paying rent for the space I have taken up in this highly interesting world.” Since 2001, I, too, have been paying rent.
Now I have new images of Ethiopia: a small boy in an Ethiopia Reads library carefully copying a book so he will have a story to read at home. A donkey pulling a cart full of books. At an author visit I asked, “What do you think happens when the donkey stops under a tree?” A girl burst out, “It attracts humans.”
That’s exactly what has happened. At some of the libraries, children line up for hours for their turn to read.
I don’t know Oprah and I don’t know anyone who does. I do know, now, that ordinary people can make a difference. I know stories of pain and hope that sometimes lead to action.
In Grand Forks, ND, for example, three siblings recently heard the Ethiopia Reads story and held a pumpkin sale because “everyone should be able to enjoy reading as our family does.” Their letter thanked everyone who bought pumpkins, $166 worth.
When you give, you are given to. Seven years ago, my daughter and one of my sons decided to volunteer for Ethiopia Reads. My son traveled all over Ethiopia, taking pictures of castles and gelada baboons. He also fell in love with a young Ethiopian woman working at the library…and thus I got to meet my first grandbaby.
Most of us, in the words of a friend’s grandmother, have to eat a peck of sand before we die. Stories keep us strong and give us the gift of compassion and help our dreams soar.
My father’s mother worked hard for twenty years to get a chance to live in a house dug into the earth. She had to stand on a box to see the sky. One Christmas, they planned for a sagebrush tree until a teacher offered to sell my dad the school tree for ten cents, and he brought it proudly home.
My mother’s mother was a foster child who was never adopted. My mom grew up in a poor, disturbing family in rural Iowa. One day, her family found her crying and asked her why. “Someday,” she said, “I won’t be in school anymore.”
What besides education turns poverty around in one generation? What besides stories can plant strong faith and vision when everything is dismal and gritty and sad?
Recently, I got to meet a family that donated money to plant a library in honor of their two adopted Ethiopian children and their reading grandparents. The dad wrote, “Morike remains nervous about babysitters, because he’s afraid Mommy and Daddy won’t come home. Samra is often a helpful translator in speaking to a 3-year old mind. ‘Mo, they’re our FOREVER Mommy and Daddy. That means even if you try to get them off you, you can’t. No matter how hard you try to get away, they’ll just be stuck there.’”
In these tough times, may all of us—parents, teachers, writers, dreamers–stay stuck to reading and stories and books.
Jane, thank you again. For fans of Jane’s here are links to provide more information. http://www.janekurtz.com/ and http://janekurtz.wordpress.com/