Author Update: Jane Kurtz

I last interviewed author Jane Kurtz in 2002 about her picture book River Friendly, River Wild, illustrated by Neil Brennan (Simon & Schuster, 2000). It was inspired by her own family’s experiences surving a devasting flood in Grand Forks. See The Story Behind The Story: Jane Kurtz on River Friendly, River Wild. We’d also recently talked about her writing life, favorite reads, and body of literary trade fiction and resource books in An Interview With Children’s Book Author Jane Kurtz. (Note: my site is being redesigned in fall 2005, so if these links don’t work, simply check the site guide and/or search engine).

What is new in your writing life since we last chatted?

I see scary trends in the children’s book world around me.

The kinds of things I’ve been drawn to write about…the Ethiopia of my childhood…stories of kids from Africa now living in the U.S…a fantasy that explores questions about nationalism and where is home?…have gained critical acclaim.

The New Jersey School Library Association recently came up with a list of their “pick of the decade” books for various grade levels, and five of my books were on it–at the kindergarten, second, fourth, and sixth grade levels.

But schools and libraries are in an enormous budget crunch all over the U.S. My editors are telling me that they can’t make most picture books work financially, and when I study lists of what is selling, it mostly isn’t my kind of book.

I worry a lot about the whole multicultural book scene–and, beause of my own passions–I worry particularly about books that connect with Africa.

The future from where I sit looks grim. One result is that, when I can, I urge people to take the power they do have to loudly speak out for books that matter. Another is that I’ve started to cling with determination to the deep-down love of writing that sustains me even when the atmosphere around is unremittingly gloomy.

Do you have a new/upcoming book(s) to tell us about?

For the first time since the early 1990s, I don’t have a picture book under contract. That means my life is all about novel-writing these days. My brother and I spent most of last year working on a fun one, and I’m about to dive into a revision of a more serious one set in ancient Egypt.

I’m not giving up on picture books, though. Since Pulling the Lion’s Tail (Simon & Schuster, 1995) is out of print, I’ve been talking with Yohannes–my friend who moved back to Ethiopia to put books into the hands of Ethiopian kids–about how we might do an Ethopian version with new illustrations in three different languages.

If so, could you give us some insights into how this book(s) came to be?

Since we grew up in Ethiopia without television and movies, my siblings and I sang together all the time. One of our favorites was a boisterous pirate ballad. A year ago in Kansas, my brother [Christopher] (co-author of Only a Pigeon and Water Hole Waiting) and I wandered into a spooky-feeling glade of trees that made us think about that song. My brother asked, “Do you think we could write a story using the slight plot in the ballad?” We were intrigued by the challenge and jumped in to try. I’ve never laughed so hard and often while writing a book. Now we have to see if an editor likes it as much as we do.

What are your writing goals for the immediate future?

My main goal is to savor the writing itself–that frustrating, fascinating, messy, infuriating, thrilling process that traipses me endlessly down wrong canyons and–blessedly–up the other side again.

In the past couple of years, I’ve had the delight of watching Ethiopian kids reading. Kids who’ve never had a chance to hold a book in their hands before. It has reminded me of just how much in love with books I was as a kid and how glad I am to have had a life of writing them.

Cynsational News & Links

Meet Jane Kurtz: Author, Traveler, Teacher by Sue Reichard from

Magical Things: An Interview with Julianna Baggott by Nikki Tranter from PopMatters Books.

Three Against That Which Is The Peshtigo School by Kimberly Pauley (YA Books Goddess) from Young Adult Books Central. A review of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2003, 2005). See also Tofu and T. rex by Greg Leitich Smith from Booktalks — Quick and Simple. (Happy anniversary, Greg!)