Career Achievers: Jane Kurtz on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Jane Kurtz.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field. Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

It feels to me as if my publishing journey has been nothing but bumpy—and of course all the bumps and bangs and bruises have stabbed my writer’s heart over and over.

I started publishing at a time when smaller publishers were getting gobbled up by bigger publishers and editors were losing their jobs in consolidations. I long to have been part of a world where a long-time editor would work with and nurture a writer’s career.

One of my mantras has been Respect the Mountain. I’ve been nimble, kept my eyes open for opportunity, learned from other people around me, and cultivated my team.

What does that look like specifically?

One example: I broke into the New York publishing scene with retold folktale picture books connecting to my childhood in Ethiopia. When that door closed, I published some contemporary picture books connecting with Ethiopia.

When editors began to say to me, “We can’t seem to get any picture books set in Africa to sell,” I published picture books set in the U.S. but still connecting with Africa.

I also found ways to weave my Africa connections into other genres, editing a short story collection (Memories of Sun (Greenwillow, 2003)) with other people’s stories (including a mix of well-known and brand new authors) and publishing middle grade/YA novels like The Storyteller’s Beads (Gulliver, 1998), Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot (American Girl, 2003) and recently Planet Jupiter (Greenwillow, 2017).

I began to volunteer my time to work with artistic volunteers (many of them kids) to create local language books for Ethiopia. Having a “multicultural” story at the heart of my real life went from being an asset to a liability in terms of publishing possibilities.

It didn’t matter. I’m stubborn. I stayed determined, even though parts of that journey hurt like crazy.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I would love to have caught on earlier that readers would actually be interested in and not scornful about my childhood in Ethiopia—because it would be great to have caught the folktale wave when it was hot (in the 1980s) and not at the tail end.

The big reason I missed the wave is that I was living in a small town in southern Colorado and checking books out of the library, not knowing how to look at what was on the cutting edge.

I tell people, when it comes to picture books especially, read what’s being published now.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

I think picture books have changed the most (for me) over my lifetime of publishing.

As I entered the field, picture books were getting longer and more sophisticated, being used more widely with readers older than the (then) conventional four-to-eight-year-old reader. Now they are short, snappy, really text-and-illustration interactive, and geared (for the most part) to three-, four-, and five-year-olds.

I’m determined not to whine about the changes even though I miss getting to use all those lovely words.

Nonfiction is soaring in picture books, which opens cool worlds. Also, I was always the funny kid in my family, and I’m getting to use my humor more.

Who would think that someone who started out by publishing Fire on the Mountain (E.B. Lewis’s first foray into picture book illustration—a lovely and elegant picture book)(Simon & Schuster, 1994) would now be getting ready to publish What Do They Do with All That Poo? illustrated by Allison Black (Beach Lane, 2018).

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Don’t waste any time and longing thinking things are going to get any easier. You think that if you had published many books, your life would be easier. Probably not.

Celebrate your successes and cultivate a sense of “enough” and “arrived.” Keep reading. You’ll gather new craft skills throughout your whole life to keep going and growing as a writer.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Cate Berry, Jane and Margaret Mayo McGlynn singing at VCFA.

This has always been a generous and supportive and fun-loving community.

I wouldn’t have survived without my writers’ retreats and my author friends and the Vermont College of Fine Arts community—a smart, hardworking collection of writers serious about the craft of children’s and YA literature.

I want us to resist the inevitable fears of scarcity and look for ways to network and build each other up.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I’ve gotten to the stage where I no longer think about my literary legacy. I still want my books to do well in the world and find their readers. But I mostly want to have a creative life every day.

I want to keep writing and keep learning…oh…and getting to that stage where I feel “enough” and “arrived” would be beautiful.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

6 thoughts on “Career Achievers: Jane Kurtz on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

  1. Jane Kurtz is one of my heroes–er, heroines! She never gives up. She weaves her life's passions into her writing and gives selflessly to so many! So thankful Jane was in the spotlight today!

  2. I love Jane's work and had the pleasure of hearing her lecture at VCFA, this is a great post. I especially love that her wish is to "live a creative life every day." Me, too! Thanks for giving us a peek into your writing life, Jane, and for sharing with the world, Cyn.

  3. Wise words! Thank you, Jane, for sharing your journey. It's hard when what we love to write goes out of fashion, and I'm happy that you've been able to incorporate those places and stories into your newer work over the years.

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