Jane Kurtz is the author of fiction for young readers and professional books for teachers and librarians. When Jane was age two, her parents left the U.S. to work for the Presbyterian Church in Ethiopia, where they stayed for twenty three years with occasional visits back to the U.S. That Ethiopian childhood became the background for many of Jane’s books, including FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Aladdin, 1998)(reprint edition), TROUBLE, illustrated by Durga Bernhard (Gulliver, 1997) and THE STORYTELLER’S BEADS, illustrated by Michael Bryant (Guliver, 1998). In writing her novel, I’M SORRY, ALMIRA ANN, illustrated by Susan Havice (Henry Holt, 1999), Jane reached farther into her family’s history to her great great great grandmother, who traveled over the Oregon Trail. This interview was conducted via email in May 2000.
What sorts of books did you enjoy as a girl?
My parents didn’t take many books with them to Ethiopia, so I didn’t have many books as a child, but the ones we had were all beloved. My parents read aloud to us, and after I learned to read, I would read my favorites over and over. Now, most of the books I read would be called “classics,” but I just thought of them as gripping stories: LITTLE WOMEN, BLACK BEAUTY, CADDIE WOODLAWN, and WINNIE THE POOH are some that I remember vividly.
What books are your favorites today?
I love to read, and I read lots of different things. I always have a stack of books out of the library—biographies, well written nonfiction that makes other places and people come alive, contemporary fiction, mysteries, books for young readers (which I really think are books for all ages). I buy so many books that my bookshelves are overflowing.
What inspired you to begin writing for children?
I had always loved to read and write, but I never thought about publishing a book for children until I had my own three children. Week after week, we would trot ourselves to the library and check out new books. As I read hundreds of children’s books to David, Jonathan and Rebekah, my admiration—and then my passion—grew, until I put aside my adult writing and set a goal of publishing my own children’s book.
Could you tell us about your own path to publication?
When I started out, I told myself that if my goal were to be a doctor or lawyer, I would assume it would take about ten years of schooling and other training, so I was going to learn everything I could about the publishing business and not give up too soon. In fact, since I respect books fully as much as medicine or law, I would give myself ten years of apprenticeship before I gave up. It did take me almost ten years to get that first contract from a major publisher. When my children were young, I couldn’t really get away to attend conferences, which would have helped. I did (on the advice from an editor) join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and I read books about writing as well as reading hundreds of picture books and novels. After we moved to North Dakota ten years ago, I started to attend the annual children literature conference here and to read Horn Book and Publisher’s Weekly. I loved everything about the world of books, so my ten-year education was satisfying and fun as well as frustrating.
Your earliest work seems to have been inspired by your childhood ties to the Africa continent. Could you please share with us some information about your early years and how they have impacted you as an author?
I grew up in a remote corner of Ethiopia with no television, radio, movies, or other technological entertainment. Luckily, I did have three inventive sisters to keep me company. (We also had Ethiopian friends, but Ethiopian children have to work hard from an early age, so they never had as much time to play as we would have liked.) My sisters and I would make up and act out stories for days at a time. All of my early memories are of the magical, haunting world of Maji, where we spent most of our time outside (using my mother’s flowers, the frogs that hid in the false banana leaves, the fern tips we called “water babies” and anything else we could find as the props for our elaborate stories) or roller skating on the cement floor of our house or up in the attic, stepping carefully on the rafters–so our feet wouldn’t go through the adobe mud ceiling–playing with the families we cut from catalog pages. After I came back to the U.S. for college, I spent years not talking about Ethiopia. I thought there was no way to talk about Ethiopia with people here. My books finally gave me a way to talk about my childhood.
A few of your early books, PULLING THE LION’S TAIL, FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN, TROUBLE, and MIRO IN THE KINGDOM OF THE SUN are retellings of traditional stories or folk tales. What do you see as the special challenges of researching and retelling a story from ancient oral traditions?
The first three of those books were stories I heard as a child. I put people in them like the people I grew up around and tried to use my writing to give a glimpse into my childhood home.
With MIRO, though, set in the ancient Inca kingdom, I relied heavily on research. As I said, I love reading about other times and places. It was a pleasure to do the research so that I could do a re-telling of the story that would be full of the details of real Inca daily life.
I will say that highlands Ethiopia has an ancient written language, and Inca folktales were written down by the Spanish, who also (obviously) were drawing on a heritage of written stories. True oral traditions often don’t use the conventions of written stories. I think people who are doing those retellings have to make bigger leaps to craft a story that most of their readers will find satisfying and familiar. Even in my books, I built in more cause and effect than in the original stories. I made Alemayu, in FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN, a dreamer, so that he would have his vivid dreams to pull him through the dark night on the mountain. I made Almaz, in PULLING THE LION’S TAIL, impatient. That way, the reader can see the changes in her as she gradually learns that “much of what is good comes slowly.” This is a story that in Ethiopia is used to teach patience, but most folktales don’t go to any pains to develop characterization. I always heard it as a story told about a young wife who was afraid her husband didn’t love her or about a mother who had “lost the love of her son.” In true folktale fashion, the story never said WHY.
Why do you think it is important for today’s children to be exposed to these old tales?
For one thing, they are great stories. For another thing, folktales are almost always used in traditional societies to illustrate the kind of behavior that is important and valuable and honorable. I love the ancient truths revealed by the old stories.
Your picture book, ONLY A PIGEON, co-authored with your brother Christopher, is a breakthrough, stereotype-busting book that features an Ethiopian city boy in Addis Ababa. Could you comment perhaps on the international images of Africa, and why it is important for children to have a better understanding of the diversity of life ways on the continent?
Well, it’s pretty obvious that most children’s books set in Africa use a rural setting. Children are astonished to learn that Africa has cities. One of my best props for school visits is a Coca Cola bottle cap. “You had Coca Cola in Ethiopia?” kids ask with incredulity. I tell them that I drank my first Coca Cola in Ethiopia when I was in elementary school, a looooong time ago. Many of today’s children will travel to Africa, work in Africa, have business partners and friends in or from Africa. Why should they grow up so ignorant about such a huge and important continent?
What was it like, writing with your brother Christopher?
Christopher is eight years younger than I am, and he’s been a delight to me ever since he was born. He’s warm and funny and people (including me) love to be around him. He was the one who knew about raising pigeons, so he would sit down and write a little piece of the story, then give me a turn at the computer. I mostly tried to make each section as vivid as possible and also as tight and compact as possible.
Your first novel, THE STORYTELLER’S BEADS, brings young readers into the famine and tragedy of the 1980s while remaining solidly centered on two young Ethiopian girls–one of whom is both Jewish and blind, the other Christian–as they take a dangerous journey and confront their own prejudices. What were the challenges in writing this novel?
I didn’t know the northern part of Ethiopia well, nor did I know this time of Ethiopia’s history well, since my family left about three years after the 1974 revolution that deposed the last Amhara emperor. While I could draw some on memory, I also had to do a great deal of research. Luckily, many of the stories of the survivors have been gathered, especially those of the Beta Israel who were airlifted to Israel in a massive rescue effort. I drew on the real stories of survivors to help me understand what the journey would be like for Rahel and Sahay.
What were the rewards?
As with the Incas, I utterly loved doing the research. It never felt like a chore. I was honored to immerse myself in that time and place and hear those stories of pain and survival. I also learned a great deal about writing a novel from two different viewpoints—what a challenge! Finally, I’ve had immense rewards from hearing readers’ comments about how much they were drawn into the story, how much they cared about Rahel and Sahay and their families.
Did you discover anything about yourself?
When my editor pushed me to bring Rahel more to life, I did it by reaching into my own childhood and making her a girl who loved to pretend that she was the characters in the Biblical stories and other stories that she grew up hearing.
Your most recent book related to your Ethiopian experience is FARAWAY HOME, but in this picture book, we are introduced to Ethiopian Americans, one of whom is about to return home to Ethiopia. What inspired you to bring one of your stories to a United States setting?
The immediate spark was a friend from Ethiopia who showed a picture of himself as a schoolboy to his children, who are growing up in the U.S. His son said, “Why did you take off your shoes to go to school?”
As I reflected on that story, I thought about the huge gaps between children growing up here who have parents who grew up in other countries…and this includes me and my children, of course.
FARAWAY HOME is the story of so many, many Americans, so many of the children in schools in every state. It’s also an emotional picture book for me because of E.B. Lewis’s gorgeous watercolors (based on pictures he took while he was in Ethiopia doing art research for ONLY A PIGEON) and because the story is so close to my own heart.
Your contribution has done wonders for the quality and quantity of children’s literature related to Africa. Why do you think such books are so rare? Do you foresee this changing any time soon? Why or why not?
I’m hearing from my editors that books set in Africa are not selling well—I suppose Africa is just too far from most people’s experiences. Sadly, I think such realities will make books about Africa (and set in Africa) even more rare in the future. I don’t think most of my own Africa-connected books would be published if I were sending them out today.
Of course not all of your books are related to Africa. One of my favorite middle grade novels is your I’M SORRY, ALMIRA ANN, a historical story of the Oregon Trail. Could you share with us your inspiration for the book?
Like many authors, I have many stories that I’ve worked on over the years that no editor has committed to publishing, so just looking at one’s published books can be a bit deceiving. I’ve been reading and writing about the Oregon Trail for a long time.
My grandmother’s mother traveled on the trail as a little girl, and my grandmother grew up to homestead on the eastern Oregon plains—a very hard life!
I was born in Oregon. Although my parents left for Ethiopia when I was two years old, we would visit my grandparents on their farm when we came back to the U.S. to visit every five years, and I had fond memories of all my Oregon relatives.
I loved writing this short novel, which has turned out to be perfect for 2nd-5th graders, just the age that pioneers are usually studied.
How did you bring together the characters Sarah and Almira Ann? Do you see any parts of your own personality in either of them?
I am definitely Sarah—as I am Tekeleh in TROUBLE. My older sister was the good, ladylike, responsible one of the family. Like Tekeleh, I never meant to get in trouble, but somehow I found myself in trouble all the same. Like Sarah, I had a hasty, impulsive spirit and was, alas, careless. Almira Ann’s beautiful doll is modeled on my sister Caroline’s doll, and I was the little kid looking longingly at that doll and wishing I could have something so beautiful. When Sarah climbs Chimney Rock, I drew on my memories of climbing a small waterfall near our house…I was quite a climber as a child and was always making my sisters nervous with my escapades.
RIVER FRIENDLY, RIVER WILD is an amazingly beautiful poetry picture book, which I know was inspired by your family’s experience during the 1997 Red River flood. Could you tell us a bit about that experience?
Going through a flood and cleaning up afterwards and recovering, which takes years, is definitely the most emotionally demanding thing I’ve ever done—and that’s saying something because I’ve been through a number of hard experiences.
Life in Ethiopia with no electricity and no running water (at times) was difficult in many ways, but I saw things through a child’s eyes and found it mostly a great adventure. The Red River flood was different. I mourned (and still mourn) the loss of our neighborhood, my children’s elementary and middle schools, their childhood drawings and paintings, some of my early work. Writing about the experience through one child’s eyes was healing.
Now, having the book out and hearing other people’s stories and their warm reaction to my book has also been healing.
How were you able to write during such a difficult time?
Yikes…I don’t know how I could not have written during such a difficult time. When everything else was turned upside down, I clung to my writing as the only sane and fun thing in many of my days. Luckily, when one writes, one inhabits an imaginary world, a world I much preferred being in for most of those days.
How has the book been received in Grand Forks, North Dakota and other areas affected by the flood?
I’ve been so moved by the reactions of people…how my book seems to spark their own memories and feelings. I signed about 600 copies of the book in Grand Forks alone in the first month after it came out. One woman who came to a signing in Minneapolis said, “They’ll have to rent the Chester Fritz auditorium when you do a reading in Grand Forks.”
That’s not quite true :> but the reaction has been heart-warming.
Do you have any future children’s books in the works? Can you tell us anything about them?
My most ambitious novel will come out next spring with Greenwillow. It doesn’t have a title at the moment, but it’s the story of a girl who has grown up in East Africa and is now in the Upper Midwest, adjusting to life in the United States.
I also have several picture books that are out with illustrators. WATERHOLE WAITING is set at an African water hole on the savannah where my brother and I spent many hours (yes, this one is another collaboration with Christopher). RAIN ROMP is set in the rainy Northwest where I was born and where my parents and most of my siblings now live. ALL THE WISDOM IN THE WORLD uses traditional stories from Ghana to show a warm, comforting relationship between a brother and sister newly transplanted to the United States.
You have written a few resource books for educators. Could you tell us a bit about TERRIFIC CONNECTIONS WITH AUTHOR, ILLUSTRATORS, AND STORYTELLERS: REAL SPACE AND VIRTUAL LINKS, which you co-authored with Toni Buzzeo?
I go out of town to speak in schools or at conferences about once a month, so such visits are a big part of my life. To my shock and dismay, I’ve discovered that not all schools and libraries make the most of the visits they set up. Bookpeople can attest that many visits are just plain awful.
Many more are adequate but are far from being the exciting reading and writing experiences they could be. As I went through some speaking experiences, I found myself wishing that I could show every school and library what the very best speaking experiences are like.
Toni (Buzzeo) is a school library media specialist in Maine and her school was one of those peak experiences for me when I visited there. We decided to do what we could to inspire others to do a terrific job—so we interviewed bookpeople, teachers, librarians, coordinators of young author conferences, administrators, and so on and asked them to describe their best connections.
TERRIFIC CONNECTIONS is a meaty collection of what really works. I was so inspired, myself, to find out more about what’s being done out there by creative, committed people.
It’s wonderful when a whole school gets involved, but even an individual teacher can do great things working with an author, illustrator, or storyteller. We describe some projects that have been done by classroom teachers—and also projects using the Internet and other technology.
How about THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST RESOURCE BOOK: THE PEOPLE AND CULTURE: A RESOURCE BOOK FOR TEACHERS AND STUDENTS? What inspired your interest in the Southwest?
I wrote my first pieces for that book when I was living in Trinidad, Colorado, just over the New Mexico state line. I lived in Trinidad for eight years and had two of my children there—I became very attached to that part of the U.S. So when an educational publisher asked me to write a resource book about one of the regions of the United States, the Southwest was a natural. The book is only an introduction to the culture and history of such a vast region, but it provides suggestions for other books to read on any subject that the teachers and students find interesting. I consider it a collection of true stories about the Southwest that I hope will inspire people to want to know more.
What advice do you have for aspiring young authors (children and teens)?
Read, read, read! Fall in love with words, stories, and books. And keep an idea book where you jot down anything that interests you as you go through your daily life.