Jane Kurtz was born in Portland, Oregon, but when she was two years old, her parents moved to Ethiopia. Jane grew up in Maji, a small town in the southwest corner of the country. Since there were no televisions, radios, or movies, her memories are of climbing mountains, wading in rivers by the waterfalls, listening to stories, and making up her own stories, which she and her sisters acted out for days at a time.
When she was in fourth grade, she went to boarding school in Addis Ababa. Her family left Ethiopia in the late 1970s, but a decade later, first her brother and his family and then her older sister and her family went back to teach in a girls' school in Addis Ababa.
By the time Jane came back to the United States for college, she felt there was no way to talk about her childhood home to people here. It took nearly twenty years to finally find a way - through her children's books. Now she often speaks in schools and at conferences, sharing memories from her own childhood and bringing in things for the children to touch and taste and see and smell and hear from Ethiopia. "It's been a healing and inspiring experience," she says, "to re-connect with my childhood and also be able to help people know just a little of the beautiful country where I grew up."
Earl Lewis illustrated her first Ethiopian story, Fire on the Mountain, using photographs that Jane sent him and photographing Ethiopian families in Philadelphia, where he lives. When Jane's brother came back from teaching in Ethiopia and told her about the street boys who taught him to raise pigions, she and here brother wrote Only a Pigeon, a book that will be published in spring 1997. Earl Lewis and Chris Kurtz traveled to Ethiopia in 1995 so Earl could do the art research for the story. Floyd Cooper illustrated the second story, Pulling the Lion's Tail, using photographs and his own imagination to make the story of Almaz come to life.
I worked in classrooms with elementary and high school students for over ten years (I'm a teacher now, too, but--as I tell students in school visits--most of my students now, especially the ones on the UND football team, are bigger than I am). So I'm comfortable in classrooms and enjoy school speaking. You can contact me at my e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, if you'd like to discuss that possibility.
Here are some questions that kids or adults have asked
me during school visits (and my answers). Feel free
to e-mail me your question and I'll try to add it to
What were your parents doing in Ethiopia?
They worked for the Presbyterian church, first in a remote area near
a town called Maji and later in the capital city of Addis Ababa.
When you were growing up, did you think of yourself as an Ethiopian?
No, even though I was only two years old when my
parents moved to Ethiopia, I knew I didn't completely
belong, there. For one thing, the people around me
had skin from the color of honey to a dark black like
a shiny obsidian rock. I had skin the color of the
inside of a custard apple (if you know what that looks
like) with brown dots, otherwise known as freckles.
For another thing, my family and a nurse and a teacher
were the only people I knew who spoke English.
Everyone else was speaking Amharic or Teshena or
Magyinia or something else. My family had some books
that showed me what life was like "back home." What I
didn't expect, though, was that we would come back to
the U.S. for a visit when I was seven and I would feel
even more of an outsider there.
What kind of house did you live in?
The first house I remember (in Maji) was shaped like
most of the houses around--only bigger. It was round
with a grass roof and a mud floor with a mat to keep
the dirt down. It had a pole up the middle. Later,
my grandpa came out, and he and my dad built a new
house. This one still had adobe (mud and straw)
walls, but it was square and had a tin roof. The rain
was very loud at night on the tin roof. My mom would
sometimes let us roller skate down the hall, because
the floor was made of cement and there weren't any
other hard, smooth surfaces around to skate on.
What did you eat?
My whole family liked (and still likes) to eat wat and
injera, which most families around us ate every day.
Wat is like a spicy stew, and injera is a thin, spongy
bread--like a tortilla, only with holes in it like a
sponge. When my daughter first saw injera, she
thought it was her napkin folded beside her plate, so
that gives you some idea. You scoop up the wat with
the injera. We didn't have a refrigerator when we
moved to Maji, so my mom canned some meat. My dad
also grew a big vegetable garden. In that area, not
many people got to go to school, so some of the school
boys, who were in their teens, worked around our house
for the money to go to school. They would kill the
chickens for some dinners or they'd go to the markato,
once a week, to do the shopping. Sometimes people
brought eggs or bananas or something to our house. We
could trade cans for eggs because the cans made a
handy utensil for storing or scooping water.
Can I find your books in my library or bookstore?
Every year, 5000 new children's books are published.
There isn't enough room on the shelves of bookstores
(or libraries) for every one of those books. So you
can't assume you can find any book, except maybe the
award winners for the year or the ones by famous
authors, in any library or bookstore. Still, a
bookstore will usually order any book you ask them to.
And a library can usually order the book for you or
ask for it via interlibrary loan. Since my first
major book just came out in 1994, I'm still just
starting on my writing career. Over the next few
years, as more and more books come out of mine, I hope
they will be in more and more bookstores and
libraries! (You can also order books via computer at
places like www.amazon.com.)
Where did you go to school?
The local school only went up through grade 4 and it
was taught in Amharic. That wasn't too useful for us,
since we knew we'd come back and go to school in the
U.S. eventually. So my mom taught us at home up
through fourth grade. After that, each of us (six
kids) went off to boarding school in Addis Ababa.
Then we didn't get home except at Christmas and summer
Weren't you homesick?
Yes. Later, when I came back to the U.S. for college,
I was homesick for Ethiopia for years. Homesickness
is a feeling I know very well. That feeling is one of
the sad, empty spots inside of me that nudged me to
write my books.
What's your favorite book?
That's a little bit like asking a mom which one is her
favorite child. All of my books are a little like my
babies. But if I had to choose a very favorite, it
would probably be MY FATHER'S WILD HOME, a book that
won't come out until 1998, because that one is MY
story in sooo many ways. I'm like the little girl in
the story and I'm also like the dad in the story.
Do you have any children?
Yep! My kids are David, 16, Jonathan, 15, and
Rebekah, 13. David is the little boy that became
Christopher in I'M CALLING MOLLY. Rebekah is the one
of my kids who loves to read almost as much as I do.
Jonathan would rather play ball than read, but I
always try to get him to read, anyway. When my kids
were little, I read tons and tons of books to them,
which is when I first decided that I would like to
write a children's book. Until then, I had only
written things for grown-ups.
Was it hard to get published?
It was very hard. I show students in schools a folder
of my rejection letters from just one year--all the
times editors said "no." Sometimes, it takes a lot of
failure, a lot of "no" to get to yes. This is an
example of a rejection letter. You can see that a
story can be pretty good and still not be good enough
to get published.
How long does it take you to write one of your books?
This question, I always think, is the very hardest to answer. First of all, I work on picture books, chapter books, and novels, so obviously a longer book tends to take more time to write a first draft of. But the truth is that picture books can be amazingly hard to get right. I recently sold a picture book, for example, that I wrote 2/3 of and then got stuck. (I had an ending for it, but I couldn't think how to get there.) After I put the story away for almost a year, I saw how to do it.
Even after I write a draft of a picture book, that's only the beginning. I read it over and over again to myself--or out loud--and listen to how the words sound. I think about how to pull the reader in, to make the reader feel what I've felt or see what I've saw. In PULLING THE LION'S TAIL, at the tense scene where Almaz finally gets close to the lion, I struggled with how to make the reader be there with Almaz, right up next to the lion. Finally, I decided to use the sense of smell. So I asked myself, "What does the lion's breath smell like?" I had to try a lot of different possibilities before the right one came to me.
Even after I revise and revise, my work isn't
finished. When my editors read my stories, they
almost always see something I didn't see. After
Houghton Mifflin bought MIRO IN THE KINGDOM OF THE
SUN, the editor wrote to me that it was "a lovely
story, skillfully crafted and full of the rich details
and beautiful images that bring a tale to life. It
glows." Then she said she'd be sending a few
suggestions. You can see, here, what one of my pages
looked like after her suggestions!