by Sharron L. McElmeel
UPDATE: November 2014

Jane Kurtz grew up in Ethiopia but spent extended visits in the Midwest,. at her grandparents' home in Iowa and during her college days in Illinois. She currently lives and teaches in North Dakota. Her books reflect bits and pieces of all these places--sometimes reluctantly.

A Writer's Beginnings

Kurtz's second grade teacher thought that "Perhaps [writing was] one of her talents." Kurtz agrees, saying, "I always wanted to be a writer." At first she found time to write by helping her church to establish a mothers' "morning out" program. Once the program was up and running, her three preschool children spent every Thursday morning at the church, which provided Kurtz with time to write. At other times, she snatched moments here and there to make notes and to write down bits of overheard dialogue.

Her first writings came from the lives of her children and spawned her first picture book, I'm Calling Molly (Whitman, op). She kept lists of books she read to her own children and recorded the publishers of the books she liked.

Writing from Her Childhood

It was not until she turned 40 that Kurtz turned to her own childhood for story material. During those snatched moments and the Thursday mornings she had for writing, she "did tons of research and learned all the history and geography of Ethiopia." It was information she says she "wished she had learned as a child." In 1991, she published Ethiopia: The Roof of Africa (Dillon). She told of the markets, peasant associations, legends, food, and festivals of the country where she had grown up. Her younger brother, Christopher, who was living with his own family in Ethiopia at the time, took the pictures for the book.

Her next book retold a folktale, Fire on the Mountain (Simon & Schuster, 1994), which she had heard many times as a child. Illustrator E. B. Lewis photographed models to help him compose scenes in the book, as many illustrators do. Kurtz also sent him photographs taken in Ethiopia. Lewis created beautiful watercolors that captured Kurtz's image of her childhood home. Another Ethiopian folktale, with illustrations by Floyd Cooper, became Pulling the Lion's Tale (Simon & Schuster, 1995), and then Kurtz turned to an Incan folktale to give us the character of Miro in the Kingdom of the Sun (Houghton Mifflin, 1996). Kurtz has always been fascinated by volcanoes and loved the obsidian that she and her sisters found on the Ethiopian mountain slopes where they often played. Knowing that volcanoes were also found in the region of South America inhabited by the Incas, she mentioned a volcano in the story.

Trouble (Harcourt, 1997) is based on a traditional tale and set in Eritrea, which used to be part of Ethiopia but gained independence in 1993. In this story a game of gebeta keeps a little boy, Tekeleh, busy and out of trouble. Writing about the game reawakened Kurtz's own memories of sitting on the dirt floor of her home in the village of Maji and scooping up pebbles and dropping them in the holes, one after another. Another similarity exists between Kurtz and Tekeleh--as a child, Kurtz enjoyed poking at a line of ants with a stick, and so does Tekeleh.

New Perspectives of the Country of Her Childhood

When Kurtz was in the fourth grade her parents decided they had reached the limits of their home schooling ability, so Kurtz was sent to a boarding school in Addis Ababa. The entire family moved there during her high school years. Soon, however, the family's life was even more disrupted by the revolution that brought gunshots and shouts for all ferenjis (foreigners) to get out. As a result of the revolution, Kurtz's family would have to leave the home of her childhood and return to the United States.

In the 1980s, Jane's younger brother, Christopher, had become the first in the family to return to Addis Ababa. He was teaching in a girls school where his students were middle-class Ethiopians who lived in houses much like those of his and Jane's childhood--square structures with dirt or concrete floors and tin roofs.

In the city of over a million people, however, there was much poverty, and Christopher came to be acquainted with a young boy named Andualem, who shined shoes outside the school's compound. Through that friendship Christopher came to know the other side of Addis Ababa. In Andualem's world, many people were unemployed, families often had no home in which to sleep, and children who shined shoes might be their family's main income provider.

Christopher's photograph of Andualem playing with an orphan pigeon and feeding the pigeon mouth-to-mouth with food he had chewed became the anchor for Jane's next book. Together Christopher and Jane crafted a story, Only a Pigeon (Simon & Schuster, 1997), that told of Ondu-ahlem in Addis Ababa as he goes about his routine of maintaining an existence, going to school, and caring for the pigeons. Christopher and E. B. Lewis, the book's illustrator, journeyed to Addis Ababa to take photographs for the story.

Only a Pigeon touched on a part of Ethiopia that had not actually been part of her own childhood. And it was; a part that she found difficult to write about. The Ethiopia of her childhood was a beautiful place filled with people with pride and hospitality. But as an adult she knew children and starvation existed side-by-side.

As she began to write her first novel her difficulty in writing about that part of Ethiopian life surfaced again. That reluctance took The Storyteller's Beads (Harcourt Brace, 1998), through several major revisions. She struggled to tell about the Ethiopian children who experienced starvation and war. But as the story emerged Kurtz found her voice for that part of the story when two girls haunted her. From some readings she became intrigued with the idea that the Kemant (in northern Ethiopia) thought of the Jews in their country as buda--possessed by the devil. What if a girl from each ethnic group was thrown together? Then she read one sentence in a nonfiction book of survival stories of Ethiopian Jews. One of the stories told of a "blind girl who walked all the way to the Sudan with her hand on her brother's shoulder." Fascinated by all of this information, Kurtz began to tell the story of two endangered Ethiopian girls, one Jewish and blind, the other Christian, who struggle to flee the dangerous political situation in their homeland in the 1980s and become refugees.

A Writer's Struggle and Inspiration

Ironically while Kurtz was crafting The Storyteller's Beads, which told of devastating circumstances in the country of her childhood she was, as an adult living in the United States, experiencing her own devastating circumstances--circumstances which began on her birthday, April 17, in 1997. That is the day a great flood invaded the Kurtz's home on Lincoln Drive in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The family fled their home, each carrying only a bag of clothes, except for Jane, who took a few of her writing materials. They went to the home of friends in another part of the town. Two days later, on April 19, her son David's birthday, the family had to evacuate again.

They were unable to return to their house for more than a month. Jane sat in the basement of a "borrowed house" and worked on the revisions for The Storyteller's Beads, while David and her other children, Jonathan and Rebekah, finished school in the town of Walhalla. Jane also started writing poems about the flood and its effect on the family. Later, while the family attempted to clean up their home, they camped in between the upstairs of their old home and a travel trailer that sat in their driveway, courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Jane continued to write, undaunted by the formidable circumstances.

The poems she wrote during the flood period were shaped into a story and have become River Friendly, River Wild (Simon & Schuster, 2000). The book mirrors the family's renewed appreciation for family and community.

Back Home and Writing

Kurtz and her family are now in another home in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Although the new home is smaller, there is still room for writing. Jane teaches part-time in the English Department at the University of North Dakota. The other half of her time is spent writing and speaking in schools. She spends a lot of time bouncing words around in her head before using her computer to put them on paper. "I savor the way the words look on a page," she says. Revision is very much a part of her writing process: "I like to revise much more than I like to write first drafts."

Kurtz's latest book, I'm Sorry, Almira Ann (Henry Holt, 1999), turns to the formative days of the Midwestern United States, when families packed their belongings in covered wagons and trekked across Missouri, heading for a new life.

In a forthcoming book, Faraway Home (Harcourt Brace, 2000), Kurtz returns to the theme of culture and ones identity with that culture when she tells Desta's story. Kurtz's parents, who were in Ethiopia for 23 years, brought their family back to the United States every five years. Kurtz says she "always struggled with a sense of not ever being at home with a culture." That struggle is one that Desta, a child born in the United States feels in another way, when her Ethiopian father is about to return to Ethiopia to visit his sick mother. Desta is afraid that he will not return--that he won't want to leave Ethiopia again. Kurtz says, "In many ways, it's my personal story as well as the story of so many immigrant families who have a cultural gap to bridge between parents and children."

In addition to Faraway Home, Kurtz is writing two new books, to be published by Orchard, tentatively titled Waterhole Waiting and Rain Drop (UPDATE: This book was eventually published in 2002 as Rain Romp: Stomping Away a Grouching Day), and another picture book for Harcourt & Brace, All the Wisdom in the World. "Then, of course, there are the things I'm revising or waiting to hear about...including another young and light novel and another serious novel."

Through all of the changes in Jane Kurtz's life, one thing appears to be constant--more books are yet to come.

Jane E. Kurtz maintains a Web site at <>. It is a virtual treasure trove of information for the reader, as well as for teachers who wish to integrate Kurtz's books into their curriculum. Pages list collaborative readings, topics for focus, background information, a visit with Jane and her sister to Ethiopia, and many discussion suggestions for her books. Visitors may also e-mail her from her site to comment or ask a question about one of her books or to arrange a school visit.

UPDATE: After the flood and several years living in Grand Forks, Jane Kurtz and her family moved to Kansas to be near her husband's family. Eventually Jane and her husband Leonard Goering moved to Portland Oregon where members of her family reside. Her brother, and sometimes co-author Chris Kurtz lives and writes there, as well; and both are supporters of an initiative to bring literacy to Ethiopia Jane's most recent book is Anna Was Here (2013). For a complete list of her books visit her book page at
Jane maintains a blog where she writes about her inspiration, her travels, her books and the power of one writer.


Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books.

This article first appeared in  Library Talk (first publication rights only) Copyright for all other uses copyright by Sharron L. McElmeel.  The contents of this article may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder`s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use. First appeared:  First appeared:  Library Talk, Mar/Apr2000, Vol. 13 Issue 2, p24, 3p    Current Source:

footer bar