Kurtz, Jane 1952–
American editor and author of picture books, easy readers, juvenile novels, and young adult novels.
The following entry presents an overview of Kurtz's career through 2005.
A strong advocate for third-world issues, in part due to her childhood spent living in Ethiopia, Kurtz is perhaps best known for creating stories for children that highlight the culture and mythology of underdeveloped nations. At the forefront of modern multicultural juvenile literature, Kurtz has sought to create a global awareness of African culture that is both positive and accurate, rather than the often violent and exaggerated images regularly associated with the continent in recent years. Several of her picture books and young adult novels, particularly River Friendly, River Wild (2000), display an autobiographical bent, recreating settings, experiences, and emotions inspired by her youth in Ethiopia and her adulthood spent in North Dakota. Devoted to accurately portraying global cultures and historical time periods in her texts, Kurtz is one of only a few Caucasian children's authors writing contemporary narratives set within the African continent.
Kurtz was born on April 17, 1952, in Portland, Oregon. When she was two years old, her parents, Harold and Pauline, both Presbyterian missionaries, moved Kurtz and her siblings to Maji, a small town in southwest Ethiopia. According to her official website, http://www.janekurtz.com, Maji "was such a magical place to be a child, full of flowers and sun and fog and mountains. My sisters and I were the only white children, the only children speaking English in our world, so I knew that I was an outsider to some extent, and I did think those confused feelings would go away after we got 'home' for the year when I was seven. To my shock, I felt even more of an outsider in the U.S." Like her older siblings before her, when Kurtz reached the fourth grade, she was sent to the Ethiopian capitol city of Addis Ababa for boarding school. However, the growing political unrest in Ethiopia forced the Kurtz family to temporarily leave the country during the late 1970s, though her brother and sister returned with their families in the 1980s to teach at a girls' school in Addis Ababa. Kurtz returned to the United States for her higher education, attending Monmouth College where she earned her B.A. in 1973. She returned to Ethiopia later that year to celebrate her parents' twentieth anniversary in their adopted homeland. Unfortunately, during the trip, a plane Kurtz's father was piloting crashed into a wall at the end of an landing strip, and Kurtz was seriously hurt. She was eventually transported back to a hospital in New York City in a full body cast. As her recovery progressed, one of her nurses told her: "Tell the story of what happened. Tell it over and over again. Tell anyone who will listen. That's the only way to loosen its grip." Kurtz counts this advice as among the reasons she finally began to write about her time in Africa, a period she had been actively contemplating returning to in some creative form for many years. Kurtz married Leonard Goering in 1979, with whom she had three children, David, Jonathan, and Rebekah. Settling her new family in North Dakota after years of teaching high school in Illinois and Colorado, Kurtz enrolled her preschool-aged children in a church-sponsored morning education program, allowing her enough free time to compose her first children's book, I'm Calling Molly (1990). As Kurtz continued to write, she eventually began addressing her childhood in Africa, starting with her first nonfiction title, Ethiopia: The Roof of Africa (1991), which was accompanied by photographs taken by her brother Christopher. In 1995 Kurtz earned her M.A. from the University of North Dakota, where she is currently a lecturer. While attending graduate school, Kurtz released her first work of fiction set in her former homeland, Fire on the Mountain (1994), a retelling of a well-known East African folk tale inspired by her youth in Maji. In 1997 her home in Grand Forks, North Dakota, was destroyed in the Red River Flood that destroyed much of the city. She recounted the emotions of that event in River Friendly, River Wild, told through a child narrator who worries about the loss of her own home, as well as a missing pet, left behind in the rush to escape ahead of the floodwaters. Kurtz continues to make her home in Grand Forks, though, in recent years, she has become increasingly active in reading and writing programs in Nigeria, Uganda, and Ethiopia. With the assistance of Ethiopian librarian Yohannes Gebregeorgis, in 2002, she helped publish Silly Mammo, the first Ethiopian picture book in English and Amhari, using the profits to fund a children's reading center in Addis Ababa. Kurtz has also assisted in publishing the works of emerging African writers by editing Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America (2003), a poetry and prose collection which included some of the first internationally published works by several notable female African authors.
Kurtz specializes in stories featuring child quests as well as narratives with multicultural perspectives. Preoccupied with the power of cross-cultural education, she maintains a firm desire to honestly reflect the truth of her fictional and nonfictional literary locales; whether it be the world of shoe-shiner Onduahlem in the streets of Addis Ababa in Only a Pigeon (1997), the desperate cross-country trek of two refugees in the Sudan in The Storyteller's Beads (1998), or the Incan folktale come to life in Miro in the Kingdom of the Sun (1996). Kurtz has called this balance between truth and narrative "the subtle tug-of-war that often takes place between the demands of cultural accuracy and the demands of story." Her first published work, I'm Calling Molly, is a picture book about friendship featuring four-year-old protagonist Christopher and his friend Molly. After learning how to call Molly over the phone, Christopher invites her over for a play date. She turns him down, however, because she is already playing with another friend. Hurt and disappointed, Christopher plays by himself. After Molly's friend leaves, she calls Christopher to play, and the two resolve their differences. Soon turning to nonfiction, Kurtz next released Ethiopia: The Roof of Africa in 1991, using the text to describe many aspects of present-day Ethiopian life, including images of food, markets, festivals, legends, famine, emigration, and war. After writing Ethiopia: The Roof of Africa, Kurtz began devoting her attention to the retelling of folk tales, some of which are from Ethiopia and others variants from different cultures. Fire on the Mountain, a picture book based on a well-known Ethiopian tale, focuses on Alemayu, an orphaned boy searching for his sister, who works as a cook for a wealthy and boastful man. After finding his sister, Alemayu takes a job as a cowherd, working for the same boss. Challenged by his employer to spend a cold night alone in the mountains wearing only light clothing, Alemayu wins the bet by imagining himself warmed by a distant fire. His boss, however, refuses to admit he lost and declines to pay up. Left to their own wits, the siblings devise a clever plan that causes the man to keep his end of the bargain. Pulling the Lion's Tale (1995) is based on the Ethiopian folktale "The Lion's Whiskers," a story about a mother who has lost the love of her son. Kurtz retells the tale by focusing on a stepmother and stepdaughter relationship. In Kurtz's version, Almaz tries to win her stepmother's love by pulling some hair from the tale of a lion. In Miro in the Kingdom of the Sun—a familiar folktale in many cultures—Kurtz focuses on the Ecuadoran Incan variant of the legend. She tells of a heroic girl who saves the life of an ailing prince by bringing him water containing magical healing powers from a faraway lake. Those who attempted to collect the water before had failed, including her brothers who were imprisoned for presenting ordinary water as the real thing.
Kurtz's juvenile novel Jakarta Missing (2001) relates the story of an American girl, Dakar, who comes from a family of missionaries newly returned from Africa. Perhaps borrowing from Kurtz's own experiences upon her own difficult re-immersion into American culture, Dakar feels out of place and longs for her older sister, Jakarta, who stayed behind in Kenya. When her parents must suddenly return to Africa, Dakar is left to fend for herself in her new alien home without her immediate family. This sense of childhood fear over new surroundings also carries over into Kurtz's works focused on American history, most noticeably in I'm Sorry, Almira Ann (1999), which depicts the lives of two girls traveling across the American West to California during the late nineteenth-century mass migration along the Oregon Trail. This theme of alien surroundings is carried along further in Kurtz's 2005 picture book In the Small, Small Night which recounts Ghanaian émigrés Kofi and Abena's first night in America. To comfort her frightened younger brother, Abena tells him folktales borrowed from their native land, until he is finally able to fall asleep.
Kurtz has been recognized as one of the leading advocates of greater multiculturalism in modern children's literature. In her review of Only a Pigeon, Loretta Kreider has praised the book, noting, "finally, a picture book about an African boy who lives in a city. In well-crafted, sometimes lyrical language and visual images, his life is made very real." Kurtz has consistently won acclaim for her detailed recreations of the cultural traditions and typical daily existence of her subjects as well as her ability to place such details within the framework of an engaging narrative. The review of Kurtz's Pulling the Lion's Tale in Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults has cited the story's "important cultural and geographic references, such as the beeswax candles and woven baskets in Almaz's home, wat (peppery stew), and injera (thin bread eaten with wat" as among its greatest strengths. Even her books capturing details of American history have been recognized for Kurtz's devotion to authentic period details. Joanna Rudge Long, in her review of Bicycle Madness (2003), which utilizes real historical figures as characters in its examination of feminist history, has stated that, "Kurtz packs a surprising amount of history and drama into this agreeable, easily read story, including parallel accomplishments by girl and woman: Lillie masters her old bugaboo, spelling; Miss Frances conquers her bicycle—which she and the author see as both vehicle to and symbol of women's growing independence." However, some critics have faulted Kurtz for her sometimes awkward prose style. In her assessment of Kurtz's Johnny Appleseed (2004), Laura Scott has argued that, due to the author's "choppy narrative and illogical flow of events, this book is likely to confuse beginning readers." Such complaints about Kurtz's narrative flow have been echoed by other reviewers, such as Timnah Card, who has suggested that The Feverbird's Claw (2004) has "too many surprise elements undercutting the narrative's direction, and the brevity of the descriptions often leave the reader without a clear sense of place, a flaw that is ironically emphasized when contrasted with the acuity of Moralin's perceptions of facial expressions, political maneuvering, and combative encounters."
I'm Calling Molly [illustrations by Irene Trivas] (picture book) 1990
Ethiopia: The Roof of Africa (juvenile nonfiction) 1991
Fire on the Mountain [illustrations by E. B. Lewis] (picture book) 1994
Pulling the Lion's Tail [illustrations by Floyd Cooper] (picture book) 1995
Miro in the Kingdom of the Sun [illustrations by David Frampton] (picture book) 1996
Only a Pigeon [with Christopher Kurtz; illustrations by E. B. Lewis] (picture book) 1997
Trouble [illustrations by Durga Bernhard] (picture book) 1997
The Storyteller's Beads [illustrations by Michael Bryant] (juvenile novel) 1998
I'm Sorry, Almira Ann [illustrations by Susan Havice] (juvenile novel) 1999
Faraway Home [illustrations by E. B. Lewis] (picture book) 2000
River Friendly, River Wild [illustrations by Neil Brennan] (picture book) 2000
Jakarta Missing (juvenile novel) 2001
Water Hole Waiting [with Christopher Kurtz; illustrations by Lee Christiansen] (picture book) 2001
Rain Romp: Stomping Away a Grouchy Day [illustrations by Dyanna Wolcott] (picture book) 2002
Bicycle Madness [illustrations by Beth Peck] (juvenile novel) 2003
Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America [editor] (short stories and poetry) 2003
Saba: Under the Hyena's Foot [illustrations by Jean-Paul Tibbles] (young adult novel) 2003
The Feverbird's Claw (young adult novel) 2004
Johnny Appleseed [illustrations by Mary Haverfield] (easy reader) 2004
Mister Bones: Dinosaur Hunter [illustrations by Mary Haverfield] (easy reader) 2004
Do Kangaroos Wear Seat Belts? [illustrations by Jane Manning] (picture book) 2005
In the Small, Small Night [illustrations by Rachel Isadora] (picture book) 2005
What Columbus Found: It Was Orange, It Was Round [illustrations by Paige Billin-Frye] (easy reader) 2007
Jane Kurtz (essay date February 1998)
SOURCE: Kurtz, Jane. "Multicultural Children's Books: The Subtle Tug-of-War." School Library Journal 42, no. 2 (February 1998): 40-1.
[In the following essay, Kurtz discusses the delicate balance between accuracy and plot an author of multicultural young adult literature must maintain when writing about foreign cultures.]
As a relatively new author of multicultural children's books, I've seen the subtle tug-of-war that often takes place between the demands of cultural accuracy and the demands of story. While I was writing my retelling of an Inca folktale, Miro in the Kingdom of the Sun (Houghton, 1996), shivering outside the safe walls of my own experience, I found myself obsessed with reading everything I could get into my hands—scholarly books, translations of Spanish writings on Inca life, even Ph.D. dissertations analyzing the present-day language of Quechua. Sometimes, my editor thought I was going to tug us right over the edge. Then she'd tug back, and we'd spend some time discussing the demands of creating gripping stories.
Clearly, authors and editors are increasingly concerned about the question of cultural authenticity in stories. Is sensitivity about picture book illustration keeping pace? My own experience would suggest that for some illustrators, editors, and art directors it is. For others—perhaps those, as an editor said to me, who have more of a "gut approach" to their art—it isn't.
Getting the visual details right is a big responsibility that has to be carried out with limited resources. When I asked about the possibility of a publisher sponsoring a trip to Ethiopia for one of my illustrators, my agent said, "Not for a children's book." (The illustrator, E. B. Lewis, and my brother, co-author of the upcoming book, spent their own money and went anyway, believing it was the only way to make the book work.) Yet we humans (especially children) rely on our sense of sight so much that our beliefs about a country or culture are largely shaped by pictures.
I recently spoke at a conference for teachers and librarians where an editor quoted her marketing people as saying, "Yellow books don't sell." The man sitting next to me and I both looked down at my Pulling the Lion's Tail (S. & S., 1995). "Oops," I said.
"But wouldn't a book on Ethiopia have to be yellow and brown?" he asked.
It was a perfect example of what television images of the 1980s did to Ethiopia. When I was a child growing up there, the country was often referred to as "the Switzerland of Africa." Most of the country is a high, rugged plateau. Its mountains shaped its history as the only African country not to be overrun during the great age of colonization; the mountains allowed the people to push off invader after invader throughout a long history that dates back to the ancient kingdom of Axum, around 500 B.C.
During the dry season, parts of those highlands look brown. The deforested north and the edges of the country, where the plateau drops off into grasslands, are mostly yellow and brown. But during the rainy season, the highlands that make up most of Ethiopia are lush and green. It's a beautiful country with a complex history and culture that dates back long before our own, yet say its name and most people have only one image: a dry wasteland full of starving children.
The way one image has swallowed all others upsets me. Yet I'm a third-culture kid: someone who was not really part of my parents' culture but not fully part of the culture of the country in which I grew up, either. For others—like family friends whose teenager ran away from home because he couldn't stand to be connected with Ethiopia—the hurt goes deeper.
Still, I know what it feels like to see the beautiful, green mountains of my childhood depicted as a desert. I know what it feels like to see a people with a tradition of kings, solemn ceremonies, delicate religious art, music and dance depicted as if they are interchangeable with the hunter-gatherer societies of the plains. I don't like the way it makes a country I love feel invisible.
Most people feel that way about their homelands, I think, and are fierce about outsiders getting it right. So accuracy of illustrations is an issue we have to take seriously if we are serious about our idealistic goals for multicultural literature.
In spite of my strong feelings, though, I often have to consider those sometimes conflicting tugs. I've been willing to change traditional details of folktales or accept minor inaccuracies in art, because I recognize that many elements of a book need to be balanced. As one librarian notes, "While I agree with the principle of accuracy in illustration, when I'm reading fiction or folktales I really don't care whether the small-handled water pitcher of the nomadic people from Upper Albania has a round lid or a square one. If the evil prince has hidden a snake inside the urn, I just want it to be a really scary snake."
Illustrator and author Anne Sibley O'Brien decided to do a retelling of a story she'd heard as a child in Korea, which she knew to be a sixth-century tale. However, she says, "there is almost no visual information about the sixth century in Korea except tomb paintings, so it's hard to imagine and create much of what it looked like." She chose, instead, to set The Princess and the Beggar (Scholastic, 1993) in the Yi Dynasty, "the flowering of Korean style, tradition and culture." "You choose your stereotype," she says. "If I had set it in the sixth century when Korean clothing closely resembled Chinese clothing, the book wouldn't have looked authentically Korean. I wanted to introduce people to that glorious culture." In response to a review that criticized the choice of setting, O'Brien says, "I turn myself inside out to get the details right. But a review can be a mark against the book that is not always legitimate, just because the reviewer would have made a different choice."
How to sort through the maze, then? One question is whether this is the only book, or one of very few books, set in a particular geographic region, culture, or ethnic group. Unique books have less room for creative interpretation. "I write stories," one author of folktales argues bluntly. "Not social-studies texts." Yet I think it's inevitable—and desirable, considering my children's complaints about social studies being "booooring"—that good multicultural stories find their way into more and more social-studies classes. The fewer other images available for balance, the more important it is to get every detail right.
Second, some details are clearly more important than others. When I talked to a friend about a scene from Trouble, my upcoming book set in Eritrea, she pointed out a back carrier that should have beads on it. But the thing I must change, she stressed, was the woman holding a musical instrument that only a priest would hold.
The overall flavor must also be right. Trina Schart Hyman, writing in the Once upon a Time newsletter for authors and illustrators, says the art should "accurately convey the basic feeling" of a locale and story and not detract from a correct impression. But in response to someone who wrote to criticize her choice of using a crystal ball rather than more traditional African fortune-telling tools in The Fortune Tellers (Dutton, 1992), she responded, "Who is to say that this particular fortune teller didn't get hold of a crystal ball via a Nigerian trader who got it from an Ibo, who got it from an Ethiopian, who got it from an Algerian, who got it from a Mongolian-Jewish tribesman, who was setting up a Chinese restaurant in Tanzania?"
It's an interesting question. To what extent can the characters in our stories be allowed to be individuals and not representatives of a group? Those of us who choose our clothes off of racks can lose sight of how wrong even little details can look in a traditional society in which clothing is carefully prescribed. And not all cultures celebrate individualism. Still, in western tradition, stories are about individuals—and they are created by authors and artists with their own individual vision. We don't want to get to the point, as one of my editors notes, where children's books are only illustrated with photographs because that's the only way to ensure getting every detail right.
Artists not only bring their personal visions and styles to the project, they also have limitations. Sometimes, an artist may have a great deal of difficulty locating necessary visual resources. According to Hyman, art directors used to be hired "to check artists on text detail" and make sure they had all the visual research material they needed. Now, she says, art directors are mostly concerned with "production techniques and deadlines."
In working on Margy Burns Knight's Talking Walls (1992), Anne Sibley O'Brien says that the author, editor, and she all agreed they must have "multiple visions" of each wall. But, she notes, even someone who is able to locate several photographs will almost inevitably want details that lie outside the photograph. There will always be gaps, because "an artist does not reproduce the photographer's viewpoint." While working on Talking Walls: The Stories Continue (1996, both Tilbury), O'Brien had several photographs of a wall in a Buddhist temple in Thailand—but none showed the surroundings. Fortunately, her parents happened to be traveling in the area, so she sent them on a quest to take the pictures she needed.
O'Brien's experience emphasizes how important it is to have people involved in the project who have firsthand knowledge of the area and people portrayed. Edgy editors, however, nervous of criticism, sometimes go overboard with this question. O'Brien, for example, was hired for a project because of her reputation for "getting Asian details right," only to have a non-Asian editor override the expertise of the Asian-American designer and demand that she be taken off the project because she wasn't Asian.
It's a tangled issue. Global nomads are everywhere, and cultures are not monoliths. When I asked one of my sister's former roommates, whose husband is a director of tourism development in Eritrea, to comment on a scene from Trouble, she asked several friends for their opinions because she didn't want to rely on just her point of view. Walter Dean Myers once said at a Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators conference: "I reserve the right to write about any culture I choose. I extend that right to every other living person. I demand of myself an absolute sensitivity when I am writing about any other culture, and when I am writing about mine, because my own culture is not that narrow." And author Carmen Bernier-Grand points out that her own image of a folk character was expanded by Ernesto Ramos Nieves's illustrations in her book, Juan Bobo (Harper-Collins, 1994). From childhood, Ramos Nieves had always imagined a black Juan Bobo. "Who am I to say that a folk character is one color or another?" Bernier-Grand asks.
But, she adds, "in writing and illustrating another culture—as it is in writing within your culture—the writer and illustrator should immerse themselves completely in the subject and know as much as possible before they start their work. There is too much stuff out there that is inaccurate, that insults those who know better." If neither the author nor the illustrator has firsthand knowledge of the country or culture they are writing about, someone on the publishing team should expect to contact an expert, as they would for a question on scientific information.
The world-view of children's books has pushed wide open in the last decade. Given that most teachers and librarians have no way of knowing whether a story or its illustrations accurately reflect real lives of real people in the world, authors, illustrators, reviewers, editors, and art directors all have some talking to do, to one another and to those whose traditions are depicted in the books. "I totally subscribe to the discussion," O'Brien says—and so do I.
My books have helped me find a way to talk about Ethopia for the first time in 20 years. But I've discovered that books also have a power to make rifts even deeper, to make people feel even more invisible than they already do, and to tear down the understanding that most of us are trying to build. Although the tug-of-war may make everyone sweat, it's worthwhile for the difference it can make in the way children feel about themselves, about people from other cultures, and about books.
Jane Kurtz (essay date 15 September 1998)
SOURCE: Kurtz, Jane. "Memoirs and the Teenage Reader." Booklist 96, no. 2 (15 September 1998): 250-51.
[In the following essay, Kurtz discusses the value that memoirs and autobiographical narratives have for young adult readers, asserting that, "[t]here is raw emotion in much memoir, the same raw emotion that pulses through the music teens listen to and pours out in their poetry."]
In 1973, just after graduating from college, I visited my parents, who were celebrating having lived in Ethiopia for 20 years. A trip to Northern Ethiopia was to be part of the celebration, but the small plane my father was piloting crashed into a rock wall at the end of an airstrip near the village of Mekele. I remember only a few sharp details of the accident: the sound of the stall horn, the smell of fuel, the Ethiopian farmer who sat with my head in his lap. One helicopter airlift and one transatlantic flight (in a body cast) later, I was in a New York hospital. I would eventually recover—but no one knew that at the time. The nurse who bent over me was trained to recognize trauma: she smelled it as clearly as I smelled that airplane fuel. "Tell the story of what happened," she ordered. "Tell it over and over again. Tell anyone who will listen. That's the only way to loosen its grip."
Twenty-four years later, almost to the month, water trickled and then gushed over the dikes of Lincoln Drive, Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I'd lived for eight years. We left the house with one overnight bag each, expecting to be gone a couple of days. As it turned out, we would never live in that house or that neighborhood again. "You'll write about it," people said. I didn't think I would. But I was wrong.
If my New York nurse was right, perhaps everyone has stories they need to tell to help them heal. Certainly some people find consolation in speaking about pain. Others seem to be born with a fierceness about communicating what it's like to live inside their skin. But just what shape someone's life will have assumed by the time anyone reads about it is a bit mysterious, even to most writers. As author J. K. Rowling said in a recent interview, everything a writer has "seen, experienced, read, or heard gets broken down like compost in your head, and then your own ideas grow out of that compost." But what manner of zucchini and rutabagas will grow out of the compost?
Books such as The Originals: An A-Z of Fiction's Real-Life Characters (Little, Brown, 1985), by William Amos, demonstrate the way writers sometimes make fiction from the people and memories that dot past landscapes, often taking a personality flaw from here, an elbow from there. Other times, authors—in what sometimes seem to be overwhelming numbers these days—find their voices in nonfiction, especially in memoir.
Rick Bragg, who notes that the term memoir is "much too fancy a word" for the stories he tells, explains a little about a writer's motivation in telling a personal, searing tale. He won a Pulitzer Prize for writing other people's stories before he wrote All Over but the Shoutin', his own family story, which won an Alex Award in 1998. But he admits in his prologue that he put off writing the story of his own childhood for 10 years "because it was personal, because dreaming backwards can carry a man through some dark rooms where the walls seem lined with razor blades." Why did he finally do it? Because "there should be a record of my momma's sacrifice, even if it means unleashing ghosts." Ultimately, he could not "take the chance of squandering the knowledge and the stories that [my mother] and my people hold inside them, even if—as in the case of my father—some of it is sad and dark as the darkest night."
His reasons, of course, also explain why many teens, along with many adults, are drawn to memoirs. I was surprised to see my 14-year-old niece walking on an Oregon beach last summer with a copy of Frank Mc-Court's Angela's Ashes, a book many of my adult friends declared "too depressing" to read. The more I thought about it, though, the more it made sense. Many memoirs are essentially coming-of-age stories that offer careful (if somewhat sketchy) details about the ways the author navigated the sometimes shockingly treacherous shoals of childhood. Bragg, for example, recalls growing up "white trash"; McCourt tells a similarly grim story of an achingly poor, Irish Catholic childhood; in This Boy's Life. Tobias Wolff fishtails down a dangerous highway with his belligerent stepfather at the wheel; Adeline Yen Mah describes an equally ferocious stepmother in Falling Leaves Return to Their Roots: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter. And there are so many others.
"I can hardly believe he's admitting to this stuff," commented one teen reader about Wolff. That, of course, is part of what teens find so appealing about memoirs. Anita Lobel does not give us the Jewish girl we expect in No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War. She doesn't appear to care about heroics or even admiration. She stays faithful to the child she was and gives us the world through that child's eyes. If those years left her, as she says they did, with shame and embarrassment, she fights back by providing the details, from the chamber pot emptied on her head to her fascinated peek at a naked nun.
There is raw emotion in much memoir, the same raw emotion that pulses through the music teens listen to and pours out in their poetry. A memoir offers a sense of wild risk about telling the secrets, about rolling over to expose the vulnerable places. Both the writer and the reader enter into a rare kind of intimacy—an intimacy with a stranger that offers a freedom that can feel scary but also exhilarating.
Teenagers can also appreciate memoir as an act of defiance. Lobel refused to be "squashed like a bug by the Nazis." Wolff says in his dedication, "My first stepfather used to say that what I didn't know would fill a book. Well, here it is." When Bragg asked his momma about telling her story, she responded, "Write it. I sat quiet for fifty years." Jon Franklin, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for creative nonfiction and author of Writing for Story (Plume, 1994), recalls that he first began to write when his father coaxed him out of a gang by convincing him that "True revolutionaries, the ones who actually did change the world, used different instruments. They used words, typewriters, and paper."
Not that every teenager likes memoir. The magic of memoir tends to be a triumph of voice, and some teens, especially less adept readers, are bored by voices others find elegant and enticing. Reader responses to This Boy's Life found on Amazon.com provide an amusing example: A professor who extols Wolff's "talent for language" notes that within days of starting to read the book freshmen are "eager to spend a whole class period discussing one magnificently crafted sentence, two stunningly perfect wordchoices." The following comment from a reader sounding for all the world like one of the professor's freshmen sourly dismisses the book: "not interesting or unusual enough to warrant a published book … this happened, then this happened, then that happened," with "no feeling; it was hard or impossible to 'get into' the book and feel what the author felt."
Beloved or not, memoir is an important way for some teens to begin their initiation into the adult world. Jill Ker Conway, who relayed pieces of her gritty Australian childhood in The Road from Coorain, writes in When Memory Speaks (Knopf, 1998) that people "want to know how the world looks from inside another person's experience, and when that craving is met by a convincing narrative, we find it deeply satisfying." She also notes that our culture gives us an inner script by which to live. Reading memoir, seeing the world from inside another's eyes, allows us to question and examine our own inherited script—certainly a vital task of adolescence.
Memoirs are also survival stories. Few of the books I have mentioned contain pretty pictures. Their writers carried pain the way Bragg says his momma carried the memory of a baby who died because there was no money for a doctor—"deep inside her, like a piece of broken glass." Many teenagers live in families similar to Bragg's and Wolff's. They need to know they can survive. Some face the sort of pain Leslie Heywood describes in Pretty Good for a Girl: "I used to pass through senior hall to admiring stares, whistles that gave me a charge. I loved striding the halls between classes, chin out, shoulders back, my athlete's muscles pumping." But when she crossed the wrong person in the school's weight room, things changed. Now "the looks aren't so nice. I walk by, they stop talking. Mark my steps. My shoulders hunch in; I fight not to throw the covers of Algebra II like a hail deflector over my face." In times when some disenfranchised, frustrated teens lash out with lethal weapons, memoirs can show the way people have struck back with words.
Personal accounts are also important because they raise the tantalizing question: What is truth? Karen Blixen's Out of Africa, published in 1938 (under the name of Isak Dinesen), was an early memoir, stylistically different from most nonfiction of the time. According to Linda Donelson, one of Blixen's biographers, Blixen "gave it certain flourishes that were only approximately true." Some three decades later, in 1965, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (Vintage, 1965), which isn't actually a memoir, opened the door for a flood of writers to explore what Jon Franklin calls "the foggy frontier between journalism and literature."
Author Patricia Hampl describes memoir as having a "subtle and malleable relationship to the truth," a relationship that sometimes becomes a matter for criticism. Consider the following scene from This Boy's Life, which takes place just before Toby and his mother go on the run from "the misery of [his mother's] long affair with a violent man."
"Roy was tying flies at the kitchen table. I was drinking a Pepsi and watching him. He bent close to his work, grunting with concentration. He said in an offhand way. 'What do you think about a little brother?'
'A little brother?'
He nodded. 'Me and your mom've been thinking about starting a family.' I didn't like this idea at all, in fact it froze me solid. He looked up from the vise, 'We're already pretty much of a family when you think about it.'"
Critics of the book note the implausibility of Wolff's remembering those exact words. Defenders quickly point out that memory is a construct, a cloth woven out of collected bits and pieces and dyed in the colors that suit us. In any case, they argue, no reality can be fully known from a single point of view. Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha (Random, 1997), which is fiction dressed as memoir, notes that "autobiography, if there really is such a thing, is like asking a rabbit to tell us what he looks like hopping through the grasses of the field. How would he know? If we want to hear about the field, on the other hand, no one is in a better circumstance to tell us—so long as we keep in mind that we are missing all those things the rabbit was in no position to observe."
No one raises questions about this matter of "subtle and malleable truth" better than Tim O'Brien. In the late 1960s, immediately after he returned from Vietnam, he wrote a memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. Some 20 years later, he published The Things They Carried (Viking, 1991), a book that reads like autobiography. Halfway through, though, O'Brien startles the reader: "I'm forty-three years old, true, and I'm a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier. Almost everything else is invented." One reviewer called the book "neither memoir nor novel or collection of short stories but, rather, an artful combination of all three." O'Brien puts it this way: "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth."
Talking about such painful subjects is hard, but it's easy compared to the task of writing the pain in a way that will encourage others to inhabit, if just for a few minutes, someone else's world. As O'Brien writes, "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen … there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which, in fact, represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed." All a writer who cares passionately about telling a true story can do "is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth."
Jane Kurtz (essay date July 2004)
SOURCE: Kurtz, Jane. "Africa and the Hunger for Reading." Bookbird 42, no. 3 (July 2004): 4-9.
[In the following essay, Kurtz discusses her attempts to create a stronger reading base for African children, arguing that, "Africa must develop a culture of reading."]
In 2003, I spent a week in an author visit to Grange School in Lagos, Nigeria. Each day in the car, Dolapo, the principal, regaled me with stories of her life. Once when she was about four, she told me, she climbed into a big car belonging to the Federal Ministry of Transport, where her father worked, and they set out for the city of Abeokuta, quite a modern place in those days because it was settled by former slaves who had returned to Nigeria. There, the family entered the new home of Dolapo's aunt. Just inside the door was a huge portrait of a man in a wig and gown—the aunt's husband, Lawyer.
Dolapo was amazed. What kind of work did this aunt do that caused her husband to live in her house, in spite of all his glory as a lawyer?
Father's voice was strong with emotion. "You don't know?" He paused. "She's an educationist."
As Dolapo ran out to play with her cousins, she stored the word in her mind. "Whatever an educationist might be," she whispered to herself, "that is what I must be."
Such is the power of a word, Dolapo told me. "If my father hadn't given me that big word, I might not have had such a strong dream, something I held onto in even the most discouraging times."
The power of words. That theme echoed throughout my journey of four weeks in four different African countries. Over and over, I heard—from parents in the schools where I spoke, from teachers, even from the drivers of the cars assigned for my use—these particular words: "Africa must develop a culture of reading."
One evening, I was interviewed on a radio program in Uganda. The subject was books. My fellow guests were Dr. Chukweumeka Eze Onukaogu, a university professor from Nigeria, and Loy Tumusiime, who, with her husband, had started a publishing company and was currently serving as president of The Reading Association of Uganda, a position that had her deeply involved with organizing the Third Pan Africa conference on reading. "What is the situation with reading in your countries?" the interviewer asked. "What can we learn from each other?"
Here are some of the problems my two fellow guests pointed out. Most of Africa has an oral tradition to draw upon, not a tradition of books. These days, schools do teach many African children to read. But only in order to do well on tests. People are not given any encouragement to think of reading as an activity that one would choose to do for enjoyment. And in almost every country, even in places like Nigeria, which once had perhaps the strongest publishing program in all of Africa, literacy efforts tend to be constantly disrupted by war and economic disasters.
"People need books," Loy Tumusiime said. "Ugandans are writing books that my husband and I would love to publish. But we must sell enough copies of these books to stay in business. You see the cycle? Unless people care enough about reading to buy books, we cannot produce them."
The radio interviewer turned to me. What does the United States do?
In the United States, too, I pointed out, publishers often struggle to sell enough copies of the books they create. The situation has become even harder since we've lost many of our independent bookstores, places owned and operated by people who were ambassadors for good children's literature, who knew and loved and handsold books to their customers. But libraries are certainly part of the answer, I said. Publishers could not afford to create certain types of books if it were not for libraries.
I had never tried to pin down the beginnings of whatever reading culture now exists in the United States. How, exactly, did it happen? How many years ago was it that most households in the United States had no books, or perhaps only a Bible? When and how did that change?
The conversation turned to solutions. People must pressure their governments to provide good funding for libraries, my fellow guests said. Teachers must draw children into the love of reading and not present reading as something a person merely does in order to prepare for a test. Parents must turn off the televisions.
I laughed and said, "You would not believe how many times these same words are said in the United States. People who love reading are saying the same things the world over."
If many reading problems are the same the world over, so is a certain determination. In Uganda, I led two days of workshops with Femrite, a group of mostly women writers. We talked about capturing the sensory details of Kampala—the faint smell of burning wood, the sight of gawky Maribu storks pacing importantly in garbage heaps, the "hooting" of car horns. "If you can draw the reader skillfully into the world that you know so well," I told them, "some of us will gladly put ourselves into your hands. There are readers hungry to know the details of lives they've never lived. Your job is to make those details strong and real."
We talked about the pain of every writer's quest. Loneliness. Fear of writing honestly about our searing hurts, about our families. Rejection letters. Several of the young women in the room had even been rejected by me—and they said so, amidst great laughter. About a year before I visited Uganda, they had read an announcement that I was putting together an anthology of short stories focusing on Africa. They had sent me their precious words. But for what? Rejection.
I showed them how reality looks through an editor's eyes. In my short story anthology, I had room for twelve stories. The anthology was divided into three parts: Africa, Americans in Africa, Africans in America, meaning that really they were competing for a four-story space. And it was important to have regional balance. One Femrite author, Monica Arac de Nyeko, did win a nod, first from me and then from my Greenwillow editor. "You see the issues," I said. "But don't give up. Work on your craft. I spent ten years gathering rejection letters before I had my first book published by a major publisher—but I became a better writer for all the agony."
They talked about their roadblocks. How could they become better writers without mentors? Without children's books to read so they could learn by example? The public affairs officer of the American embassy, who had sponsored the workshop, told us we could ship books through her to build a Femrite library. I promised to gather book donations. I promised to recruit mentors.
As we talked, I had the sensation of book lovers all around the globe joining hands. I'd recently seen for myself some of the ways such a thing could happen. In the anthology I edited, Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America (New York: Amistad Press, 2004), I was able to include four stories by writers currently living in Africa. All of the work on those stories was done by email. By email, I talked with other writers who had grown up or spent time in countries all over the huge African continent—South Africa, Morocco, Kenya, Ethiopia, Liberia, Ghana, and others. I didn't know, when I began my project, if I would be able to solve the logistics and find ways to include the voices of African writers, but I'd come to see that it was possible.
My last stop in Africa showed me that other things are also possible. More than six years ago, Yohannes Gebregeorgis, then a librarian at San Francisco Public Library, contacted me to say that he'd read the books I had written that were set in Ethiopia, where I spent most of my childhood. He, too, grew up in Ethiopia, he explained, and had never held a book in his hands outside of school until he was nineteen years old. Then a Peace Corps teacher gave him one to read.
In the 1980s, Yohannes joined the river of people fleeing war and oppression in Ethiopia. He came to the United States as a political refugee and earned his college degree and a master's degree in library science. Like most immigrants, he intended to return some day. Unlike most immigrants, he never gave up on his determination to return, to put books into the hands of Ethiopian children like the child he had been. Could I help?
Gradually, we formed a small group—librarians, teachers, moms, writers, church folks—all of us long on ideas and vision but short on money. We turned the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation into a 501(c)3, a not-for-profit organization. Though it took several years and more than one trip back to Ethiopia, Yohannes petitioned various government offices relentlessly until he was granted a similar recognition, NGO status, in Ethiopia. We published the first Ethiopian picture book in English and Amharic—Silly Mammo (Oakland, CA: African Sun Publishing, 2002), a story from Yohannes's childhood, written down in two alphabets and illustrated by an Ethiopian artist, Bogale Belachew. With donations and proceeds from the sales of the books—and his own money—Yohannes moved back to Ethiopia in 2002, taking with him 15,000 donated books in English. Using the downstairs of the house he rented and two big tents in the yard, he prepared a reading center, the first library services for children in Addis Ababa, a city of three million people.
When I reached Addis Ababa in April of 2003, the 15,000 books had just cleared customs. The day I first saw the center, volunteers were still building the benches and tables to go in the tents. A few days later, I cut the ribbon at the opening of the center. I told the assembled guests—citizens of Ethiopia, the United States, Canada, and England—"we are the poorest NGO in all of Ethiopia," a country used to large-scale governmental aid, not grassroots efforts. Yohannes and I sat wearily, after the day was over, discussing the grim reality that we might have opened, only to have to close again for lack of funds. Two weeks later, after I was back in Kansas, I heard that we had received a grant from an organization that funds projects for women and children, Presbyterian Women, to run the center for one year.
In the first month, the book center was open only 18 days and had 1,865 children visit. "We had to turn away many children because we've seating space for only 110 children," Yohannes wrote. This spring, the center extended its service to be open on Saturday mornings and added storytelling, read-aloud sessions, and film showing. Soon, EBCEF will have its first long-term volunteers, my college-age daughter and son and one of their cousins.
Will the center be able to remain open? That I don't know. But other things I do now know. In Nigeria, Dolapo and her teachers work every day to open children's eyes to the joys of reading. In Uganda, Monica Arac de Nyeko put the money she was paid for her anthology piece toward buying a piece of land for her family. She and Beatrice Lamwaka, Beverley Nambozo, and other Femrite members continue to work on writing powerful, vivid stories that readers will pick up and stick with. In Kenya, Anna Ndila Nduto stands at a booth in the Village Market in Nairobi, selling the books her company is producing. In Zimbabwe, Ben Zulu is probably packing. He regularly crosses the continent looking for African stories to turn into films for his small company. In Ethiopia, Yohannes may be right now writing an email message to a group of Ethiopians in California who are helping him raise money to initiate the first Ethiopian Children's Book Week next spring. And in South Africa, Jay Heale is on a trek, a journey to bring book lovers from all across the African continent—and all over the world—together to exchange their stories and ideas at IBBY Congress 2004.
In the United States, too, some people are impassioned about the culture of reading and even about Africa. As Memories of Sun is published in January 2004, my editors and I celebrate the starred reviews and the sighting of stacks in bookstores, knowing that such things will mean more readers. I exult in the little bits of news that sometimes come an author's way—a bookstore in Los Angeles that will host several of the anthology authors in a reading, an offer from the Junior Library Guild, which wants to license the book. I cross my fingers, hopeful that middle schools that teach "Africa units" will discover the anthology and will care about introducing students in the United States to the voices of those who know and love Africa.
The power of the word is alive and relentlessly at work.
FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN (1994)
Mary M. Burns (review date November-December 1994)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of Fire on the Mountain, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by E. B. Lewis. Horn Book Magazine 70, no. 6 (November-December 1994): 739.
"In the high and beautiful mountains of Ethiopia there once lived a dreamer named Alemayu." Left homeless after the death of his parents, he leaves his village in search of his sister, who is a cook in the home of a wealthy man [in Fire on the Mountain ]. In return for shelter and a few coins, he becomes a cowherd, an anonymous worker until challenged by his boastful master to spend the night alone in the mountains with only a thin cloak to shield him against the cold. If he fails, both he and his sister will be dismissed. Much to the rich man's chagrin, the boy survives by imagining himself warmed by a distant fire. Seeking victory at any cost, the loser maintains that he has won on a technicality, for "looking at a fire on the mountain is the same as building a fire." But this piece of sophistry is turned against him by his servants so that Alemayu's triumph is assured. Variants of this tale are known in many cultures, as the author's afterword notes. However, the sense of place is reinforced by the diction and the landscapes depicted in the arrestingly beautiful watercolor illustrations. Against these backgrounds, the figures, like carefully modeled sculptures, take on epic dimensions well suited to the tenor of the tale. A handsome and evocative book for story hours or independent reading.
Ginny Moore Kruse, Kathleen T. Horning, and Megan Schliesman (review date 1997)
SOURCE: Kruse, Ginny Moore, Kathleen T. Horning, and Megan Schliesman. Review of Fire on the Mountain, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by E. B. Lewis. In Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults, Volume 2: 1991–1996, p. 44. Madison, Wis.: Cooperative Children's Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin, 1997.
The wealthy landowner whom Alemayu and his sister work for is a bragging, boastful man [in Fire on the Mountain ]. When he tells of surviving an entire night on the cold mountain with nothing to keep him warm, he expects his servants to be impressed, but Alemayu is not. As a sheepherder, the boy has done the same many times, and he accepts the landowner's challenge to spend an entire night on the mountain with only his thin shemma to keep him warm. If he wins the challenge, Alemayu will get four cows and a bag of money. Alemayu does succeed, but the wealthy man claims the boy has cheated by looking at a far-off fire to stay warm. "Looking at a fire on the mountain is the same as building a fire," he claims. Alemayu's sister and the rest of the servant's use the landowner's own logic against him to set things right in Jane Kurtz's satisfying retelling of an Ethiopian folktale illustrated with E. B. Lewis's watercolor paintings washed in tones of the earth. The author, who grew up in Ethiopia, added the character of Alemayu's sister to her retelling based on a tradition of strong women in Ethiopian stories. (Ages 7-10)
PULLING THE LION'S TAIL (1995)
Ginny Moore Kruse, Kathleen T. Horning, and Megan Schliesman (review date 1997)
SOURCE: Kruse, Ginny Moore, Kathleen T. Horning, and Megan Schliesman. Review of Pulling the Lion's Tail, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. In Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults, Volume 2: 1991–1996, p. 44. Madison, Wis.: Cooperative Children's Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin, 1997.
According to Kurtz, who grew up in a southwest Ethiopian village, "respect for elders is almost the most important thing every child needs to learn." Interpreting a traditional Ethiopian tale often called "The Lion's Whiskers," Kurtz writes about Almaz, a young girl grieving over her mother's death [in Pulling the Lion's Tail ]. Her attempts to welcome her father's new wife seem futile until grandfather advises Almaz to get hair from a lion's tale. To do this, she must be patient. Almaz learns to approach her shy, young, homesick stepmother slowly and is rewarded by the possibility of a new relationship. Kurtz's story involves important cultural and geographic references, such as the beeswax candles and woven baskets in Almaz's home, wat (peppery stew), and injera (thin bread eaten with wat). Cooper's illustrations are painted in oils, revealing the expressive faces of a family in transition. (Ages 6-9)
MIRO IN THE KINGDOM OF THE SUN (1996)
Donna L. Scanlon (review date May 1996)
SOURCE: Scanlon, Donna L. Review of Miro and the Kingdom of the Sun, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by David Frampton. School Library Journal 42, no. 5 (May 1996): 106.
K-Gr. 4—[Miro in the Kingdom of the Sun is a]n Incan folktale about a peasant girl, Miro, whose ability to run swiftly and to understand the language of the birds enables her to find a magic lake, cure a king's ailing son, and free her imprisoned brothers. According to her note, Kurtz has expanded on the source tale, incorporating more details about life in the Incan Empire. She is a superb storyteller. The narrative is vivid and crisp, weaving in Incan words whose meanings are clear in context. The story never falters, and Miro is a strong, admirable heroine. Frampton's blocky, boldly patterned woodcuts capture the spirit and exuberance of the story and reflect an understanding of the period. The illustrations are clear enough to be seen by a group, and the layout is appealing, with heavy black type and excellent use of white space and contrast. An unusual and outstanding offering.
Mary M. Burns (review date November-December 1996)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of Miro and the Kingdom of the Sun, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by David Frampton. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 6 (November-December 1996): 751.
An ancient Inca folktale is given a dramatic interpretation in this handsome picture book [Miro in the Kingdom of the Sun ]. Set in Peru in the days before the Spanish conquistadors, the story incorporates a number of familiar motifs, including the mysterious illness of a king's son, the recommendation that only water from an enchanted lake will heal him, and the quest for that curative, the successful completion of which guarantees glory and fortune. In a remote village, two brothers, particularly swift runners, decide to try their luck. Failing to find the lake at the pachap cuchun cuchun, one of the corners of the earth, they substitute water from another and are subsequently jailed for their deception. Here the story departs from the usual, for it is their younger sister, Miro, who braves the unknown and triumphs, thanks to her long-standing friendship with the birds and animals. The ending—Miro's decision to embrace freedom rather than live as a daughter in the Sun King's palace—adds an unexpected if unfolkloric fillip, giving the character more personality than is typical for this genre. A brief author's note indicates the source of the story and also comments on the development of the main character into a memorable hero. With its use of action verbs and concrete images, the text lends itself to reading aloud; the bold, vigorous woodcuts, employing stylistic elements from the Inca tradition, are show-stoppers, particularly in the double-page renditions of the menacing creatures who stand between Miro and her goal.
ONLY A PIGEON (1997)
Loretta Kreider (review date June 1997)
SOURCE: Kreider, Loretta. Review of Only a Pigeon, by Jane and Christopher Kurtz, illustrated by E. B. Lewis. School Library Journal 43, no. 6 (June 1997): 96.
Gr. 3-5—"In Ethiopia, / a land of ancient churches and castles" begins this beautiful book [Only a Pigeon ], moving swiftly from broad, poetic images of the country to a narrative about the life of an individual boy. Lewis's watercolors accurately portray the city of Addis Ababa, from morning sunshine to evening darkness, and to the breaking of the next day. The full-page, realistic paintings are rendered in dusty tones of brown and green. The story focuses on Ondu-ahlem and his relationships with a brother, his friends, and his pigeons. The birds are all that he owns in the world, and he nurtures them tenderly and protects them from a hungry mongoose. He shares his delight in some ready-to-hatch eggs with his little brother and competes with his friends as they race their favorite pigeons home. As Ondu-ahlem gets up in the morning from the mat he shares with two brothers, goes to school for half a day, and shines shoes in the afternoon to earn money, readers learn about how few possessions he has and that it is necessary that he contribute to the family's income. Beyond this, however, children will respond to the suspense of the pigeon race and the threat of a predator, and they will identify with Ondu-ahlem. An author's note provides factual support. Here, finally, is a picture book about an African boy who lives in a city. In well-crafted, sometimes lyrical language and visual images, his life is made very real.
Kate McClelland (review date April 1997)
SOURCE: McClelland, Kate. Review of Trouble, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Durga Bernhard. School Library Journal 43, no. 4 (April 1997): 127-28.
PreS-Gr. 2—[Trouble is a] traditionally patterned, circular story from Eritrea that begins provocatively: "Trouble always found Tekleh." Tekleh's job is to tend the family goats that often wander off when under his care. The boy's father carves his undependable son a wooden board game, hoping it will entertain Tekleh and keep him out of trouble. Setting out with his goats and his game board the next morning, the lad fails to go straight to the grazing place. Instead, he and the animals wander off, encountering many people along the way. First, he meets a group of traders who are looking for firewood and take his wooden game board. When he protests, he is given a knife in exchange. In subsequent encounters, he trades one thing after another until finally, predictably, he exchanges a papaya for another game board bringing the story full circle. Bernhard's gouache illustrations depict authentic cultural details such as round, grass-roofed houses; traditional shawls; and colorfully bordered, white cotton clothes. The pictures contain subtle details of humor well suited to the tale. Endpapers that map the boy's journey can be used to recapitulate the tale with listeners. In an endnote, the author cites Harold Courlander's version of the story included in his book Fire on the Mountain (Holt, 1995). Kurtz's retelling, which differs in detail but not in pattern and intent, depicts Tekleh as mischief maker, teasing more humor out of the tale than the more straightforward Courlander version. Enjoyable.
THE STORYTELLER'S BEADS (1998)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 8 June 1998)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of The Storyteller's Beads, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Michael Bryant. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 23 (8 June 1998): 61.
Set in the mid-1980s, a time when Ethiopia is hardhit by drought and political strife, Kurtz's (Trouble ) eye-opening novel [The Storyteller's Beads ] charts the converging paths of two young natives fleeing from their country. Sahay, a Christian orphan, and Rahel, a blind Jewish girl, have been taught to be enemies, but discover they have much in common when they join a large group of refugees on their way to Sudan: both have suffered hunger and persecution, have been torn from their families and regret leaving their homeland. Through the girls' alternating points of view, Kurtz conveys how the fellow travelers' mutual mistrust of one another gradually grows into reliance upon each other for aid and consolation. When soldiers force Sahay's uncle and Rahel's brother to turn back, Sahay experiences her first pang of pity for the "blind Falasha" girl and offers to be her guide. In turn, Rahel soothes Sahay's lagging spirit with inspirational stories from the Old Testament. Besides presenting an historically accurate account of mass exodus from Ethiopia (additional information appears in an afterword), the story pays tribute to survivors who find the strength and courage to help others reach freedom. Ages 8-12.
Barbara A. Lehman, Joan I. Glazer, Marcia Baghban, and Rosemary Bamford (review date February 2000)
SOURCE: Lehman, Barbara A., Joan I. Glazer, Marcia Baghban, and Rosemary Bamford. Review of The Storyteller's Beads, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Michael Bryant. Reading Teacher 53, no. 5 (February 2000): 380.
Famine and warfare in Ethiopia in the 1980s force two young girls to travel from their homeland to Jerusalem [in The Storyteller's Beads ]. Sahay is a Kemant girl who begins the trip with her uncle; Rahel is a blind Jewish girl who begins her trip with her brother. They meet when both are hiding from attackers. At first suspicious and untrusting, they build a friendship that overcomes their initial prejudices. The stories that have given Rahel courage bring courage to them both. The book shows two clearly defined characters from different ethnic groups learning to accept and appreciate each other.
I'M SORRY, ALMIRA ANN (1999)
Linda Bindner (review date November 1999)
SOURCE: Bindner, Linda. Review of I'm Sorry, Almira Ann, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Susan Havice. School Library Journal 45, no. 11 (November 1999): 121-22.
Gr. 2-4—In this novel [I'm Sorry, Almira Ann ], Kurtz successfully captures the adventure and hardships of life on the Oregon Trail. Eight-year-old Sarah Benton's family is heading West. Unfortunately, the girl's "hasty spirit" seems to get her in trouble at every turn of the trail, especially with her best friend, Almira Ann. On a whim, Sarah climbs high up Chimney Rock to carve their names on the famous trail landmark, frightening her friend with her daring. She trades a rag doll from Almira Ann for coveted beads from a young Sioux girl. Finally, in an exuberant wrestling match, Sarah scares Almira Ann, causing her to fall out of the back of the wagon and break her leg. How can a friendship survive such setbacks? The dirty, often treacherous experiences of traveling in a wagon train make an excellent backdrop for the turbulent friendship. Historical tidbits of pioneer life are peppered throughout the text, adding detail without bogging down the plot. Sarah is an engaging character, and readers will readily identify with her tribulations. Havice's light pencil sketches, one per chapter, lend a familiar, friendly feeling. This is a perfect title for exploring pioneer life before jumping into Laura Ingalls Wilder's longer "Little House" books (HarperCollins).
Christine M. Heppermann (review date March-April 2000)
SOURCE: Heppermann, Christine M. Review of I'm Sorry, Almira Ann, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Susan Havice. Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 2 (March-April 2000): 196-97.
To ease the load for weary oxen, travelers on the Oregon Trail often had to jettison prized belongings: tables, chairs, beds, and cookware were left to be swallowed up by prairie grass or desiccated by the desert sun. This eloquent short novel [I'm Sorry, Almira Ann ] conveys both the hardships and surprising pleasures the pioneers found as they made their way West, while it also tells the more individual story of a girl in danger of losing something dearer to her than material goods could ever be. Eight-year-old Sarah and her best friend Almira Ann, born on the same day (July fourth), have spent their lives running back and forth between their families' neighboring farms in Missouri. As Sarah relates in one of the book's many fresh and beautifully crafted images, "If she ever had to leave Almira Ann, it would be like an egg white heaving itself up and leaving its shell." Fortunately, both girls' families' decide to leave the shell at the same time and join a wagon train headed for Oregon. The stress of the journey takes its toll on everyone, but readers especially feel how it exacerbates Sarah's "hasty spirit," as Grandmother calls it, and pushes her toward annoyance with her more well-behaved and conventional best friend. The way Almira Ann criticizes Sarah's family's wagon; the way she sews fancy clothes for her precious English doll; the way she scolds Sarah for climbing high up Chimney Rock to carve their names—it all provokes a pain in Sarah's stomach. Fed by anger and jealousy, her impetuousness ultimately contributes to a terrible accident in which Almira Ann falls out of the wagon and breaks her leg. The author's note describes how Kurtz plucked details from her family's past and from actual pioneer journals to interweave history with fiction. Sarah's peace offerings to Almira Ann—fizzy water from Soda Springs and a new rag body for her broken doll—are particular to their circumstances, but her need to make amends is also testament to the timeless importance of friendship.
FARAWAY HOME (2000)
Hazel Rochman (review date 15 February 2000)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Faraway Home, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by E. B. Lewis. Booklist 96, no. 12 (15 February 2000): 1105.
Ages 4-8. Like Allen Say's Grandfather's Journey (1993), this picture book [Faraway Home ] captures the immigrant experience when generations live far apart and even happy family life is mixed with longing for "back home." Kurtz tells it from the point of view of Desta, a young African American girl whose father must return "home" to Ethiopia to visit his sick mother. Desta can't bear the parting, and as Daddy holds her close and tells her stories of his childhood, she comes to know how hard it is for him to be parted from the place and people he left behind. Occasionally, the writing is self-consciously poetic about "glimmering" sadness, but both the words and the pictures are wonderfully specific about the particular place Desta's father remembers. There are no generic images of "steamy Africa." Lewis' stunning, realistic watercolors move from loving close-ups of father and daughter inside their comfortable house to doublepage spreads of the Ethiopian countryside, where the pink cloud of flamingos ripples up from the lake and the hyenas, "strange coughing cry" can be heard in the night. The pictures show Desta rooted in her local American school and neighborhood; it's also clear that her father's images enrich her life here, even as she longs for his return.
Diane S. Marton (review date April 2000)
SOURCE: Marton, Diane S. Review of Faraway Home, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by E. B. Lewis. School Library Journal 46, no. 4 (April 2000): 108.
K-Gr. 3—Desta's grandmother is ill in faraway Ethiopia, and her father must return to his native land to help out [in Faraway Home ]. As he cuddles his daughter on his lap, he describes the place of his birth. The child pairs his experiences with hers and wonders whether the cowbells he remembers sound like the wind chime on their front porch. The man's love and yearning for home is obvious, and the little girl worries that he may never return to her. Finally reassured that he will come back, she asks him so many questions about his childhood home that when he sings in his native tongue, she begins to see "… a pink cloud of flamingos rippling up from a dark blue lake…." Lewis captures the lyricism and rich imagery of the text with his evocative, realistic watercolors. Soft browns, blues, greens, and pinks predominate in paintings that flow to the edge of pages for scenes set here, and fade off into white for those set in the Ethiopia of memory and longing. Text and illustrations combine to immerse readers in the sights and sounds of the African homeland, and the beautifully crafted whole gives fresh meaning to the terms "family," "separation," and "home."
RIVER FRIENDLY, RIVER WILD (2000)
Marian Drabkin (review date March 2000)
SOURCE: Drabkin, Marian. Review of River Friendly, River Wild, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Neil Brennan. School Library Journal 46, no. 3 (March 2000): 207-10.
Gr. 2-5—This collection of poems [River Friendly, River Wild ] tells of a child's experiences during a flood that sweeps through her town, forcing families to evacuate. The unnamed girl describes the creeping water, the hard work of making sandbags, the wrench of being forced to leave her beloved cat, and the crowded shelter where they watch the devastation on TV. While her Mom spends the next few weeks making "… lists / of everything she might have lost," the child worries about her pet. When they can finally return to the town, they drive past piles of sodden belongings and houses made dangerous by flood damage. To the child, the missing animal represents all she has lost, just as the unexpected finding of three intact glass Christmas tree angels represents survival to her mother, and foreshadows the eventual return of Kiwi, who has been rescued by a neighbor. The illustrations, done in oils overlaid with layers of oil glazes, are glowing and paradoxically warm, showing the devastation of the flood while managing to soften and mitigate its harshness. Portrayals of the family and the neighborhood emphasize closeness and working together, underlining the message of community and cooperation. "This was one terrific neighborhood," says dad, and as the family prepares to "make new memories" and stick together "wherever in the whole world we are," the words overlaid on a palely drawn but identifiable glass angel reassure readers that despite natural disasters, families can survive.
Junko Yokota and Mingshui Cai (review date January 2002)
SOURCE: Yokota, Junko, and Mingshui Cai. Review of River Friendly, River Wild, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Neil Brennan. Language Arts 79, no. 3 (January 2002): 267.
The Red River Valley is a beautiful place to live, but when the river runs wild, it becomes a "war zone" where people battle nature to survive [in River Friendly, River Wild ]. In the spring of 1997, a girl and her family evacuate their home when dikes and sandbags fail to hold back the flood. Upon returning, they find their home badly damaged. What's more tragic is that they have to leave their beloved neighborhood forever because a new dike is to be built there. With courage and hope, they start life all over. In lyric poems, the author recounts the traumatic experience with deep feelings. The illustrations, painted in dark muted colors, create a melancholy mood for the story.
JAKARTA MISSING (2001)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton (review date 2 April 2001)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton. Review of Jakarta Missing, by Jane Kurtz. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 14 (2 April 2001): 65.
Ambitious and complex, Kurtz's (Faraway Home ) novel [Jakarta Missing ] doesn't ultimately succeed, but offers a heady blend of universally relevant insight and an appreciation of the exotic. Raised in Africa, 12-year-old Dakar comes "home" with her parents to spend a year or two in North Dakota. She misses her older sister, Jakarta, who has insisted on staying behind at boarding school, and who has always been the leader. Her fears about her new environment are made all the more painful by her father's disdain for fear—not even an elephant attack scares him. Bookish in a way entirely credible for a shy, expatriate child, Dakar thinks about literary and biblical characters and wishes she, too, could fashion her own quest. "What would Odysseus do?" she asks herself at one point. Kurtz captivates when describing Africa, be it the grace of the wilderness or the chaos of "Nairobbery," as Dakar calls it, and she astutely conjures adolescent dialogue and thoughts. But she overloads her plot. Jakarta is forced to join the family after her school is bombed; shortly after her return, their mom goes off to nurse a long-lost aunt (who doesn't have a telephone); and, without consulting his still-absent wife, their father rushes off to Guatemala to work with earthquake victims (no phones there, either), leaving his daughters alone for weeks. Multiple subplots involve a girls' basketball team, a painful family secret and a cook at Dakar's school who talks in aphorisms. Even with its solid beginning, the novel simply cannot sustain so much activity. Ages 10-up.
Kory Fern (review date May 2001)
SOURCE: Fern, Kory. Review of Jakarta Missing, by Jane Kurtz. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 54, no. 9 (May 2001): 341-42.
Twelve-year-old Dakar—polyglot, "worrymeister," storyteller—has recently come "home" to the U.S. after a childhood spent in Africa, where her father worked as a researcher and relief worker; her only sibling, Jakarta (adopted four years before Dakar's birth), has elected to stay behind [in Jakarta Missing ]. Without the big sister who has always been her fearless leader, Dakar has had to face her demons (and her first North Dakota winter) alone, cultivating invisibility around her peers (aka "wildebeests") but also testing—and expanding—her limits. After a bomb goes off near her sister's boarding school in Nairobi, Dakar tries even harder to control herself and her world: she sets herself tasks (doing "three really brave things") and seeks wisdom from surrounding grownups. Dakar's father is too distracted and her mother too emotionally withdrawn to help much during this crisis: in fact, both are called away soon after Jakarta (safe and sound) rejoins the family. The second half of the novel focuses on how Dakar and, eventually, her family, realign themselves, with much of the external action generated by the girls' basketball team Jakarta leads to regionals while flirting with—and rejecting a chance to claim—a school shooting record. As filtered through Dakar's responses to them, her family's efforts to strike a balance between their individual needs and their respon-sibility to the greater good of family, team, and humanity ring true. Closer to home (and more diffuse) than Abelove's Go and Come Back, this too offers glimpses outside the usual boxes, gently expanding the reader's understanding of how "terrifying and wonderful" life can be.
Susan P. Bloom (review date May-June 2001)
SOURCE: Bloom, Susan P. Review of Jakarta Missing, by Jane Kurtz. Horn Book Magazine 77, no. 3 (May-June 2001): 329-30.
Twelve-year-old Dakar has begun to settle uneasily into her Cottonwood, North Dakota, home (has she even made a friend?) despite her longing for her older sister Jakarta, who has remained in Africa, where the family had lived for years [in Jakarta Missing ]. Dakar is desperate for her family to be whole and together; having long relied on her sister's strength both at home and boarding school, Dakar feels unable to be "the hero of [her] own life." When Jakarta unwillingly joins the family, Dakar has only a brief respite from feeling unsafe before she becomes surrounded again with anxieties. Her mom disappears to be with an ailing aunt; her dad is restless to be out saving the world and leaves to join a rescue team in Guatemala; and independent Jakarta falls in love with basketball in North Dakota—a huge upset in a family that espouses higher causes. Kurtz presents resonant images of being anchored and of flying, of being trapped in ice and of thawing, images that mirror the tensions that Dakar feels in her life. Dakar is too preoccupied to understand her own strengths: her humor, her resilience, her solidity. Only toward the end, when it is unclear how and where the family will configure itself, can Dakar hear a friend say, "I thought the coolest thing about you was that you were Jakarta's sister. But now I see you're cool for yourself." This tightly controlled, intense interior novel (most of it takes place inside Dakar's head) ends with Dakar really beginning to understand the enormous truth that life is terrifying—and wonderful.
WATER HOLE WAITING (2001)
Janice M. Del Negro (review date June 2002)
SOURCE: Del Negro, Janice M. Review of Water Hole Waiting, by Jane and Christopher Kurtz, illustrated by Lee Christiansen. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 55, no. 10 (June 2002): 369-70.
[In Water Hole Waiting, ] Young Monkey wakes thirsty and wants to hasten to the water hole, but his cautious mother holds him back: "Wait! Mama grabs his paw. Stay away from Hippo's yawning jaws." Monkey watches impatiently as various animal species—hippos, zebras, elephants, etc.—take their turn at the water hole. He is not the only observer, though: crocodile is also watching for a chance, not to drink, but to eat. Eventually, Monkey, his mother, and their pack go to the water hole to drink (they manage to avoid what is apparently a very slow crocodile). There are some distractingly odd turns of phrase in the text, and inconsistent use of internal and end rhyme makes it uncertain as poetry and uneven as prose. The cumulative momentum is effective, however; the addition of the danger of the crocodile adds some small suspense, and the thirstiness of the young monkey is palpably evoked. Pastel illustrations shift between naturalistic and awkward, the sometimes majestically rendered animals undermined by overly anthropomorphized expressions and rolling eyes. An author's note gives some background on the natural events that inspired this look at the fauna on the African savannah.
BICYCLE MADNESS (2003)
Joanna Rudge Long (review date September-October 2003)
SOURCE: Long, Joanna Rudge. Review of Bicycle Madness, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Beth Peck. Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 5 (September-October 2003): 613.
For Lillie, the spring of 1893 is marked by change: after Mother's death, Father has moved the family to the other side of town and buried himself in work [in Bicycle Madness ]. Their new neighbor is fifty-year-old Frances Willard—the real-life educator, women's suffragist, labor rights advocate, and would-be bicyclist. Lillie is intrigued by Willard's radical ideas and charismatic enthusiasm, though local sentiment is agreed that her opinions are downright dangerous. Father forbids Lillie to enter "Miss Frances's" house, precipitating a moral crisis since Lillie has already agreed to care for her dog during a days-long absence. Kurtz packs a surprising amount of history and drama into this agreeable, easily read story, including parallel accomplishments by girl and woman: Lillie masters her old bugaboo, spelling; Miss Frances conquers her bicycle—which she and the author see as both vehicle to and symbol of women's growing independence. One of the chapter-prefacing quotes spells this out in Willard's own words: "I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning wheel we must all learn to ride." Meanwhile, unquestioning conservatism, particularly Father's, begins to soften in response to information concerning, for example, child labor, presaging the huge cultural changes to come in the twentieth century. Author's notes expand on such topics as suffrage and early bicycles and explain that "nearly every word Frances Willard speaks in this book is based on something she really did say or write."
Elizabeth Bush (review date November 2003)
SOURCE: Bush, Elizabeth. Review of Bicycle Madness, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Beth Peck. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57, no. 3 (November 2003): 113.
Lillie's father considers their neighbor, Miss Frances Willard, to be a menace to stable society and a dangerous influence on his daughter, but the motherless little girl is attracted to the woman's plainspoken friendliness and her courageous determination to master the newfangled safety bicycle that she's dubbed "Gladys" [in Bicycle Madness ]. Although Lillie tries to honor her father's demand that she not visit the famed nineteenth-century suffragist, she can't help regarding Miss Frances as a role model, and she musters her own determination to conquer the challenge of the upcoming school spelling bee, despite her previous dismal performances in that arena. There's precious little drama built into the plot, and most of Lillie's anxieties involve her 'fessing up to a tear in her dress or her agreement to feed Miss Frances's dog. Willard's attitudes and activities have been so carefully modeled on her autobiographical writings that her neighborly conversation is unremittingly stiff and forced: "But some people give off the light of a firefly. Others give off the light of a star. I believe that, as more of us choose to shine brightly, change will happen—a little at a time." Although this is a quick, undemanding read for historical fiction buffs, readers with an interest in women's-rights advocates will do better with Harness's breezier Rabble Rousers.
MEMORIES OF SUN: STORIES OF AFRICA AND AMERICA (2003)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Joy Bean (review date 22 December 2003)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Joy Bean. Review of Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America, edited by Jane Kurtz. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 51 (22 December 2003): 61.
Offering 15 unique perspectives of Americans, Africans and African-Americans, this collection of vibrant stories and poems [Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America ] celebrates the distinct flavors of the African continent. The first section, entitled "Africa," evokes the beauty of African traditions, landscapes and people. Nikki Grimes captures the magical aura of the Bagamoya seaport in a poem and in a short story reveals the gentle nature and sense of loss that characterizes the disappearing Bushmen tribes. The second section of the book focuses on Americans' first impressions of the continent, crystallizing moments of discovery, awe, confusion and regret. The protagonist of Maretha Maartens's "The Homecoming" feels out of place living in South Africa until a classmate invites him home and introduces him to his wise grandfather. In the story "Her Mother's Monkey" by Amy Bronwen Zemser, even though Francine's father is mostly unsuccessful at treating injured animals during their year-long stay in Africa, her mother forms a close bond with an orphaned baby monkey. While selections in the third and final section of the volume take place on American soil, the rhythm of African life is still strongly felt. Recent exiles such as 15-year-old Kulaja, a former soldier in the African jungle, and Ajang, who had been to missionary school in Kartoum and describes the alien American culture, struggle to assimilate to a new way of life while retaining a piece of their heritage; another child who has never set foot in Africa gets in touch with her roots through stories handed down by an aunt. Providing sharp, contrasting images of splendor and strife, these selections will reverberate in readers' minds. Ages 10-up.
Karen Coats (review date March 2004)
SOURCE: Coats, Karen. Review of Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America, edited by Jane Kurtz. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57, no. 7 (March 2004): 284-85.
In her introduction to this anthology of stories and poems about Africa [Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America ], Kurtz alludes to biological evidence that concludes "we are all African under the skin." The stories and poems themselves provide a different kind of evidence, perhaps even stronger than the biological connection, which may lead readers to the same conclusion. The selections from both well-known and newer writers (contributor biographies are appended) are divided into three sections: "Africa," "Americans in Africa," and "Africans in America." Readers meet a disaffected white girl who finds family among a group of dispossessed Kalahari Bushmen, an African-American boy who is learning to love the South African country from which his father was exiled before he was born, a teenaged warrior from Sierra Leone who has to adjust to the slightly less violent streets of his new neighborhood in Los Angeles. Despite their variety, most of these vignettes of contemporary African experience end with a strongly evocative sensation of finding oneself firmly at home, connected to something much larger, older, and stronger than oneself. The strangeness of the characters' encounters with new landscapes, animals, and experiences isn't swallowed up or domesticated, nor is it overly exoticized; instead these writers strike just the right balance of bewilderment, wonder, and connection that takes readers with them on their journeys of self-discovery and celebration of a rich and diverse land and heritage. Each selection stands alone as a richly inviting read, and yet taken together, they make up a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts, making the world we live in seem bigger and yet more intimate at the same time.
Glenna Sloan (review date July 2004)
SOURCE: Sloan, Glenna. Review of Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America, edited by Jane Kurtz. Bookbird 42, no. 3 (July 2004): 60.
This distinguished collection of a variety of stories and poems [Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America ], assembled by Jane Kurtz, enlightens the reader with glimpses into contemporary Africa and insights into what it means to experience cultural differences and cultural connections firsthand. Fifteen poems and short stories, by turns humorous, poignant, and provocative, are divided among three headings: "Africa," "Americans in Africa," and "Africans in America." Included are brief biographies of the authors, some of whom are natives of Africa while others are Americans of color with close connections to Africa, and still others who are, in Jane Kurtz's words, "third culture kids," as is she—those who have lived both in Africa and in other countries. The authors include Monica Arac De Nyeko of Uganda; Lindsey Clark, an American who served in the Peace Corps in Morocco; Maretha Maartens, Africaans-speaking author of more than one hundred books for children and adults; and Muthoni Muchemi who grew up in Kenya and now lives in Cairo. Nikki Grimes, an African American, evokes in her poem, "Bagamoya," a town she visited during a year in Tanzania. In her biographical statement she writes, "Once you've been to Africa, its spirit haunts you for the rest of your life."
Arlene Campbell (review date fall 2004)
SOURCE: Campbell, Arlene. Review of Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America, edited by Jane Kurtz. Childhood Education 81, no. 1 (fall 2004): 46.
"I think he is lying down with the lion," says Ajang. "Well, it is a good story. I am glad, my friend, that you will go on your quest." Are you ready for an extraordinary journey into the hearts, minds, and souls of griots (storytellers)? Kurtz, as editor [of Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America ], has captured the essence of African spirituality and the "rootedness" of diverse storytellers in American and African settings. The three poetic lyrics and 12 short stories meander from the shores of Senegal to the Kalahari Desert of South Africa.
Written by a variety of authors, these heartwarming, troublesome, and compelling pieces explore the "double-bind" conflict with African cultural origins and American lifestyles and speak to adolescent readers. The writers address the "in-between" inquiries of "third-culture" perspectives. Haunting tales of elders and ancestral rituals clash with westernized notions of identity, as the characters struggle with internal conflict and seek self identity and meaningful connections with others. The subtle questions raised in these powerful narratives and poems are moving tributes to deeply rooted ancestral links and indigenous spiritual "ways of knowing" that are not always explainable. This is a journey that evokes laughter, tears, and reflection about how we touch one another when we open up our hearts, minds, and souls. The lion waits. Ages 10 up.
SABA: UNDER THE HYENA'S FOOT (2003)
Publishers Weekly (review date 20 October 2003)
SOURCE: Review of Saba: Under the Hyena's Foot, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Jean Paul-Tibbles. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 42 (20 October 2003): 55-6.
Set in Ethiopia in 1846, [Saba: Under the Hyena's Foot, ] this installment in the publisher's Girls of Many Lands series centers on Saba, a girl who lives in rural poverty with her grandmother. But when Saba and her brother, Mesfin, are kidnapped and taken to the emperor's compound, they discover their royal blood; their other grandmother's brother currently reigns. Saba's parents, in order to protect their children from the constant fighting for the throne, had hidden them long ago. Now Saba has been separated from Mesfin, and as she slowly begins unraveling the politics—the current emperor, her great-uncle, is a puppet and his wife, a "hyena," will stop at nothing to maintain control—she fears for her brother's fate. She also dreads the marriage the empress is arranging for her. The author blends fiction and history: while Saba is made up, Empress Menen was an ac-tual person. Readers may have trouble piecing together the complicated power struggles, but they may well be captivated by the glimpse into Saba's world and the aphoristic language ("Strength meant that if you fell off your horse, you walked"). As in other books in the series, this concludes with a glossary and short history lesson; fortunately, the author works many details about Saba's culture directly into the novel itself. Readers will likely root for Saba as she carves out her own daring adventure. Ages 10-up.
Glenna Sloan (review date July 2004)
SOURCE: Sloan, Glenna. Review of Saba: Under the Hyena's Foot, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Jean Paul-Tibbles. Bookbird 42, no. 3 (July 2004): 57.
An historical novel in the Girls of Many Lands Series, Saba: Under the Hyena's Foot takes place in Ethopia in 1846. From the remote region where they were raised by grandparents, twelve-year-old Saba and her brother, Mesfin, are kidnapped and brought to Gondar, home of the emperor and his court. Their place in the midst of a fierce struggle for control of the Ethiopian throne is the subject of this fictional story based on Ethiopian history. Carol Edwards, reviewing the book for Amazon.com, writes, "It's gratifying that a title this well written and culturally sensitive is now available since there are so few good novels about Africa, and especially Ethiopia, that provide a sense of the rich history in that part of the world."
THE FEVERBIRD'S CLAW (2004)
Timnah Card (review date May 2004)
SOURCE: Card, Timnah. Review of The Feverbird's Claw, by Jane Kurtz. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57, no. 9 (May 2004): 379.
In the Delagua city that curls "like a giant wildcat in a fertile valley sheltered by the four sacred hills," a red flag marked with a yellow feverbird whips in the wind [in The Feverbird's Claw ]. The bird's claw protectively holds a silkworm, the source of the Delagua people's wealth and strength. Moralin, royal-born through her father's line, takes her privileges for granted until she is kidnapped by the Arkera, the barbaric enemies of the Delagua. Luckily for Moralin, she has been secretly trained by her grandfather in the martial arts and can win the respect of her captors through acts of bravery. With guidance from her patron goddess, Moralin hopes to escape and return to the city of her ancestors, but what she comes to know on her journey may change her previously uncritical view of her home. The tale, told from Moralin's perspective, carefully creates her world's language and traditions, credibly portraying her preliterate society; the heroine's many adventures make for dramatic reading. Unfortunately, there are too many surprise elements undercutting the narrative's direction, and the brevity of the descriptions often leave the reader without a clear sense of place, a flaw that is ironically emphasized when contrasted with the acuity of Moralin's perceptions of facial expressions, political maneuvering, and combative encounters. Additionally, because there is no concrete salvation for the city until after the end of the novel, in spite of all the talk of Moralin's fulfilling a prophecy, the reader is distanced from the emotional impact of the climax and resolution. Nonetheless, the continuing action and doughty heroine may allow fans of prehistoric fiction and fantasy to enjoy exploring Moralin's world even without a high-voltage ending.
Jeff Zaleski (review date 3 May 2004)
SOURCE: Zaleski, Jeff. Review of The Feverbird's Claw, by Jane Kurtz. Publishers Weekly 251, no. 18 (3 May 2004): 192-93.
This fantasy [The Feverbird's Claw ] may be slow-moving, but at the end, Kurtz (The Storyteller's Beads ) rewards readers with simple yet profound insights about the workings of societies. As the novel opens, a young trainee in the fighting yard of the ancient Delagua City is hooded in a cloak to conceal that she is a girl. It is the eve of her entrance into temple service with her "awa clan" (other girls of her age), but what transpires there remains a mystery. During an errand in preparation for the celebrations, Moralin slips through a trapdoor and out of her walled city into a seemingly less civilized world. She is captured and must travel with the Arkera, an age-old enemy of her people. Along her journey, she befriends a boy named Song-maker, a translator whose people believe the world belongs to everyone, and, eventually, her personal foe, the girl Figt, who has lost her brother to the Delagua. With the mystical guidance of a revered Great One, and her unusual physical strength, Moralin escapes. She and Figt find their way back to Delagua, only to uncover its dark secrets: rather than being chosen by the Great Ones, their city's outward treasures depend upon the toil of imprisoned girls to make its famed silk cloth. Avid readers of fantasy who stay with the measured storytelling will reap the payoff when, in the final pages, Moralin chooses her own path. Ages 10-up.
JOHNNY APPLESEED (2004)
Laura Scott (review date December 2004)
SOURCE: Scott, Laura. Review of Johnny Appleseed, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Mary Haverfield. School Library Journal 50, no. 12 (December 2004): 134.
PreS-Gr. 1—With a choppy narrative and an illogical flow of events, this book [Johnny Appleseed ] is likely to confuse beginning readers. For example, Johnny trades his seedlings for a pan, a ham, a shirt, and some dirt. The fact that apples eventually grow from these "baby" trees is not mentioned. A few pages later, Johnny abruptly "hands something shiny / to a hopping girl" who suddenly appears pictured in his arms holding an apple. Next, farmers enter the story: "At the end of the day / they can come inside / and bite into an apple / or a sweet apple pie." Youngsters must infer that fruit comes from Johnny's aforementioned trees, and not from the labor of the farmer's plows. Haverfield's watercolor illustrations depict golden scenes and a Caucasian cast of characters. Stick with versions of this tale by Patricia Demuth (Grosset & Dunlap, 1996) and Gwenyth Swain (Carolrhoda, 2001), books for beginning readers that are a bit more challenging but have longer formats that offer increased description and vocabulary to yield flowing narratives with contextual predictability.
DO KANGAROOS WEAR SEAT BELTS? (2005)
Publishers Weekly (review date 28 February 2005)
SOURCE: Review of Do Kangaroos Wear Seat Belts?, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Jane Manning. Publishers Weekly 252, no. 9 (28 February 2005): 65.
[Do Kangaroos Wear Seat Belts?, t]his sentimental homily about how animal and human parents keep their children "warm and safe and snug" may disappoint fans of Kurtz's Water Hole Waiting. The book begins promisingly, with a mother buckling her preschool boy into a car seat and calling him a "bouncy kangaroo" as they head to the zoo. In a sepia-tone illustration, the boy imagines a kangaroo and her offspring riding alongside him, also sporting a seat belt. His mother then explains that a mama kangaroo carries her joey in a pouch, and the accompanying picture appears in full-color. But the animals smile like stuffed toys whether they are imagined by the boy or presented as denizens of the zoo. Immediately thereafter, the premise breaks down. Aside from the human mother carrying her child in a backpack like the "bush baby [that] rides on Mama's back at night," none of the other correlations between a human child's experiences and the animal world work. The rhyme and rhythm of the stanzas are also inconsistent, and the dialogue between mother and child stretches credibility. The quiet cheer of Manning's (The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches) illustrations underscores the book's edifying tone. When the boy asks, near the close, why his mother must go with him wherever he goes, she answers, "All kinds of parents everywhere—/ wet or dry, low or high, / … / do their best to take good care / of their little ones," and weights the book more toward didactic than entertaining. Ages 3-up.
Piper L. Nyman (review date April 2005)
SOURCE: Nyman, Piper L. Review of Do Kangaroos Wear Seat Belts?, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Jane Manning. School Library Journal 51, no. 9 (April 2005): 105.
PreS-Gr. 2—As a mother buckles her young son safely in for a trip to the zoo, he begins a series of questions challenging the necessity of common safety measures [in Do Kangaroos Wear Seat Belts? ]. With playful and imaginative responses using the zoo animals they see in her explanations, his mother assures him that all creatures protect their young. "All kinds of parents everywhere—/ wet or dry, low or high, / whether their bodies are large or thin, / covered with scales or fur or skin—/ do their best to take good care / of their little ones." The humorous illustrations, including a monkey in a helmet, depict the absurdity of animals employing strollers and holding hands for safety. However, the intended audience will certainly relate to the human mother's unrelenting, though inspired, insistence that her son comply. Although the rhyming text is occasionally awkward and a bit forced, the warm, color-infused illustrations capture both the love of a parent for her child and the silliness of creatures behaving like humans. A colorful and reassuring tale.
IN THE SMALL, SMALL NIGHT (2005)
Publishers Weekly (review date 24 January 2005)
SOURCE: Review of In the Small, Small Night, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Rachel Isadora. Publishers Weekly 252, no. 4 (24 January 2005): 243.
In Kurtz's (Fire on the Mountain ) reassuring bedtime tale [In the Small, Small Night ], a girl puts her younger brother at ease in a strange place with sto-ries from their homeland. It's their family's first night in America after emigrating from Ghana, and Abena's little brother, Kofi, won't let her sleep. To reassure Kofi and to regain her own sense of confidence, Abena tells two stories, one about Anansi, the other an Aesop-like fable. With each one, Isadora (Ben's Trumpet) shifts the setting from Abena's bedroom, bathed in the deep blue and lavender hues of night, to sun-baked landscapes of West Africa. The first story finds the trickster Anansi with worries of his own, which he tries to assuage by hoarding the world's wisdom in a pot; in the second, a determined turtle proves that no obstacle is too great when a friend is in need. Kurtz beautifully captures the way an age-old oral tradition emerges in the lilting, playful cadences of Abena's voice. "Don't worry," she says, when Kofi asks whether Anansi is going to play a trick on them. "If he is, we're ready. I'm very tricky, myself." But what really shines through, thanks to Isadora's velvety pastels, is the us-against-the-world bond between the siblings. Their physical ease with one another, and the warmth that passes back and forth between their dark eyes, make the old cliché ring true: home is where the heart is. Ages 5-up.
Karen Coats (review date March 2005)
SOURCE: Coats, Karen. Review of In the Small, Small Night, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Rachel Isadora. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 58, no. 7 (March 2005): 297-98.
America is a long way from Ghana, especially in the middle of the night. When Abena wakes up to find little brother Kofi in bed with her [in In the Small, Small Night ], she tells him stories that will help him remember their faraway home and the loved ones they have left behind in their move to America. The familiar Anansi tale and a trickster animal fable put the siblings' fears to sleep and help prepare them for their new life. Mixing the elegant rhythms of traditional African storytelling with the authentic voices of two children talking in the night, Kurtz seamlessly encases the stories within a story through a connection between characters and themes, layering the two together as the children interpret their worries in light of the stories' wisdom. Isadora's illustrations help solidify the connections by taking the children in and out of the stories; it is as if Kofi becomes Anansi's wise little son, and all of the animals of her native Ghana live in Abena's dreams. Though the color contrasts tip toward the garish and the draftsmanship of the figures is sometimes stodgy, the strong, vibrant colors bring luminescence to both the night scenes and the story images. Dots and stars in strong diagonal lines give the impression of the constant movement of a spinning world, emphasizing Abena's sleepy thought that the stars traversing the sky will soon be seen by her family in Ghana, making it a small, small night indeed. A wise and comforting tale for second-culture children adjusting to their new lives, this book also shows the universal power of stories to quell fears and provide strength for daily challenges.
Belcher, Wendy. "Author Jane Kurtz: Writing about Ethiopia for Children." Ethiopian Review 11, no. 1 (30 June 2001): 49.
Discusses Kurtz's personal path to writing children's books about Africa.
Chandler, Gloria. Review of Do Kangaroos Wear Seat Belts?, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Jane Manning. Library Media Connection 24, no. 3 (November-December 2005): 60
Evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Do Kangaroos Wear Seat Belts?
Ott, Bill, and Hazel Rochman. Review of Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America, edited by Jane Kurtz. Booklist 101, no. 22 (August 2005): 1960.
Praises Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America for avoiding "the usual exotic primitive stereotypes."
Additional coverage of Kurtz's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 155; Literature Resource Center; and Something about the Author, Vols. 91, 139.