Jane Kurtz: Thoughts on Bookmaking

Our first guest is Ethiopia Reads co-founder and former board chair Jane Kurtz, a well-known children's author and professor of creative writing.  The topic of bookmaking has become a central feature of our organization's work and we continue to explore to ways to create more and more local-language reading material for children across Ethiopia.


Artists are also born every day, all around the world—people who see things in new ways and try to make their work true and bold and full of their own particular visions.  And some artists choose to create books.

In the 1930s in the US, Dick and Jane appeared, “characters with whom children could identify,” with stories that emphasized “the meaning of words rather than using rote phonics drills.” My mother taught me to read in Maji, Ethiopia, using Dick and Jane and other stories inspired by them. (See more information about Dick and Jane books here.)

As the decades passed, quirky people with quirky ideas took easy-to-read books in even more creative directions.  Parents and educators still share Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon or Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop. And the experimentation flowed on—artists putting together fun and fascinating words and phrases, in clever and often repeating combinations.  Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Mo Willems with his twenty-five elephant and piggie books or Chris Raschka with Yo? Yes! or Whaley Whale and Wormy Worm. Many other types of books, too, such as the biography of Johnny Appleseed that a Simon Schuster editor suggested I write.

I’ve spent seventeen years volunteering for Ethiopia Reads, mostly concentrating on raising money to plant libraries, build schools, hire staff, support book centered learning.  This year, I wanted to put my artist’s hat on.  I wanted to hang out with a team of writers and painters to create my own art in Ethiopia and also experiment with seeing whether our artistic visions could help spark some books for the youngest readers in schools and libraries all across Ethiopia.

Real literacy emphasizes meaning, along with learning how to decode syllables. It comes when children link their experiences with words and pictures. And it usually starts in a child’s mother tongue. (See Global Partnership blog entry here.)  Very few books or other reading materials exist, so far, that will lay a strong foundation of literacy for Ethiopian children.

Can we be part of creating one? My stubborn artistic brain thinks we can.

- JANE

Jane Kurtz has published more than thirty books for children, some of them set in Ethiopia where she spent most of her childhood.  She is also on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in children’s literature.

For more information on our bookmaking project, please visit the Ethiopia Reads Odyssey page here.