Lots of artists and educators around the world look to traditional stories as a source of inspiration and joy. When I was reading aloud to my kids and beginning to capture my own childhood in my first books I did the same thing.
The Elephant and the Mosquito illustrated by Courtney Smith.
Dr. Laurie Curtis at Kansas State University, wise and warm Ethiopia Reads volunteer, pointed me toward a project in Tanzania that uses local stories and that gave me a terrific model to imagine an end product for my bookmaking dreams. But even those wonderful 8-page books have too much text on the page for someone just starting to read.
As my sister Caroline and I were brainstorming, we thought about the rich source of terets—or wise sayings—in Ethiopia, rich with images and characters, as full of daily life experiences and wisdom as are folk tales. (That’s true here, too. In January, a Vermont College of the Fine Arts student shared one from his childhood: “Talkin’ don’t pull no stumps.”) I sat down and played with a favorite of mine from Ethiopia; an illustrator friend then laid it out with thumbnail sketches.
After trying to explain this idea in the abstract a few times, I enlisted the help of my grandkids. Their mom is from Ethiopia, and we love finding ways to celebrate their Ethiopian heritage (yay for Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp).
Since they live in the U.S. I asked them to help me think of American proverbs or sayings.
“Like idioms?” my grandson asked.
He came up with a good one: Don’t put the cart before the donkey.
Jane’s grandkids and a donkey illustration for the story.
I’m not an illustrator. But we used wiki-how to teach ourselves to draw things and spent our time over Christmas break creating a few illustrated stories that I could take with me on my trip to Ethiopia.
“Will we be famous in Ethiopia?” they asked.
“When kids read words on the page for the first time,” I said, “they think the author and illustrator of that book are the coolest people in the world.”
There’s nothing like the intensity of that first magic when little black squiggles on a white page suddenly make sense and nudge us to feel or know something we didn’t, before.
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.