The Storyteller's Beads
The Storyteller's Beads by Jane Kurtz. Illustrated by Michael Bryant (1998) Reading Level: Ages 8-12. 128 pages. Gulliver Books. ISBN: 0152010742.
Even after I had several books published that were set in Ethiopia, where I had spent most of my childhood, I still resisted telling part of the story. When people asked me, "What about the starving children?" I always pointed out the Ethiopia of my childhood was not a place of starvation and war. I resisted writing about that part of my Ethiopian memories until I was haunted by two girls.
I was reading an ethnography of the Kemant (or Qemant) community in northern Ethiopia and was intrigued by the comment that the Kemant say Ethiopian Jews (people they call "Falasha") are "buda," or possessed of the evil eye, while other ethnic groups think the Kemant are "buda." What if a girl, growing up in a sheltered Kemant community, was suddenly thrown into the wide world and found that the same prejudice she'd been taught to direct toward others was unthinkingly directed toward her? The other character came to me when I read one sentence in a nonfiction book, a gathering of survival stories of Ethiopian Jews who fled Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s. That sentence talked about a blind girl who walked all the way to the Sudan with her hand on her brother's shoulder. When I'm haunted by characters, I write. But I didn't want to write a grim book, and I've been touched by kids who wrote to tell me that they loved the drama of the story and felt caught up in it, including the fourth grade boy who told me, "I love your book," and ended his letter, "You have the coolest vocabulary ever!"