The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Do we dare disturb the universe?

Kansas is beautiful in the spring.  I watched a squirrel run down one of these branches and grab a bud and munch it.  Then I made my way to the airport and flew to California for one of the most beautiful, zingy weekends I’ve had in a year of zingy times.

It started with a San Francisco gathering at Room to Read–a room full of conversations and sparks, of tough, thoughtful, hopeful people who are asking good questions about what it will take to give reading to young readers around the world.

 “They will find the shade with the books you share.”

Powerful words from today’s email messages.

Frew, one of our two Bay Area board members, sent them to me–along with pictures he took last time he was in Ethiopia.  While I was in San Francisco, he shared his time and his car and his story, what it’s like for him to look for a kind of rebuilding from the hard years when he was a kid in prison in Ethiopia and then a young man, out of prison only a short time, finding his stumbling way to Djibouti and to the U.S.  He’s a man of resourcefulness and healing.

   Part of Frew’s healing is reaching out through volunteer hours upon hours given open-heartedly to Ethiopia Reads.  San Rafael Library had chosen Cutting for Stone as its One Book, One Community book, a whole town reading Abraham Verghese’s “vastly entertaining and enlightening book” (says Tracy Kidder).  Mesmerizing.  Gorgeously epic.  A vivid peek into an Ethiopian world I’d lived in…and lived through again as I read those pages.

Author Ann Packer says, “Verghese’s generosity of spirit is beautifully embodied in this gripping family saga…An unforgettable story of love and betrayal and forgiveness.”

Frew, too, has lived a life of betrayal and forgiveness.  It moved and delighted me that he and these volunteers packed the house with 58 Ethiopian Americans, adoptive parents, and readers who hung with me as I showed picture after picture of the world I once inhabited along with Verghese’s fictional characters, Sheva and Marion and Ghosh and Genet and the others.

A city to the south…same weekend…same story of angelic volunteers and people who care deeply about whether or not kids in Ethiopia have school and books.  I saw the sheen of words at work, in the adoptive parents who came from all over for the Sunday evening fundraiser.  When I asked why, most of them said they’d been gripped by Julie’s blog–The Eyes of My Eyes.  Some had never before met her in person, but Julie’s writing about their shared adoption journey made them her friends and made them determined to fly to LA and support her fundraiser to build a school in the area of Ethiopia where her son and daughter were born.  Sometimes fundraising is dreary and icky.  This event was a burst of laughter and art and delicious food and music and, okay, my books.  I think it made everyone there proud that ordinary people can be philanthropists.

Yadesa Bojia designed the invitation and donated the painting that was auctioned at the end of the evening in this cozy theater in Venice Beach.  He talked about growing up in Ambo, Ethiopia, home of the fizzy water and terrifying high diving boards of my childhood, about what it was like to sit on the steps of the first library he entered and refuse to leave until he wore down the librarian and was allowed to check out books.

That school will be built–a collaboration of Ethiopia Reads ( and the Tesfa Foundation (  Kids will read.  Eyes will open.  Worlds will change.

Who will do it?










People who grab the ladder and the flower pots and put their piece in.

Author Philip Pullman says
too often in our classrooms these days, we forget the true purpose of literature, “the everyday, humble, generous intention that lies behind every book, every
story, every poem: to delight or to console, to help us enjoy life or endure

The everyday, humble, generous intentions of readers made California, this weekend, the most beautiful place in the world–except for one place, under a tree in Ethiopia with a book to read.

Why do you volunteer, I asked Frew.

“As a teenager in Ethiopia,” he said, “I was bent on changing my country in a positive way.  Going back is a way of healing myself.  I don’t consider the great amount of time I donate.  It doesn’t matter to me at all.”

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