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

Facing down terror

Writing a book starts with a totally empty page.  Or screen.


I didn’t find it so when I was starting out.  I always felt charged up and confident and bubbling with ideas and words and details.  (John Gardner said details are the life blood of fiction.)

Now I guess I understand how long the journey is really going to be before I have, oh, 200 pages all full of clever ideas and just-right words and surprising, vivid details that all fit together in an unpredictable yet satisfying pattern.

I also understand what a team effort a book is…with editors needing to step up when it’s their turn and strong ambassadors (parents, booksellers, librarians, teachers) taking their turn when it’s time to put a book into the hands of young readers.

Readers, as I told the kids yesterday, are on the team, too.

Nobody reading?

No fun to write.


My volunteer life is equally terrifying at times.  We dream a project…hey, let’s BUILD a library as a team with a young Ethiopian man who has been trying to make a library a reality for his community since he was the first youngster to go off to college.

Hey, let’s develop a health curriculum that can tackle the most common diseases in a community…and share it in the library.

Hey!  Let’s craft great professional development to make sure the smart thinking behind good literacy gets really and truly shared in that library and every other place we can.

The power of any project is in PEOPLE.


Hey…let’s…um…raise some money.

Oops.  Bring on the terror.

I would be lying down with a cold cloth right about now except–astonishingly–a team does seem to emerge in the most surprising ways.  Today, for example, I’m going to meet a young Iowa famly that adopted two kids from Ethiopia.  When they ended up with some unexpected money, they decided to invest it in a school for the area where their kids were born.

Who could make up something like that?

And they were inspired by Julie, who wanted to build a school for the area where HER kids were born.  I talked to her when that idea was like the first blank page of a novel…a dream.

Which writer was it who said I dream an eagle and give birth to a hummingbird?

Such a long way between the dream and the thing itself.

Probably most people wouldn’t have given Julie great odds.

She didn’t have a pile of money to start her off and she didn’t have years of experience with fundraising and she didn’t have powerful backers (except in the way friendship can be powerful).

She didn’t know Oprah.

(I can’t tell you how many people–over my years of volunteering with Ethiopia Reads have asked if we’ve gotten in touch with Oprah.)

The land the community was willing to donate for a school was terrifyingly like that blank page.

But a writer sits down.

Picks up a pen or puts fingers on the keyboard.

Ekes out some words.

Crosses things out.



Oonches out a bit more.

A dreaner…a fundraiser…does something of the same thing, coaxing out ideas and leads and hope hope hoping a few people are out there who will say, “What can I do?”

Julie’s school gradually began to get a shape.

The dream got less hazy.  More real.

This is the room that will become a library and will soon be full of the rustle of book pages.  I love the way the people standing there can see for miles and miles.

Someone said books give us mirrors to look into ourselves and windows to look out at the world.

Kids in this room will have mirrors and windows.  They will have all the things books give us including curiosity and empathy and skills and complicated thoughts.

This week, the finished building got painted a sea-foam green.

This month, these kids will have a school that is right in their back yard and not miles away.

Today, other families pick up the baton and face their own blank pages and dream their own dreams.

I’m scared…I sure am.

But I’m also amazed.

Go team!



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