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

How did you come to write for American Girl?

The life of a freelancer and writer weaves itself into interesting patterns and tangles and knots.  How did I come to write for American Girl?  That true story probably started when I was invited back to Ethiopia to speak in schools, and the schools offered me a trip anywhere.  I asked to go north because I was working on my first novel, The Storyteller’s Beads.  I wanted to see a Jewish Ethiopian village and the landscape my character Rahel travels as she flees from Ethiopia.

I grew up in the mountains of southwest Ethiopia.  In the amazing mountains of the north, kingdoms rose and fell for centuries as kings and warriors struggled for power.   Power moved from the far north (Axum) to Lalibela, whose kings dreamed of a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia, and eventually to Gondar.  I saw the ruined castles of Gondar when I was a girl, but I had never studied their history.  

The year I went back to Ethiopia as a published author, I went back to Gondar.  The castles were as fascinating as ever.  So were the angels painted on the ceiling of a church nearby.  When American Girl decided to try a series called “Girls of Many Lands,” featuring 12-year-old girls living all over the world in different historical periods, they got in touch with me.  I said I would love to dig deeply into the history of those castles, those angels–and that’s how my first novel for American Girl, Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot, came to be.

My daughter was a big American Girl fan, but I didn’t really understand what I was becoming part of until I got to Chicago to sign copies of Saba. I was looking nervously at the store’s address on a piece of paper, when I looked up and noticed all the girls with their dolls–all walking in the same direction.  Ah-hah.  I’d just discovered huge American Girl love.  I also got to sign in the New York City store with my friend Mary Casanova, who wrote Cecile, another of fthe “Girls of Many Lands” books (set in France).

I liked working with the editor of Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot.  I was impressed by American Girl’s passion for details.  I learned a lot about research from poking around in a complicated time in Ethiopian history, when the warriors were strong and the kings were weak, when the power of Gondar was crumbling and about to drift south once again toward the new capital of Addis Ababa.

Fast forward to April 2008.  I was doing another international school visit, this time at a school in Indonesia that has a project to save orangutans–and I got an email from the editor of Saba. Check it out!  She’d liked working with me, too.  She asked if I wanted to tackle writing the books for the American Girl doll of the year.  I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough.

The “Girls of Many Lands” series, alas, didn’t stay around long.  But Saba is available at or on through Down Home Books, and the money goes to help kids in Ethiopia read books.  And Saba led to Lanie and my exciting 2010 spring.

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