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

Shaking and smooshing and clinging to stories

I know I’ve said it before but I simply have to say it again…I’m astonished and oh so pleased that my parents were willing to let go of their moorings, shake their foundations, and head to Ethiopia with three toddlers.  Okay.  My older sister would have been insulted to be called a toddler at five-years-old.



My mom had three babies in Ethiopia…and our family traveled, amoeba-like, in sometimes-jerky-sometimes-fluid motions, around Ethiopia and to the US and back until I was in my mid-twenties.

  Those years left me with a big dislike of being a tourist and following a guide around listening to a schpiel.  They left me with a big like of slurping up the air and food in interesting places, watching people laugh and talk and shop and read and tell stories in those new (to me) places.

So last week, I was pleased to interrupt the domestic business of settling into a new home and flit off to visit Amy Butler Greenfield and her husband in Oxford.

They met when they were both students there.  I met them while they were temporarily living in Boston.  A chance Facebook conversation led to an impulsive decision that this was the right thing to do with five of my days in August 2011.

The timing wouldn’t have suited everyone.  Then again, not everyone got zipped off to Ethiopia to live as a two-year-old.

One of the things I like doing when I’m in another place is talking with fellow readers there.  In the UK in August 2011, not only did I get to have fascinating conversations with Amy about writing and research, I got to have face-to-face conversations with Dana Roskey, founder of the Tesfa foundation.  Here are some of the graduates of an early childhood education program Tesfa initiated in Addis Ababa–and Tesfa also works with teenage runners and has started building schools in areas that don’t have one.  (

In my ten years of volunteering for Ethiopia Reads, I’ve gotten to see that there are hundreds of small grassroots NGOs spreading ideas and dreams and new skills for deep-root change to various communities in Ethiopia.  What’s missing?  Collaboration.  So it’s been thrilldom to be able to collaborate with Tesfa this year.  Dana and the Ethiopian staff have put hundreds and hundreds of hours, with great generosity and passion, into Ethiopia Reads projects, including a visit to this library planted by a Denver donor and supported by fundraising efforts of 4th grade girls in Ellis School in Pittsburgh.

With everything there is to do and all the new opportunities for libraries, literacy projects, early childhood education in Ethiopia, there’s never enough time for uninterrupted conversation about smart strategy and choices.

Enter Oxford.

Tesfa has a UK board.  Dana happens to be connecting with friends and supporters in the UK right now.



Two days of long, intense talks about what can be done to support young readers in Ethiopia AND a chance to see what Oxford students can do with some English biscuits and a statue.

 Could anything be better than talking about books–about the ideas and images that nestle and rustle in the pages of books–than in Oxford?

Hogwarts is partly rooted in Oxford, after all…

…and every day, the bus trundled us past the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings stewed their stories…

…and I’d like to think that some of the magic of the place will now always sprinkle around Ethiopia Reads and all the volunteers doing what they can to share their love of reading with kids in Ethiopia.

On the second day, we traveled to Bath by train.  In the US, trains make stops at various spots.  In England, they call at various spots.  One reason travel shakes our foundations is that even little changes in language, though fun, can also be disconcerting and confusing.

Bath is another place of stories.

Angels climb Jacob’s Ladder on the face of Bath Abbey, marking Bishop Oliver King’s dream that the church should be restored.  I wonder if they’re the same angels that are said to have helped carve the huge stone churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia?

As Dana and I walked along the streets of Bath, talking about Ethiopia Reads, we passed a reminder of one of Bath’s most famous story-makers.

Jane Austen set two of her six published novels in this city, where she lived from 1801-1806.

Think the city isn’t proud?

Think again.

The places we settle seep into our bones and into our stories.

The characters writers invent and describe move through worlds that–in one of the pleasures of reading–can come to feel as close, as vivid, as intense for readers as for the people who live there.

Thus reading, as wise people have noted, can offer both roots and windows.  Books can help us look more carefully at the worlds right around and inside us.

Books can help us imagine ourselves into the skin of another human being, sometimes someone not even slightly like us, and can toss us into the soup of the wide world.  I wish all of us many mirrors, many windows, whether life is sending us mooring or shaking our foundations and sweeping us away.

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