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

Yes we can in Ethiopia and America

I grew up around kids who were hungry to be in school.  For a lot of them, it was a dream that would never happen.

Some of them lived too far out in rural areas where a school didn’t exist or teachers wouldn’t go.  (In 2000, I climbed a steep path up a cliff to Maji, where I spent most of my childhood.  Local people now name that cliff for the teacher who turned around, mid-way up, and announced, “They can keep my salary.”)

Some of them didn’t have even a few coins to spend on supplies.  My dad saw a boy herding goats by the path and told him, “You should be in school.”  The boy told my dad he didn’t have those few coins he needed.  He asked for work in my dad’s garden.  “You’re too small,” Dad said.

“I’m small,” the boy said, “but I’m strong.”

Many years later, my dad was talking to his garden helper, now a teacher.  “Aren’t you glad I spotted you by the path that day and encouraged you to go to school?” he asked.

The man laughed and said, “I wanted to go to school.  People told me to take my goats and stay near that path.  It wouldn’t be long, they told me, until you would come that way.”

Kids in Ethiopia.  Whew.  So full of everything that children are.

‘You!  You!” they call as they run up, eager to try out their English and giggle.  What they ask for most often is a pen.

Some of them will never go to school because they’re too busy taking care of younger siblings or carrying water and wood for their households.

But thousands more are in school, today, than when I was a child in Ethiopia.  In Maji, I learned to read.  I learned to love books.  I long to get books to more of those kids who are in school in Ethiopia now.

When my mom was a girl, her mom found her sitting on the porch crying.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Someday,” my mom said, “I won’t be in school anymore.”

My mom left home as a teeanger, determined to get herself to college.  At Monmouth College in Illinois, she met my dad.  She’d only managed to get in two years of college when she taught me and my sisters to read–but her love of books and school spilled over to me and shaped my life.

Everyone should be lucky enough to learn to read from someone who loves to read.

Here in Oklahoma, I spoke to a class taught by a librarian who knows that.  We talked about how many schools are forgetting to make time for the joy and passion and thrilldom of reading.  When I was a young teacher and these were my students at Carbondale New School, so many parents and educators were trying to figure out how to make U.S. schools places where kids dug in and tried things, got out of their desks, stopped filling in blanks on pieces of paper and thought and talked and explored.  It’s baffling that education has swung back toward filling in the blanks.

In Ethiopia, a lot of schools have no choice except teaching by rote memorization.  No books.  No pencils.  No teacher training to support other kinds of instruction.  How amazing for me to see the walls of this school in Harar.  Dr. Mary Spor, who travels to Ethiopia to do teacher training several times a year, says the instruction in this school is “phenomenol.”

Right now, Ethiopia Reads ( has more than half the money raised to put a library in this school.  The sign is boldly up.  I can’t wait to see what the teachers in this school will be able to do with books.  I just know we’ll raise the rest of that money soon.

“Don’t you get tired with your teaching load and writing and speaking and all your volunteer hours?” someone asked me here.


But I never think TGIF.  I wake up every morning wondering what excellent news the day will bring.  I love, love, love what I do.

My son reported that my granddaughter, on her last day of kindergarten this month, wrote a note:

“Dear first grade, I love to learn! I read a lot.”

I just about can’t stand the thrilldom.

Who’d have dreamed when I was watching the kids around me in Ethiopia run toward school, toward books that I’d some day have an Ethiopian-American granddaughter who would read my book, based on my memories of the Ethiopian savannah (Water Hole Waiting) to her brother?

Couldn’t have made it up!

Yay for schools in the U.S. that fill kids with a passion for books and learning.  Up with the teachers who know how to do that.  Their voices often get drowned out.  Up with the rippling of reading and deep learning to Ethiopia and all around the world.

Come on…we can do it.

2 thoughts on “Yes we can in Ethiopia and America”

  1. Author visits are so important. As Jane spoke to my students who are working on their masters degree to become school librarians, I saw the excitement and enthusiasm as we talked about the importance of reading and sharing books. Life long learners are life long readers. Discussing books with one another expands our world. Thanks, Jane for the insights, ideas, and passion!


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