I first “met” Jane Kurtz through her beautiful River Wild. Some years later, I was lucky enough to meet her person and embrace her as a true friend. I am so pleased to host her today in honor of her latest book, Planet Jupiter (Greenwillow Books). Dear friends, please “meet” Jane Kurtz.
Is there any question more common—or more confusing–than “where do you get your ideas?” After all, a novel takes many scenes and every scene has to be fueled by interesting ideas. Still, most of us can also (almost always) identify sparks.
Things zing us. They leave us feeling curious or excited or puzzled or helpless or determined.
Those emotions—and more—end up leaving trails. We follow, groping our way along, wrestling words as we go. That’s what it felt like, anyway, to write my new middle grade novel, Planet Jupiter.
When I was asked to create books to go with Lanie, the American Girl Doll of the Year in 2010, I was challenged to think about a girl who loves science and wants to save the Earth. When I met with the American Girl team, I said that the reason I’m passionate about saving the Earth goes back to my childhood in Ethiopia, many hours spent outside with plants and butterflies and the dirt. While writing the stories and looking for examples of citizen science, I discovered the concept of Backyard Habitat and how (as one Portland author has written), the soil will save us.
About six years ago, I moved to Portland, Oregon, into a house with a sad, sad yard. But because of Lanie, I knew things! I set about battling nasty weeds and inviting in plants that are good for pollinators and Mother Earth. I told my sisters I was going to putter. One of them said later, “You went from puttering to obsessed in two weeks flat!”
Obsession can create a rough ride, but it’s great for crafting scenes in a book that takes years to get right.
During the past decade, I was also often invited to speak with parents who had adopted children from Ethiopia. Thrilldom! Finally…people who actually wanted to know more, more, more about the country where I spent almost all my childhood. As they listened to my stories, I listened to theirs. People asked, “Are you going to write about adoption?” At first I thought no. But things children or parents said got stuck in my heart and my brain.
My own Ethiopian-American grandchildren REALLY got stuck in my heart and brain. Lately, I’ve been teaming up with them and others to create some simple, colorful, volunteer-driven books for children in Ethiopia. I love any time I can open a small door in my books to show a bit of that beautiful place.
One more trail. When I moved to Portland, my sisters and brother and I began to sing with our mom every single week. I grew up with no radio music and plenty of harmonizing. By now, though, I was rusty. Week after week, we sang songs together…preferably in a minor key, as my protagonist says, and better yet if they were gruesome…and pretty soon I was fizzing, again, with the joy of making music.
Songs. Science. Soil. Family that isn’t based on DNA but becomes tight and strong and true. Decisions to ramble or to honor our connections, to open, flower-like, to those who come to our borders.
Trails for me to trudge along, looking for the light.
Jane Kurtz writes picture books and novels, fiction and nonfiction, speaks nationally and internationally, and teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Children’s and YA Literature. With her volunteer hours, she is creating ready-to-read local language books (Ready Set Go Books) for children in Ethiopia.