Saturday, January 4, 2014

An Author a Day: Jane Kurtz

January 4

I first met Jane Kurtz (April 17, 1952 - ) at the 1997 International Reading Associations conference held in Chicago during May of that year.  It was years later that I learned that Kurtz had almost not attended the conference because she had just experienced a great flood that had invaded their Grand Forks, Nebraska home, an invasion that began on her birthday.   I was thrilled to meet her because I had read her folklore tales from Ethiopia, Fire on the Mountain (1994, illustrated by E.B. Lewis) and her Pulling the Lion's Tail (1995, illustrated by Floyd Cooper) and later came to know Only a Pigeon written with her brother Chris Kurtz, and illustrated by E.B. Lewis.

Not only did that 1997 meeting with me result in a long-time friendship but that May she shared accommodations with two of her long-time writer friends: Deborah Wiles and Deborah Hopkinson.  All three were at loose ends regarding what to write next.  From the late night discussions and kibitzing about writing came three outstanding books.  Jane was in the midst of dealing with that devastating flood and was encouraged to deal with her feelings by writing about those feelings.  The result was a book of poems that individually capture a moment during that flood and the recovery -- but collectively tell the story of the resilience of the people of Grand Forks.  Her writing became River Friendly, River Wild (2000).
Deborah Wiles thought about her own situation and she too decided to write about something that had impacted her memories.  The summers of her childhood were often spent in the south with her grandparents and she looked forward to swimming in the town's pool with her friends.  But one summer the pool was closed by the town government rather than allow blacks and whites to swim in the pool together.  The story of that unforgettable summer is told in Freedom Summer (2001). And Deborah Hopkinson worked on idea she had for a book to focus on another aspect of escape from slavery in the South.  She had written the immensely popular Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (1995) and with encouragement from Kurtz and Wiles, Hopkinson developed the manuscript for
Under the Quilt of Night (2002) which was published with illustrations by James Ransome.  Ransome had illustrated Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt as well.

Jane Kurtz has gone on to write many other great books — stories inspired by her childhood in Ethiopia, others inspired by her pioneering family who trekked westward over the Oregon Trail, and by history in general.  Many of her books include strong female characters.  I particularly like Bicycle Madness (2003) as although it is an early chapter book it has so much potential for acquainting older learners with the thinking and resistance aimed at those women who sought some degree of independence by learning to ride a bicycle.  In fact, that change eventually is credited with promoting a irreversible turn in the role of women in society.  Those studying the movement toward women's suffrage would do well to acquaint themselves with Frances Willard.

Her recent title Anna Was Here breaks new ground in that it is a historical story that brings a measure of religion into the family's life.  This would not have been unusual and the situation is forthrightly presented within the context of an average girl's devote family and her gentle, optimistic story focusing on her family's move to a new community and Anna's efforts to make new friends, adjust to a new school, a new community, and a family of strangers await, and what's even worse, it's all smack-dab in the middle of Tornado Alley.

McElmeel, Sharron L.  Children's Authors Too Good to Miss.  ABC/CLIO/Libraries Unlimited, 2004;  pages 143-49.

McElmeel, Sharron L. "Jane Kurtz —Orange Spirals" Authors in the Kitchen.   ABC/CLIO/Libraries Unlimited, 2005;  pages 133-36.

Jane Kurtz: Author of Books for Young Readers (WEB)

Sharron L. McElmeel Papers, University of Iowa's Special Collections, Iowa City, Iowa.
for author visits

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