“I love your book, The Storyteller’s Beads. . .I think it helps people understand the awful things that happen to people around the world…You have the coolest vocabulary ever.”
Jane Kurtz moved to Ethiopia with her missionary parents when she was two years old, and thought of it as home until she was in her early 20s. Before returning to the U.S. to attend college at the age of 18, she visited the States only twice, once at age seven, and once at 13. American children never failed to ask her if she saw Tarzan. Today, many of Kurtz’s books draw on her experiences in Ethiopia, in part because of the lack of cultural awareness she encountered when she visited the U.S. as a child. “My dream is that kids will get a glimpse into what life is like other places in the world.”
Kurtz can’t remember a time when she didn’t write. She still has her second grade report card on which her teacher wrote, “We have enjoyed Jane’s poetry. Perhaps it is one of her talents.” Further encouragement and inspiration were provided by Kurtz’s father, a gifted storyteller, and her mother.
“When we were small, my mother didn’t have a good formal education, but she communicated to us a love of books, words, and language.”
The desire to write for children developed when Kurtz had children of her own. Kurtz sold her first book in 1990 (I’m Calling Molly, Albert Whitman), a story about her children’s antics. About ten years ago, Kurtz felt a surge of longing for her Ethiopian home. “Perhaps it was the harsh North Dakota winters, or perhaps it was because I was coming up on 40. . .I can’t quite pinpoint exactly what it was.” Kurtz turned to writing for comfort, and Fire on the Mountain was born.
Kurtz has also incorporated other aspects of her life into her tales. Two of her characters, Tekela in Trouble and Sarah in I’m Sorry, Almira Ann, mirror Kurtz as a youngster. “I was born pushing the envelope, but I longed to be a good kid.” Like Tekela and Sarah, Kurtz was impulsive as a child, but guided by good intentions. In River Friendly River Wild, Kurtz writes about one of her most painful memories—the 1997 flood which destroyed her North Dakota home. Unlike the girl in the story, Kurtz did bring the family cat at the insistence of her daughter—from shelter, to borrowed home, to travel trailer, to mobile home.
“I had a great time learning about Ethiopia. I think it’s cool you got to grow up there. I want to be a writer when I grow up, so I hope it turns out for me just like it did for you.”
Kurtz researches each story carefully before submitting it for publication. For The Storyteller’s Beads she read many nonfiction accounts of Ethiopian refugees who had escaped to the Sudan. “I wanted to give a voice to the people. . .it was satisfying to me to find some little detail that I could weave into my story.”
In I’m Sorry, Almira Ann Kurtz leaves Ethiopia behind and takes her readers to the Oregon Trail. Kurtz was born in Oregon and her ancestors traveled west on the Oregon Trail. Kurtz’s research took her beyond the gung-ho father and long-suffering mother stereotypical of westward expansion stories; in Sarah’s family, the father is impractical, and the grandmother holds the family together. Mother is having a ball and even organizes the children to make molasses candy in the moonlight—one of the little details gleaned from the journals of actual Oregon Trail travelers.
In addition to writing for children, Kurtz teaches English at the University of North Dakota. She lives in Grand Forks with her husband Leonard. Her three children range in age from 16 to 19. Kurtz returned to Ethiopia in the spring of 1997 and visited three schools in the capital city of Addis Ababa.
“Every time I put The Storyteller’s Beads down, it kept calling to me. I just couldn’t let it sit there on my table, could I?”