Celebrating Jane Kurtz IBBY Reading Promoter Award and her volunteer efforts with OHBD – Blog Post Three the Creative Process for OHBD Ready Set Go Books Project

Process and Creative are often oxymorons.  But with this project we needed to make them play nice together.  We need to be creative without losing sight of our goals to create many culturally appropriate bilingual books for children in Ethiopia and beyond.  And we needed process that would overwhelm or undermine being creative especially since much of our team are volunteers and don’t work professionally within the book space.

How did we do that?  Well, this is still a work in progress for the team. Hear a bit more from Jane below in her iRead interview.

iRead: How long does it take for you to create one Ready Set Go Book?

Jane: There is an educator who has taught many children who are reading in English as a second language, and she reminded me recently that she started writing a Ready Set Go Book three or four years ago. She tried her concept a number of ways before coming up with an excellent draft. Then it was illustrated by an Ethiopian friend of hers living in the U.S. Then our main Ethiopian reviewer thought it needed major changes, so it’s still not finished.

A lot of how long books take depends on the illustrators. When I’m writing a book, sometimes I get stuck and have to think about it for a long time. But let’s say if an idea comes to me and it flows very well, I might be able to write it in a week. Then I ask my team to review it. That will take a few more weeks. So, we might be able to finish the writing in a month, all polished and edited.

Then comes the work of the illustration. This takes much longer. Let me give you an example. In Ethiopia, a branch of the Nile River is called Abay, or sometimes called the Blue Nile by outsiders. An Ethiopian friend of mine had suggested this idea for a book. A grandmother who lives across a river from me said she wanted a project for her grandchildren to work on during COVID, so I gave them some photographs of the Nile River and asked them to create the illustrations. Perhaps it took 4-6 months of the kids working with their grandmother, who’s a talented artist. Then I got the illustrations and wrote the text, which led me to ask for some more images—a papyrus boat, a crocodile, and some hippopotamuses. It has taken us at least six months to finish the illustrations. After that, there’s still the design work to be done.

The translation is a long process as well. An author and educator in Ethiopia does the first translation. That draft is reviewed by a woman in Ethiopia who works at an international school in Addis Ababa. She reads lots of books to children and understands what we’re trying to do with making the language playful. And then our final reviewer is an Ethiopian cardiologist who lives in Minneapolis here in the United States. Sometimes he says, “no, this won’t work.” And because he had his medical training here in the United States, he can explain in English what the problem is. And then all of that has to be fixed. So sometimes one book can be created very quickly and sometimes it takes a long time. In general, we have to count on it being about at least 6 months.

iRead: What’s the percentage of Ethiopian authors and illustrators you have?

Jane: The translation is done 100% by Ethiopians. At this point, I would say about 1/3 of the illustrators are Ethiopian. We’ve started doing some books that feature children with special needs such as blind children and deaf children and children in wheelchairs. We try especially hard with those books to use Ethiopian illustrators who know the situation there—unless we have excellent photographs that can provide a resource.

If COVID stays calm, I really would love to go to Ethiopia again, and my highest priority is to do a workshop for illustrators. The art scene in Ethiopia is amazing these days. Using that talent to make books appealing for children is an exciting possibility.

iRead: How about the writers?

Jane: We have some Ethiopian writers. Language is always tricky. Because all of these books are bilingual, the text has to work in both languages. We don’t have a lot of Ethiopian writers who want to do their writing in English as first draft. We’ve tried having someone to write in Amharic first and translate it into English. It’s just really tricky, overall. There’s a lot of language exchange back and forth and coaching. All of the writers and editors—myself included—have connections to Ethiopia that guide our efforts. Dr. Woubeshet, who reviews all of the titles in English and Amharic, commented to me that with my childhood in Ethiopia, I know enough to know what I don’t know.

Here’s another important fact of the Ready Set Go Books: More of them are read in an Ethiopian language than in English. People don’t realize how much translation is an art that uses excellent writing skills, and all of the books are available in at least three Ethiopian languages—with more languages added all the time. Open Hearts Big Dreams is being approached by more and more diaspora communities who want the books available in their own Ethiopian languages. They are forming teams to figure out translation and review, and they are also providing content to make sure some of the books reflect the geography and culture and customs of their part of Ethiopia. So in a way, 100% of the books are written by Ethiopians, because they are creating the versions that most of the readers will encounter.

You can find all our books on our OHBD RSG Books Website! We are always looking for more reading promoters to get our books in more school, libraries and communities.  We also need more illustrators to work with us to continue to create more amazing children’s books.  Reach out if interested in learning more.