Celebrating Jane Kurtz IBBY Reading Promoter Award and her volunteer efforts with OHBD – Blog Post Two WHY OHBD Ready Set Go Books Project Started

Creating children’s books is not an easy endeavor.  My first children’s books took 10 years from writing the story, thinking I would illustrate it but not finding the time, then finding a busy illustrator and working through all the different versions to finally teaching myself to self-publish and releasing it into the world.  Jane has written many children’s books as an award-winning author and teacher and knows well how challenging creating each and every book is.

iRead:[OHBD] Ready Set Go Books has done some very impressive work addressing the fundamental reading problems in Ethiopia. What led you to create this project?

Jane: When I was volunteering for Ethiopia Reads, we were ‘planting’ libraries. One time I was visiting the first library with my brother who is an elementary school teacher. The rooms were full of books in English but most children were lined up at a very small shelf with local language books.

I began to realize that even though we were doing very good work with Ethiopia Reads by establishing libraries for children, we weren’t really going to solve reading problems in Ethiopia unless there was more reading material available for children in their own languages.

So, after about 15 years of volunteering for Ethiopia Reads, I decided that it was time for me to start a different project – [creating early reader books].

iRead: How does the model for OHBD Ready Set Go Books work?

Jane: At the start, I got really excited when I thought I could create some models to tackle this issue of a lack of high-quality reading material in Ethiopia. I hoped when others saw the models, they would get inspired as well. Then I met Ellenore Angelidis [in late 2016] who was about to start a nonprofit called Open Hearts Big Dreams (OHBD) that focuses on Ethiopia because she had adopted a daughter from there.

I immediately saw the potential of these books if we scaled the idea and set the bold goals we talked about in our first post – 200 titles, top 3 Ethiopian languages — with the ultimate goal of positively impacting the literacy rate of a country of 115 MM people.  We continue to hear we do inspire others to write and publish their own stories too. We are delighted to both put more books into the world through our efforts.  And act as a catalyst to show others what is possible and have them create more books too.

and our family to her beautiful diverse birth country through contributing to where there is a need.  My parents and husband are all teachers so creating more learning opportunities through this program and our others was a natural fit for me.

Jane: As the head of the OHBD creative team, I write some of the books myself, recruit and coach writers and illustrators, collaborate with the designer, and guide the Amharic translation. All of our books are bilingual; they each are in English and one Ethiopian local language. We have three different people that work on the Amharic translation and give us feedback.

My daughter Leyla and I have enjoyed working with Jane as a wonderful coach to create a number of these OHBD RSG books ourselves.  They include family stories from our trips back to Ethiopia, a Greek/Ethiopian story that speaks to two of our family cultures as well as books focused on Mother/Daughter and family relationships. Each book gives us a chance to research and learn as well as share and teach.  We also enjoy collaborating with our amazing illustrators and getting to know them better in the process.

Jane: Once we have created the books, the production team run makes them available on Amazon and in bookstores, while also raising money to print copies in Ethiopia. I have an important role in the creative part, but the most wonderful thing about this project is that it’s a collaboration. There are Ethiopian and American writers, illustrators, designers and translators. And there’s a whole team that gets the books out into the hands of the readers.

Very early on in this project, Jane and I talked about the other resources we needed to add to the team to be effective.  We now have a Production team, led by Kate Bare, that gets the Creative Team’s efforts in different formats for Print on Demand, Digital and Local Printing.  They add in each new language – we are up to 11 now with 3 more in the pipeline. They work on things like metadata, our new website database, and so much more.  We also have a translation team led by Steff Stevens who helps us find the professionals to add languages that we know our young readers in Ethiopia and globally want to see.

iRead: What is the Ethiopian publishing industry like?

Jane: There isn’t really a publishing industry in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, there are some imported books, some books published by individuals, and curriculum materials published through the government. There isn’t a private publishing industry that recruits authors and illustrators, publishes books, handles the publicity and book sales–everything that I’m used to for my books here in the United States. Also, most children’s books there only have simple black and white illustrations.

Since 2017, we have collaborated with organizations in Ethiopia to get our books printed and distributed given the lack of a traditionally understood publishing industry. However, none made the books generally available to those that kept requesting them.  So in 2021, we added Local Printing in Ethiopia led by Yoseph Ayalew who is creating high quality copies of our books in Addis Ababa and are available for schools, libraries and others who want and need them.

And all of these efforts require funding, as Jane called out, even with all our amazing volunteers.  I have led fundraising efforts with lots of generous supporters from around the globe.  The vast majority of our donations are small from individuals.  We are hoping to increase those as well as solicit more business sponsorship for our printing efforts as global inflation is making those paper prices soar.  We are in the process of bringing on a new team lead for that so stay tuned.

Taking a WHY like “Literacy won’t improve enough without sufficient culturally appropriate first language children’s books” and turning it into over 700 books in eleven languages in less than 6 years take vision of course, and then lots of experimenting, and a huge team of support.  Plus, a ton of hard work and dedication.  Jane leads by example and I have enjoyed watching our collaboration bear amazing fruit since that first chat in 2016.