I learned how to read in Maji, Ethiopia, diving into the pages of books as if they were a matter of life and death. Perhaps for our family, they were.
Daddy learned from the pages of books how to use the power of a Maji waterfall to run a small mill that would grind grain into flour for local families and—at night—bring us electricity. He didn’t love to read fiction, but he was a story teller. We tagged along after him to the waterfall when he needed to go there, which was practically every day, making up our own stories all along the way.
Maji waterfall painted by Stephanie Schlatter
My mom conquered the isolation of being the only Maji mother who spoke English by writing letters to her family in the U.S. and by reading to herself and to us.
Many decades later, my older sister and I found ourselves back in Maji – back at that waterfall – with a group of other writers and visual artists discussing the somewhat crazy idea of putting words and pictures together to create simple books that would coax Ethiopian children into that same love of reading our mom planted in us.
I knew hardly anything at that point about how digital design could help us out. But I knew from more than a decade of volunteering in Ethiopia that kids were hungry for reading experiences—and that there just weren’t enough books available in their local languages. Also, I had seen that there weren’t colorful, short books that would encourage them to practice and develop strong reading skills, books like the ready-to-read books I had written for Simon & Schuster and Harcourt Houghton Mifflin.
So—with the help of those artists—my sister and I created a first book. Back in Portland, we kept tinkering with the idea, figuring out illustration, translation, and design. We had to experiment and fail and go down a lot of dead end paths to get the first ten books.
ReadySetGo’s first 10 books
Did I dream then that a few short years later we would have 100 titles—fiction and nonfiction, some illustrated by professional Ethiopian artists, translated into multiple languages? Not at all! One of the biggest mysteries was where we were going to get the art to go with words that I knew my sister and I could contribute. (For many early books, I worked with my grandkids and siblings, and other people I knew to create illustrations. At that point, Ready Set Go Books was a real family affair.)
Jane’s grandniece, one of the youngest art contributors to work on a book.
To my astonishment, artists turned up from all kinds of different places—talented amateurs and professionals, Ethiopian and American, and Canadian. Also, we recruited a few professional designers. Gradually, we found professional translators, too, and put together a design team that could get Amharic placed in the books. Volunteers stepped forward who wanted to review the Amharic and give us feedback. It has become a real team effort, a group of determined, committed people who share the dream of celebrating Ethiopia through words and pictures and getting books into the hands of kids.
Dr. Worku Mulat and author Jane Kurtz
The journey to 100 titles meant really hard work—thousands of volunteer hours from hundreds of people–in 2019 but a growing sense that we really could do this and that our books were being appreciated by lots of different readers.
In 2020, the journey to 100 titles has meant that in a dreary time, I’ve always had something creative waiting for me to puzzle it out (and I’ve shared that joyful opportunity with a lot of other people who’ve felt similarly uplifted). We humans want to create and to make a difference in the world.
It has meant and still means meeting a lot of fascinating fellow creators, writers and especially artists who—even in a time of isolation—can put their sparkly ideas together.
It means I get to show lots of people some parts of the beloved country of my earliest memories and experiences.
And it means we’ve gotten one step closer to some big world-changing goals: children in the U.S. who will be intrigued by Ethiopia; children in Ethiopia who will be engaged by the power of little black marks on a page that add up to new emotions, new wisdom, new skills, new dreams.