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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Anna Was Here by Jane Kurtz - A BLOG STOP

First Stop on Author Jane Kurtz's Blog Tour

Jane Kurtz is a well-known author of books for children and young adults.  She has written many books (read all about her earlier titles on her website) and she works tirelessly for literacy in her childhood homeland - Ethiopia.  In 2011 she was honored with the Kerlan Award.  To the left she is shown with her friend Mary Casanova who was among those who attended the Kerlan award ceremony.
And just as authors often make the rounds of talk shows to promote their new book, we've invited Jane to stop at our "talk show" - blog to talk to us about her newest title Anna Was Here (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2013). Anna Was Here debuted in August to rave comments. The book introduces us to Anna, a fourth grader, and her family as they move from Colorado to rural Kansas. And as if the move is not enough to cope with, she must also deal with the move as the daughter of the new minister in town. School Library Journal's review said, "Anna must try to navigate her family's history, fit into a new community, and prepare for natural disasters, all while figuring out what God has planned for her and Midnight H. Cat." And Elisabeth Egan writing in the New York Times said, "Jane Kurtz's timeless and sweetly funny middle-grade novel…delivers a gentle, optimistic story about a devout family whose spirituality functions as both a safety net and an umbrella (a must-have in Kansas)." I found the humor in this book to be a smile rich narrative about a 10-year-old who can't fathom how she will survive the move -- but her apprehension about a new situation will be one that many readers will be able to relate to.

We had a few questions we wanted to ask Jane about her book, Anna Was Here.  Jane was gracious enough to take time to visit our blog and answer our questions.

Anna Was Here introduces us to 10-year-old Anna and her struggles in a new town (state).  Many young readers have experienced similar experiences but Anna’s struggle was complicated by the fact that her father was the new minister in town.  Other children have situations that complicate their struggles as well.  Of all the complications that you could have written into the plot why did you choose the minister father as a factor?

      Stories come from mysterious places but when I look back—as I tell students about their own ideas—I can pretty much say any story of mine came from 1) memory, 2) observation/real-life experience (something going on at the time), or 3) research.  Long ago when I wrote a first draft of Anna Was Here, my story welled up inside me based on that second way of generating ideas.  When two of my kids were about Anna’s age, we moved from Colorado to North Dakota, spending the first week in Kansas.  The cat really did spend the whole trip under the seat.  And my kids’ father is a minister.  My own dad is a minister, too, but since he chose to spend most of his career in Ethiopia, my material for what it’s like for a minister’s family in a Midwestern town came more from observing my own kids. 

Truthfully, I was a little afraid that maybe no publisher would touch a story of a minister’s family, but when I took this story out, many years after I first wrote it, and wrote a new first chapter and talked it over with my editor, she liked that element and encouraged me to finish it.  The new version might not have even one sentence from the original version but it still is based on that long-ago trip and some of my kids’ observations about church and about life as a preacher’s kid.
     Your sense of humor certainly comes through in Anna’s spunky personality.  Were any of these bits of humor taken from events in your own life (or perhaps the lives of your children/family)?

      Both.  Details, too, come from 1) memory, 2) observation and 3) research.  Students ask me, “What about imagination?”  It’s hard to explain, but first I have to have a strong sensation of being inside a real person’s brain—Anna’s brain, in this case.  Her way of looking at the world comes from both me and my kids.  Then, in any scene, something she thinks or says might be something I’ve said or thought, might be something one of my kids said or thought, or could be totally made up, but it still comes from an outlook that is rooted in real life.  An example of research is when Anna overhears a parent whisper, “This song was written one hundred and fifty years ago.  People have been going to church for two thousand years.”  That’s a comment I actually overheard in church while I was working on Anna Was Here, and I knew Anna would have a funny thought in response to it.
There is another bit in Anna Was Here that came from my niece’s Facebook page:  "Advice that I would give a new teacher is 6th graders are awesome. Ms. Kurtz is awesome too but sometimes were just to much awesomeness for her to handle. Dont let your students over awesomenize you." -6th Grader

       In the N.Y. Times  November 11, 2013 - Elisabeth Egan called Anna Was Here  "a moving-day classic,"  and compared its gentleness to Sydney Taylor’s "All-of-a-Kind Family" series, and others compared Anna Was Here to books by Katherine Paterson.  How do you feel about having Anna in such company?

     Can I answer that question once I get down from the ceiling?  Actually, the entire review was a jolt of joy from which I may never recover.

     Somewhere in my head I have a title for a sequel to Anna Was Here.  I can not find any information about that.  Is there going to be a sequel?  Will we get to learn more about Anna’s life in another book?

     In my experience, sequels are not something that authors have much control over.  In my own brain, I have a little family that is related—Lanie, the character I made up for the American Girl doll of the year in 2010, Anna, and the character in the book I’m working on right now.  They are all about the same age.  They all come to love the earth and its plants.  They all come to a new understanding of family and their place in it.  But whether Anna herself will go on is an open question right now.

      In part of the book Anna’s mom is gone taking care of her grandparents.  What was your writer’s reason for absenting Anna’s mother from Anna’s new home?

     Anna’s parents are loving and full of guidance—as we all hope parents everywhere can be—but in a middle grade novel, an author has to let his or her characters come out from under parental wings to find their own way in the world.  Even kids from very warm, wise families can feel as if they are on their own.  I grew up in a warm and wise family that nonetheless sent me off to boarding school when I was Anna’s age so that I spent most of the year every year in the capital city of Ethiopia while they lived in a remote southwest village.  So I needed to see how and what Anna would do if her mom wasn’t around and her dad was feeling worried and distracted by his new role in a small town church. 

      Why Kansas?

     The answer is a combination of #1 and #2 from above.  I was living in Kansas, where I spent 9 years of my recent life, while I was working on Anna Was Here.  So I was able to find details in real life observation, including lavender and emus.  My husband grew up on a farm in Kansas, so I was also able to use memory and family stories.  Although I made up Oakwood, I had a lot of fun talking to my husband about farm life and the history of his mostly Mennonite community—and I know a lot about how scary and unpredictable the weather on the Great Plains can feel, as if the earth is shaking and ready to fall apart.  

     And before I knew it Jane was on to her next blog stop -- and I had missed asking her about that next book that she is working on.  Get your own copy of Anna Was Here.  It's a great book to share with young learners.

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