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Worldwide Literacy Efforts: A Talk With Jane Kurtz and Ellenore Angelidis

It’s not just authors and illustrators that get to talk about what they’re up to these days. Not long ago I was approached by the nonprofit Open Hearts Big Dreams. It was described to me this way:

American nonprofit Open Hearts Big Dreams works to increase literacy rates in Ethiopia—currently estimated at 51.77% for ages 15 and up. On October 9th the group will publish the 100th children’s book in their local language book project, Ready Set Go Books, which are distributed free of charge to schools and libraries throughout Ethiopia. The 100th book, Plow Nation by Worku Mulat, illustrated by Daniel Getahun, will initially be available digitally and print-on-demand around the world. By the end of next year, paperback copies will be donated to schools and libraries in Ethiopia so children can practice reading skills. In just 3 years, Open Hearts Big Dreams is halfway to their goal of publishing 200 uniquely Ethiopian stories for children.

I spoke with author Jane Kurtz and Ellenore Angelidis about the project:


Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for talking with me today. To begin, could you tell us a bit about the American nonprofit Open Hearts Big Dreams? Where did it come from? What was the impetus to start it? And why the specific focus on Ethiopia?

Ellenore Angelidis: I founded Open Hearts Big Dreams (OHBD) in 2016 as part of our on-going efforts to connect our youngest daughter, Leyla, to her birth country of Ethiopia. She joined our family as an infant and we started working on literacy focused efforts in Ethiopia when she was about 2 years old, including building a library in the town of her birth. She started getting actively involved in appeals and other supporting activities when she was three. She and I have co-authored one of the current Ready Set Go Books titles and have a few others on the way. Libraries were a huge outlet for me as a kid. We didn’t have a lot of extra funds growing up but I always felt rich when I could check out as many books as I was able carry home each week. My daughter shares my love of books and libraries and is proud she can help more kids in her birth country to get to experience the love of books. Here is short video about Leyla and my last trip to Ethiopia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-9cA3Ry50w

BB: How does Ready Set Go Books play a part in all of this? What is it and why is it a “local language book project”?

Jane Kurtz: When I came up with the idea for what became Ready Set Go Books, it was pretty simple. From decades of paying attention to what was happening with literacy in Ethiopia, I knew that Ethiopians were starting to self-publish children’s books (self-publish because there was barely any infrastructure of publishing). But I wasn’t seeing a type of book I’d written for two U.S. publishers—easy readers that provide a bridge to fluent and confident reading. I thought it would be a cool thing to provide some models of that type of book, and I was pretty sure creating a few books would inspire Ethiopian authors and illustrators. I didn’t have a vision that the project could become anything major until Ellenore and OHBD took over production of the books. Here is a short video about the books from a couple years back: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDJCBPCxJy4&t=3s

The Ready Set Go books are bilingual and feature English and one of three common Ethiopian languages: Amharic, Tigrinya, and Afaan Oromo. My commitment to local language books came from decades of listening and observation. Dedicated volunteers had shipped hundreds of thousands of beautiful books in English for children’s libraries in Ethiopia, but I saw kids lined up at the tiny shelves of local language books. My brother—a longtime teacher of English language learners—helped me understand why. If you were someone who managed to decode the puzzle of little black marks and correctly sounded out a word but didn’t know the meaning of that word, how far would you get as a reader? I started reading the research. This quote from World Vision, sums up what studies show: “Children who benefit from mother tongue instruction and learning also perform better in their second language.” Of course, fans of picture books know that illustration is a kind of language. I began to see that producing books with colorful, appealing pictures was also a crucial part of what we were trying to do.

BB: Are these books being made available in America at all?

EA: Ready Set Go Books are available for sale via Amazon.com https://www.amazon.com/Ready-Set-Go-Books/e/B07G171G1M and select titles are available online from Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and other online retailers. Some brick and mortar bookstores carry them, too. All books and languages are also available in Seattle Public Libraries and select titles are available in libraries in Colorado, California, and Minnesota. https://openheartsbigdreams.org/what-we-do/community/  Bookstores, libraries, and schools wishing to buy books at a discount may buy direct from Open Hearts Big Dreams. https://openheartsbigdreams.org/website/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/OHBD-Books-Database-Listing_10.4.20.pdf

BB: Who are the authors and illustrators of these books? Are any written by Ethiopian creators themselves?

JK: In the beginning, my sister and I volunteered to write many of the books, talking to Ethiopian friends and using what we know (our parents worked in Ethiopia for 23 years including most of our childhoods), including Ethiopian proverbs and traditions and animals. Volunteer illustrators came from wherever we could find them, including students in U.S. classrooms working with talented teachers. Now, most of the illustration comes either from Ethiopian professional artists or a group of older adults who are taking watercolor classes in Vancouver, Washington. Ethiopian authors are increasingly doing the writing, too. Even with the books written by non-Ethiopians, our robust translation and review process ensures lots of conversations about cultural and language nuance, lots of laughter and teamwork and (for me) humble listening and learning.

BB: How far have you come since the beginning of the program and where do you plan to go from here?

EA: In less three years, we have created and published over 100 unique titles in three different Ethiopian languages (approaching 300 books total), which is half way to our goal of creating and publishing 200 unique titles – the size of a small library.  Since late 2017, more than 110,000 Ready Set Go Books have been distributed free of charge to hundreds of schools and libraries in Ethiopia. Open Hearts Big Dreams partners with Ethiopia Reads and other NGOs in Ethiopia, the US, and the UK to get the books into children’s hands and to train librarians on the most effective way to share them. Ethiopia Reads is currently working to print and distribute another 60,000 copies of our books in multiple languages. A big goal is to find some larger funders to underwrite more printing for the huge potential impact (Ethiopia has a million first graders, for example).

JK: We are committed to involving more and more creative Ethiopians in the process. For example, I teach in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. An alum of that program is now volunteering to coach several of the new Ethiopian writers who want to contribute texts. We are quite rapidly expanding our pool of Ethiopian illustrators. Our best recruiting tool is the books themselves. People see them and ask how to get involved.

BB: How has the current pandemic affected Open Hearts Big Dreams?

EA: The biggest challenge for us is that most of our fundraising has an in-person component – community dinners, larger gala style fundraisers, and book fairs — which we can’t do now.  We are experimenting with on-line only efforts and also working on our YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCo79vI6k2qENVbTekkWrBsg to support parents at home who can’t easily get to a library now.

BB: What is the one takeaway you’d like people to get from this project?

Jane & Ellenore: We want to see our books in all US school and public libraries so kids with ties to East Africa get to celebrate their culture and see themselves in books, so African-American kids get the chance to learn about a fascinating ancient African country that was never colonized, and so kids from all backgrounds get to learn about amazingly diverse Ethiopia, the birthplace of all humanity. We know how critical diversity and inclusion is to ensuring all kids reach their potential; we believe our books can play a role in supporting these important efforts.  And the beauty is, in doing do, our literacy work in Ethiopia will get the vital funding it needs, too.

Thanks so much!

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.