An Interview with
Author Jane Kurtz
Planet Jupiter is very thoughtfully written about the local community, adoption and families. What was your inspiration for the book?
Thanks! I’ve never seen many middle grade novels about Portland, Oregon, but since I’m a fairly new resident, myself, I was partly inspired by show this fascinating and sometimes quirky place in the pages of one of mine! I read somebody’s smart comment that to write a novel, you have to have an inspiration—ideas and details—for every single scene. But there are also big sparks. Three of mine for this novel were these:
1) I heard an interview with a young musician who was talking about being homeschooled and growing up on the road, performing. Now I’ve never been a busker—street musician—but I was homeschooled when I was young, and I did live a fairly adventuresome life as a young person, with my family moving between Ethiopia and the U.S. And I was expected to handle anything life threw my way. Something about that kind of protagonist immediately appealed to me. (Also, I still sing with my sisters every single week, so I loved the idea of a young brain filled with folksongs including the ones that are pretty gruesome.)
2) After I started writing about Ethiopia, I had a startling call one day from a parent who had both biological and adopted children from Ethiopia. She told me how much my books meant to their family, and asked if they could possibly meet me in person because they’d be taking a vacation and coming through the town where I was living. That was the first introduction I had to the big adoption community, which got much bigger after that! I’ve spoken at culture camps and worked on literacy issues with adoptive parents. Hearing those stories filled me with a strong desire to have more of the voices of international adoption out in the world.
3) I wrote a book for American Girl Doll of the Year, Lanie, and was asked to craft a story around someone who wanted to change the earth. Doing the research for the Lanie books led me to the citizen science that even kids can do around plants and birds and bees and butterflies. So when I moved to Portland, I decided to turn my yard into a Backyard Habitat. As I began writing PLANET JUPITER, I thought what a great way for a young person to become rooted! (Also, I read The Secret Garden out loud to my daughter, complete with various accents, and who doesn’t love the idea of how poking around in the earth can change our hearts?)
Students always assume that writing a book happens like magic from inspiration to writing and getting published. What do you think would surprise them most about the process?
I like to show students the way my details so often come from three sources: memory, observation, and research. It’s not that “imagination” doesn’t play a part. But I think imagination is rooted in those intuitive leaps the mind makes that can’t be easily explained. What can be explained is that science and writing have a very strong connection: paying attention and being curious about everything you see and touch and taste and smell and hear around you.
How did you come up with the Jupiter and Edom’s names?
Honestly, I only wanted a hippie sounding name for my protagonist. When Jupiter popped into my head, I discovered it was going to give me wonderful images and background details for my story. After all, if you were named Jupiter, wouldn’t you make it your business to know a lot about Planet Jupiter, a planet so grand that all the other planets would fit inside it? I met an Ethiopian-American girl named Edom and loved talking to her about what American kids said about her name. Also, that name is connected to the earth. So…Earth and Jupiter.
We love that the story is not about a traditional family. How important was the story of a non-traditional family to the adoption story you wanted to tell?
I’ve met very few families these days who’ve chosen international adoption and still feel very traditional. Some are single parents, for example. But also, when Ethiopian adoption was big, parents had to travel at least twice to Ethiopia. Many ended up staying for long periods, for one reason or another. Many of the adoptive parents I know have made a point of getting their adopted children back to Ethiopia for visits and/or to meet birth families. Since my daughter-in-law is Ethiopian, and one of my grandchildren was born in Ethiopia, the other in the U.S., I feel as if I have a deep understanding of how that kind of outlook—crafting a family big enough to embrace global differences—changes us in deep and important ways. It was important for me to find my own way to show that in a story.
We love the introductions to each chapter. How did you come up with the idea for the intro’s and the text for each one?
Those chapter beginnings are folk songs, all in the public domain. Many of them are songs my sisters and I actually sing! We gather at my mom’s place every Sunday and make music together. Before my brother left to teach overseas, he would play the guitar for our singing, and he also played and sang with his third grade students at Abernethy School in Portland. That class wrote the song about the Portland bridges that heads several chapters.
I’ve never performed for money in public—I’m a bit more shy than Jupiter is! But I’ve definitely sung in public. When I started reading from this novel at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA residencies where I teach, I made a commitment to stand up there in front of 100 + people and sing…because it’s a source of great joy and also I believe in exercising my courage muscles. To my great pleasure, I discovered two students who love to harmonize, as I do, and the three of us sang our way through a residency in Bath, England last summer when I was part of a residency there. One of these days, I’ll take the next step and put out a hat!
Jane Kurtz, author of more than thirty books for young readers, was born in Portland, Oregon, but her parents moved to Ethiopia when she was two-years-old. Her volunteer work with literacy there led to her connections with parents who’ve adopted children from Ethiopia, one of the threads of her new book. She’s now rooted in Portland again (literally…she has turned her yard into a certified Backyard Habitat). From here, she travels to speak nationally and internationally and to teach in the Vermont College MFA in Children’s and YA Literature. For more information, check www.janekurtz.com or follow her on Twitter at @janekurtz.