What Do They Do with All That Poo? Picture Book Author, Jane Kurtz, Talks Cube-Shaped Poop, Ethiopia Literacy, and her WIP with WOW!

Thursday, May 02, 2019
Interview by Shannon Stocker

With almost forty published middle grade, young adult, easy reader, and picture books under her belt, Jane Kurtz is a force to be reckoned with in the field of children’s literature. She’s won several awards, including SCBWI’s coveted Golden Kite Award for best picture book text. After reading What Do They Do With All That Poo? (Beach Lane Books, June 2018), I can see why. Jane alternates between fact-packed poop prose and catchy scat rhymes in a way that will leave kids dying for additional dung details. Fans of Taro Gomi’s Everyone Poops and Julie Markes’s Where's the Poop? will love Jane’s informative twist on this gross, but forever fascinating, subject.

WOW: Welcome, Jane, to The Muffin! As a picture book author and a critter lover, I can honestly say that this is one of those books I wish I’d written. What inspired you to write What Do They Do with All That Poo?

Jane: Yay for writing groups and fellow authors! I go on a retreat with a group of fabulous writers, and one night we were talking about how picture books have changed. We were making each other laugh with descriptions of books we’d never write. Somehow one thing led to another and my talented friend, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, said something about zoo poo. She and I have both written about plants and tree-hugging efforts, and I said, “That’s actually a terrific idea.” She didn’t want it, so it became mine. Figuring out how to structure the book and whether to focus on one zoo or many was still a hard struggle, but I’m really pleased it all came together!

WOW: You should be—it came together beautifully! When doing your research for this book (which must have been hysterical), which animal poop fact you found to be most… engrossing (pun intended)? If so, which one and why?

Jane: When I’m doing writer workshops for kids, I always stress the importance of vivid, surprising details. So while I was reading about animal poop, I used only details that engrossed and sometimes amazed me. But top of the list have to be those weird and wonderful wombats. The book was published at a time that scientists were still trying to figure out how an animal’s body can make that cube-shaped poo. One of the researchers, Georgia Institute of Technology’s Patricia Yang, says, "The first thing that drove me to this is that I have never seen anything this weird in biology. That was a mystery.” When scientists say something is weird, it’s got to be weird! And the researchers unlocked the mystery after my picture book came out. Let’s just say the methodology involved road kill. As Yang’s colleague put it, “We opened those intestines up like it was Christmas.”

WOW: I think my son probably found the square poop to be the funniest fact in the book, too! In addition to picture books, you’ve also written middle grade, YA, easy readers, and books for educators. How do you choose your current projects? Do you have to separate genres to maintain authentic voice, or are you able to switch back and forth?

Jane: I do tend to swim in a very crowded sea with lots of ideas and possibilities floating around me all the time! Lots of things intrigue me and make me curious. And none of my books seems to get finished very fast. With What Do They Do With All That Poo?, I ended up working on it—playing with it—for three years. So it’s pretty inevitable that I have to go back and forth between projects. Since I teach in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Children’s and YA Literature, I’ve had lots of opportunities to think about my own writing path: what works for me. And I’ve come to realize that my diverse writing explorations come out of my diverse reading experiences. I read lots of adult nonfiction, for example, as well as YA fantasy, picture books, middle grade novels, and so on. I love voicey writing of all kinds. When I pick up something of my own that I haven’t worked on for a while and face the empty (or needing-to-be-revised) page, what I’ve written so far pulls me back into to the voice of that piece.

WOW: That’s the one of two pieces of advice I hear more than any other—read, read, read! The other is “butt in chair”—write, write, write! What’s your preferred writing environment? Tea or coffee? Computer or notepad? Office or public setting?

Jane: I started to write seriously for publication when my children were young, so I definitely don’t need silence. I can write on airplanes and in hotel rooms. I’ve even been known to write in vans as someone is driving me to an author visit. At home, I have an office. I also write on my living room couch. Usually I compose and revise on a computer, but I’ve done plenty of mulling and dabbling with pen and paper, too, especially when I’m doing word play (my zoo poo book being a good example).

WOW: When you’re not writing in myriad settings around home, I know you also keep busy with travel and projects that are close to your heart. In fact, you were recently in Ethiopia, where you spent a great deal of your childhood, on a literacy project. Can you tell us more about how Ethiopia Reads came to be, and what it means to you?

Jane: I learned how to read in Ethiopia where my parents worked for 23 years. When I was doing an author visit in three Addis Ababa international schools 20 years later, I began to get intrigued by the potential to make children’s books more available for kids in Ethiopia who often have zero access to interesting things to read. That led to my helping start Ethiopia Reads, which has planted more than 70 libraries for children—mostly in government schools. But as I (and others) paid attention to what was working (and not working) in the libraries, which were filled with mostly books in English shipped from the U.S. and Europe, I began to realize that most Ethiopian kids won’t learn to read with passion and confidence unless they have access to books in languages they speak at home. So my main volunteer efforts now are working with another nonprofit, Open Hearts Big Dreams, which was started in Seattle by a woman who has an adopted Ethiopian daughter. I’m coordinating lots of writing, art, and translation to create some easy-to-read books that my sister and I call Ready Set Go (in honor of the many famous Ethiopian runners in the world). Open Hearts Big Dreams is making the books available in the U.S. and Canada and Europe through print on demand to support the dream of getting them to millions of kids in Ethiopia. So far, Open Hearts Big Dreams has managed to work with partners like Ethiopia Reads to print and distribute 100,000 copies of 22 titles in Ethiopia. Ready Set Go Books gives me a great outlet for my creativity including the fun of learning to put words and pictures together, something I never get to do with my professional picture books. It’s thrilling to me that a bunch of artistic people are putting their talents together to help make a love of reading more global—and it was extra thrilling to spend a month in Ethiopia getting feedback, recruiting more creative people, and seeing the delight these little books are inspiring.

WOW: That’s truly amazing; image all the children who will learn to love literature because of your work! So what’s next? Are you working on another picture book now, or are you focusing on a different genre? I’d love to get a peek into your current WIP!

Jane: I had published other nonfiction picture books before—Water Hole Waiting being one I can look at that has a direct connection to What Do They Do With All That Poo? (via hippopotami and some playing with rhyme). But this is my first picture book that is clearly labeled nonfiction and being used to help kids get intrigued with science-as-a-verb (as one of my readers put it). I’ve been playing a lot with that genre-within-a-genre—both with some of my volunteer work with Ready Set Go Books and also with my professional writing. But the book I’ve been most immersed in crafting for the past few years is a verse memoir about the year I left my home in Ethiopia and came to spend a year in the U.S. for the first time. I hope it will give young readers a glimpse into what it’s like to be a world traveler and experience massive culture shock when you haven’t even gotten out of elementary school.

WOW: You are truly inspiring, Jane. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and time with us today! Readers who are interested in What Do They Do With All That Poo? can check it out at Amazon. You can also connect with Jane at these places around the web:

Website: https://www.janekurtz.com/

Twitter: @janekurtz

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jane.kurtz.31


Shannon Stocker is an author, blogger, singer/songwriter, and mother (not necessarily in that order). Her debut picture book, Can U Save the Day? (rhyming), hits shelves in August, 2019 (Sleeping Bear Press). She’s been published four times in Chicken Soup for the Soul, received SCBWI’s Picture Book HM award (Midsouth), as well as first place and honorable mention awards for non-fiction essays with WOW! (Women On Writing). Shannon is represented by Allison Remcheck of Stimola Literary Studio. Cool facts: Shannon is a coma survivor and once performed two songs, including one original, as part of an opening act for Blake Shelton. She currently serves as SCBWI social co-director for Louisville, a judge for Rate Your Story, and created the blog series, Pivotal Moments: inHERview, highlighting transitional life stories of female picture book authors. To subscribe to her blog, visit her website, http://www.shannonstocker.com/blog/. She can also be found tweeting positive quotes, mantras, and adorable animal pics @iwriteforkidz, or on Instagram under the same username.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Shannon--Thanks for doing the interview.

Jane--Many years ago, I heard that cleaning the hippo tank was NOT a pleasant task. (Large animals + lots of plant-eating + a huge water tank = lots of floating poop) Middle schoolers would appreciate this book, too. (They're just angsty, smellier preschoolers in big pants.)

Good luck with your future writing, and congrats on this book.

Jilanne Hoffmann said...

A long, long time ago, I worked at a zoo. And shoveled a bit of poo. And yes, I witnessed the throwing of poo by our primates. But my favorite part was getting to hold and listen to the purring (and have my ears chewed in the process) of lion cubs. I adore this book and have featured it on my blog for Perfect Picture Book Friday.

The Ethiopia project is fantastic! Very inspiring!

Angela Mackintosh said...

I'm posting this comment from one of our blog subscribers:

I enjoyed reading about Jane Kurtz' book. When I was writing for The Content Authority, I used to get requests for material that could be on the website of a company that scoops up poop. I wrote about all the poop that must be collected at the zoo in Houston. The poop-scooping company was based in Houston, and I used to live close to Houston's zoo.

- Sue Chehrenegar

Renee Roberson said...

What a fun book! Great interview by Shannon and this just goes to show you that you can turn any topic into a picture book if it's done right! I had a smile on my face as I looked at the pages on Amazon. My kids would have adored this book in their younger years (well, who am I kidding? They are teens and would get a hoot out of it even now).

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