Hope in a Chaotic World by Jane Kurtz

When I was little, my parents decided to move to Ethiopia, where they worked for the Presbyterian Church for 23 years.  As a four-year-old, I traveled by Ethiopian Airlines. It landed on the hot savanna where my sisters and I got to see thousands of zebras moving in a stream and ostriches flapping through the grass with their strange gait.  In the headlights of the Jeep, a bush baby’s large eyes stared back at us. And we grew up in the high and beautiful mountains listening to the gourd flutes of the shepherd boys and the clank of cowbells.

But oh that trip from the savanna up the mountain!

It took all day to go 32 miles.  At times, the Jeep was moving so slowly that my sisters and I could jump right out the back and walk for a while.  One place, which we dubbed Down on Both Sides, sent my stomach swooping, especially because my dad generally took the occasion to tell the story of the time he spotted a leopard sunning on the rock right there.

On every trip, I was sure disaster would strike.

Anna in Anna Was Here doesn’t face such an enormous uprooting.  A preacher’s kid, as I was, she is only looking at a temporary move from Colorado to a small town in Kansas where her dad’s mom grew up.  But when you’re leaving everything you’ve known—your college-aged babysitter with the cool tattoo, the blocks that you mapped in your safety plan, the possibility of seeing a bear in your backyard—it feels like the end of the world.

That’s certainly the way moving felt to me.  I did a lot of it.  To Boise, Idaho, for one year when I was seven.  To boarding school in the capital city of Addis Ababa when I was nine.  Scary stuff! My kids who moved from Colorado to North Dakota via two weeks in Kansas felt the same way.

In the first draft, I decided it was moving onto the Great Plains with that region’s extreme weather…out of the relative comfort of city blocks…that made Anna so determined to keep her family safe.  Then the wildfires swept through Colorado Springs, the city I was using as Anna’s base.  When my friend in Colorado Springs sent me pictures of the flames against the sky, I knew a kid who had lived through that wouldn’t think of her city as comforting.  When my friend sent me a photo of a bear in her yard, I knew Anna would have reacted to natural disaster engulfing her city by starting the Safety Club—and being so determined and intense about it that everyone else had resigned from the club besides her baby sitter and her cat.

When I was little, I was that kind of determined, intense kid. I knew my parents were in over their heads and that while God might watch over sparrows, it still might well be up to me to save us all from disaster.  Like Anna, I was comforted to know how to get out if I should accidentally find myself sealed in an Egyptian pyramid or chased by a bear.

One thing that got me through was humor. I still remember how hard my mom laughed when she was holding onto a chicken in the front seat of the Jeep and I announced from the back, “I smell something fowl!” Another thing that got me through was stories. My mom had read an article before she left the United States—“One Hundred Best Books for Children.”  She bought as many of those books as she could afford. If Heidi and Nils and Laura and even the poky little puppy survived their adventures, so could I.

No matter where we traveled, I was sure to have my nose in a book. Time to visit the Louvre? “Oh Dad! I’m at the most exciting chapter!”  Presidents’ faces carved on a mountainside? “Just let me finish this one page.” Books gave me hope and helped me make sense of a chaotic world.

I still love to read—and I love to travel—and I love to read about traveling. I recently finished No Man’s Land by Scott Huler, who decides to make his way as “One Man’s Odyssey Through The Odyssey.” It’s a travel story that has survived all these years, he points out, because The Odyssey “addresses the essential, probably unanswerable questions we all face all the time—the questions we always will face.”  One of the deep truths of the story, he says, is, “All children grow up thinking their parents have made a terrible mess of things and that they’d better grow up quickly so they can take charge before things utterly collapse.”

Sounds like Anna to me.

Jane Kurtz is the author of many books for young readers, on the faculty of the Vermont College of the Fine Arts MFA in children’s and YA literature, and a volunteer with Ethiopia Reads (www.ethiopiareads.org).  She has moved many times, most recently to Portland, Oregon, where she once lived until she was two-years-old.