When a worldwide pandemic upended plans for an in-person General Assembly, the Presbyterian Writers Guild had to postpone its biennial awards luncheon until 2022. But the two award-winners, Jane and Caroline Kurtz, were able to receive their awards this year, thanks to the U.S. postal service.
The sisters, who grew up in Ethiopia and are spending the COVID-19 lockdown together in Portland, Oregon, took a picture of themselves proudly holding their award plaques.
Jane Kurtz is winner of winner of the Presbyterian Writers Guild’s David Steele Distinguished Writer Award for her cumulative body of work. She has published more than 35 children’s books, many of them about Ethiopian folklore and culture.
Caroline Kurtz, is winner of the Guild’s Best First Book Award for the best first book by a Presbyterian author written during 2018-2019. Her book is a memoir titled A Road Called Down on Both Sides: Growing Up in Ethiopia and America. The First Book Award is jointly sponsored by PWG and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.
The Kurtz sisters are daughters of former Presbyterian mission workers Harold and Polly Kurtz, who served in Ethiopia from 1955 to 1977. This is the first time the Writers Guild’s two biennial awards have been given to siblings.
Caroline and Jane Kurtz’s awards will be presented formally and in person at a luncheon in their honor at the 2022 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio. But the two did not want to wait two years to express their gratitude for the awards. Here are excerpts from the statements they sent to the Presbyterian Writers Guild:
From Jane Kurtz:
“My books have won a lot of awards over the years, but this one is extra special to me because I don’t know that I would ever have become an author if it weren’t for my Presbyterian heritage. When my mom and dad made the decision to serve the Presbyterian Church in Ethiopia, I was only two years old, but their response to the call meant I grew up surrounded by stories, experiences that have made great story material, and rich language diversity. Some of my published books have an Ethiopia connection. I also published a novel for young readers, Anna Was Here (Greenwillow/HarperCollins), where the protagonist is a preacher’s kid. (To be fair, many of the details for that book are a result of also marrying a Presbyterian minister.) Recently, my books have focused on what ordinary humans can do to try to serve God’s gorgeous Earth, a passion that was planted in me during my childhood spent outside in Maji, Ethiopia. I’m still writing and also (with Caroline) volunteering my time to create Ready Set Go Books to give Ethiopians creative books to read. Thank you for celebrating this amazing artistic and global life I’ve been lucky enough to have.”
From Caroline Kurtz:
“What an extra honor it is to be recognized in the same year as my sister! I kept my writing dream secret for many years, and Jane was a generous mentor, encouraging me to dare.
I grew up with my parents and siblings in remote Ethiopia, outside the town of Maji. It was a lush, mountainous area, and we children enjoyed nine years of isolated but idyllic childhood there. Jane and I learned to read and write in Maji and became bookworms, as our mother taught us at home in early childhood.
I went back to Ethiopia to teach young Ethiopian girls English in my 40s, with my husband and three children. The deeper reason I went back was to continue my education in how to live in conditions of great diversity, how to find the oneness of our humanity under our Creator.
I have now started a nonprofit, the Maji Development Coalition, to bring development and electricity to Maji (solar is the lowest-cost option for this district, lying beyond the end of the national electric grid). Now that the pandemic has stopped my quarterly trips to Ethiopia, I am watching with delight as local leaders step up to make crucial decisions for their own future.
I am working on a sequel to my memoir, this one set in Kenya and South Sudan, where I worked for four years during the Sudanese civil war.
The Presbyterian Writers Guild award will help me promote my books to audiences newly aware of the need to do what I have dedicated my life to learning: to work in warm collaboration with people who are different from myself. It also adds credibility to my status as the leader of a nonprofit attempting to right some of the global inequities that countries like Ethiopia struggle against. This is in addition to the delight I feel at having been recognized by the church that has been home to three generations of my family. I do not expect to find fame or fortune in my writing life, but the rewards of the writing come first in the act itself, and then in finding warm readers like you, who resonate with the stories I tell.”