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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Nancy Churnin

Today, I get the privilege to bring you an interview with a remarkable woman - Nancy Churnin. She writes beautiful nonfiction picture book biographies on little known individuals or those with little known stories.

In addition, Nancy has an amazing feature on her website – associated with each book (in addition to teacher guides) – where she encourages kids, parents, and teachers to make a difference. These calls to action ranges from sending letters to get Hoy in the Hall of Fame or by helping out their community, a new kid on a team, an immigrant, or someone over the holidays. Be sure to visit her website and read the testimonials from kids and classrooms.

Nancy, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and writing.

ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

NANCY: I have been writing as long as I can remember. As a child, I had a small book where I would write poems, stories and ideas for stories. I grew up to become a journalist – a professional writer – and specifically a theater critic for The Dallas Morning News, which allows me to see and reflect on other people’s stories for a living.

I wrote my first children’s book, The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed The Game, because I became friends with Steve Sandy, a deaf man who is a friend of the Hoy family. Steve was sad that hearing and deaf children didn’t know the true story of this man who introduced hand signals to baseball, so he could play the game he loved. That took me on a long, joyful journey to learn how to write a picture book biography and left me with a passion for telling more stories of people that the kids wouldn’t otherwise know – people who inspired me and might inspire the children. I fit in my writing time wherever I can, before and after work and on the weekends.

I know many of us are very glad you met Steve. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I love to sing! Musical theater is my favorite, but I love a wide range of music. I also love to play Scrabble. Puns crack me up, the more awful the better.

Uh oh, you're one of those "punny" people. I fell in love with cover of The Queen and the First Christmas Tree when it was first revealed. What was your inspiration for this book? How did you discover her story?

I was always curious about how the Christmas tree tradition got started. While most people associate it with Queen Victoria, after doing research I learned it was her grandmother, Queen Charlotte who introduced the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in 1800. I had never known much about Queen Charlotte even though she was the queen married to King George III, the king during the American Revolution. The more I learned about her, the more I fell in love with her.

Most kids think of princesses as people who dress up and going to balls. She was not into that and I think it’s important for kids to know that being royal is about more than wearing a crown. She came to England as a shy, frightened 17-year-old. She loved kids and gardens and animals. In some ways, you can think of this German princess as the classic immigrant. She took a custom from her country – the yew branch– and found a new expression for it in her new country, England – as a full tree. And she introduced that tree not for any personal glory, but to delight 100 children at a party. I discovered her story by researching on the Internet in the beginning. I followed up with Dr. Carolyn Harris, a royal historian, who deepened my understanding of Queen Charlotte and her times, directed me toward further reading and checked my story for accuracy.

Thank you for digging into this story and providing insight into Queen Charlotte. Would you say there is a common thread that runs through your five diverse picture book biographies?

Each picture book biography is a story about someone with a dream, who faced seemingly overwhelming obstacles, persisted and used the very thing that made the person different as his or her gift — the quality that helped the person make a positive difference in the world.

Because William Hoy was Deaf, he knew sign language, which he used to help him play the game he loved — and made it a better game for everyone.

Manjhi dreamed he could move a mountain. He wasn’t the biggest or the strongest, but he persisted and because he didn’t give up he did it, making life better for people in his village and showing them they can do anything if they stick to it.

Charlie was told he couldn’t play on the PGA Tour because of the color of his skin, but he didn’t give up and finally in 1961 the PGA Tour changed its rules. Charlie opened the door for others.

Irving Berlin was a penniless refugee who didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in America, but he wanted to find a way to thank the country that gave him a home. And he did. He wrote “God Bless America” and gave all the money the song earned to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America to help the kids of America the way America helped him when he was a kid.

Queen Charlotte is not your usual queen. She didn’t like dressing up for fancy balls or wearing jewels. She loved gardening and children. The royal court of England made fun of her when she arrived from Germany, not speaking a word of English. But she found her own way to make a difference. Not only did she introduce the Christmas tree to a party of 100 kids in 1800, starting the Christmas tree tradition, she supported orphanages and maternity hospitals and she and her husband, King George III, became the first British royals to make charitable giving an official part of royal duties. Plus, she was against slavery and refused to take sugar in her tea because sugar was harvested by slaves on plantations and she didn’t want to do anything that would encourage the slave trade.

You've discovered some amazing people who demonstrated a great deal of persistence. Did your experience with The Queen and the First Christmas Tree, either the writing, research, or publishing, differ from your other books? If so, how?

One of the challenges of researching Queen Charlotte was difficulty in finding books about her for reference. Consulting with Dr. Carolyn Harris, a royal historian, made an enormous difference. Dr. Harris could not only answer questions about Queen Charlotte, but also about what plants she might have grown and tended and what she would have used to decorate her tree. She was also a terrific help in making sure I was on the right track in making sure my story stayed true to the spirit and personality of this remarkable historical figure.

It's amazing how the right expert can make a world of difference. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I have so many! The first book that my mother read to me that I fell in love with was The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum. Later I became passionate about The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and every book about Narnia by C.S. Lewis, plus every Louisa May Alcott book I could find. I also loved reading everything by Charles Dickens and spent a lot of time with poets like Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats and Alfred Tennyson. I have never, and will never, outgrow picture books by Maurice Sendak and have a soft spot for Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats and Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale.

Did you have any input into the illustrations for any of your books? Either at the beginning or in a later review stage?

My editors have been terrific about sharing the illustrations from the sketching process on. My main contribution is to make sure they are factually accurate. With The William Hoy Story, I was able to point out that 19th century ballplayers didn’t use baseball gloves; they weren’t introduced until the late 1800s, early 1900s. So kids won’t see baseball gloves in that book.

Nice reminder to always keep your research. One never knows when those seemingly little facts will become important. Is there something you want your readers to know about The Queen and the First Christmas Tree?

I have a free Teachers Guide and project with all my books that I hope everyone will check out on my website ( The project for The Queen and the First Christmas Tree is "A Kind Holiday." I hope that kids will share stories of kind things they do for others at whatever holiday they celebrate and that together we can make kindness spread.

I hope so too! I enjoyed looking through the other projects kids have shared. They are amazing and touching. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?

It’s always hard when the idea you have in your head and heart doesn’t immediately translate into words on the page. But you’ve got to remember that everyone has sloppy first drafts and revision is your friend.

If you’re not published yet, don’t give up! Know that you have an amazing support system in the Kidlit community. Join a group and don’t be shy about asking for help. Don’t take critiques or rejection personally. A rejection is not a rejection of you, it is simply a statement that something you’re working on is not right for a particular publisher or agent at this point in the manuscript’s journey or at this point in the agent’s or publisher’s plans.

There is no failure as long as you don’t give up. Just as you write about a main character that faces challenges, you as a writer face challenges. Just as your main character must figure out ways to surmount those challenges, you as a writer must find ways to surmount those challenges. Reach out for help, keep working hard and you will succeed.

Thank you Nancy, great advice for all of us, wherever we are along this magical journey. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I am very excited about my next book, Martin & Anne. It’s the true story of two inspirational figures, born in the same year, who never knew each other. They both faced enormous hate with love and left us with words that inspired us today. They are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank. The book is illustrated by the incredible Yevgenia Nayberg, a Silver Medalist for the 2018 Sydney Taylor Book Award, and comes out in spring of 2019 from Creston Books.

This is one I will be anxiously awaiting! Thanks for the heads up. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or something you’re glad you didn’t know about in advance?

I am so glad I didn’t know how challenging it was going to be to figure out how to tell my first story, The William Hoy Story, and find my voice. I worked on this book for years before I realized how much I didn’t know and reached out for help. If I had known how hard it would be, I might have been discouraged from starting.

On the other hand, if I had known how amazingly wonderful and helpful the Kidlit community was, maybe I would have reached out for help earlier and the journey wouldn’t have taken so long. I am so grateful to SCBWI, to Julie Hedlund’s 12X12 (which is where I found my lovely agent, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary), classes by Susanna Hill, Mira Reisberg and Kristen Fulton, challenges by Tara Lazar and Paula Yoo, Miranda Paul’s Rate Your Story and all the wonderful friends I have made in my critique groups. I advise everyone to find your tribe as soon as possible!

Great advice. So one final question. What is your favorite animal? Why?

My dog named Dog and my cats named Snowball, Toby, and White Sox. I can’t possibly pick one animal over the other or there will be no living in my house! The good news is they all get on together in their own very funny ways. Who knows, maybe one day my menagerie will be a picture book.

Sounds like quite the troupe! Thank you, Nancy for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Be sure to stop back by on Friday for my Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF post on The Queen and the First Christmas Tree: Queen Charlottes's Gift to England (publication 10/1/2018), for an advance peek at this stunning book.

To find out more about Nancy Churnin, or get in touch with her:

By the way, here are some of Nancy's Upcoming Events:

- Sep 21, 2018 6 PM Addison, TX. On the pro panel of the North Texas SCBWI conference, Crowne Plaza Hotel: Keep on Truckin'

*- Oct. 2, 2018 7:00 PM Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Park, in Dallas Launching The Queen and the First Christmas Tree, collecting books and gifts for Reading Is Fundamental kids.*

- Nov. 4, 2018 - 2:00 PM Dallas, TX. Join Mark Kreditor and Nancy Churnin for a special Irving Berlin event, with music, singing and little known facts about Berlin's life as we celebrate Irving Berlin, The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing. It's part of the Dallas Jewish BookFest at the Dallas Jewish Community Center.

- Nov. 10, 2018 - 9:00 AM Baton Rouge, LA. Presenting Manjhi Moves a Mountain as a featured author at the Louisiana Book Festival, with a signing to follow the presentation.

- Nov. 16, 2018 Houston, TX. Receiving South Asia Book Award for Manjhi Moves a Mountain at National Council of Teachers of English convention in Houston and participating in two picture book panels.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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