The Picture Book Buzz - Triple Interview with "Irving Berlin" Picture Book Authors Nancy C
Have I got a treat for you!
During Storystorm, this January, Nancy Churnin mentioned the fact that she, Adah Nuchi, and Leslie Kimmelman had all released picture books on Irving Berlin within a two-month period. That even though all three addressed his immigration, entire life, and love of music, they each found a special thread to follow, thus creating three very distinct books on the same subject matter.
I was so intrigued, I reached out to the three authors and asked if they would be willing to do a joint interview. To my infinite pleasure (and given the title of this post I am sure you aren't surprised), they all said yes. So, this week I have a special post - a three author interview on the creation of three different picture book biographies about Irving Berlin. Just in time for his birthday. Please bear with the length, I promise you it is worth it!
Thank-you all so much for stopping by to talk about your Irving Berlin books.
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 wherever I happen to be – at home, online, asleep and waking up to jot down notes before going back to bed. As a child, I had a small book I would take with me wherever I went to write poems and sketch out stories. I grew up to become a theater critic, which allowed 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 wanted hearing and deaf children to 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 others. I left my newspaper job to be a full-time children’s book writer in January. Now I hope to try different types of stories. My motto for this year is to be brave!
LESLIE – Since I was a little girl, I've always dreamed up stories to amuse myself. But my first book was published a few years after I moved to NYC to become a children's book editor. My favorite book to write is usually whatever I'm working on. One of the things I love best about being an author is that I can go off in any direction I choose--fiction, nonfiction, prose, rhyme, whatever. But I have to say that writing nonfiction comes with a special kind of reward--I always start off thinking I know my subject, and then as I do the research, all kinds of new and fascinating things are revealed. It's the writing equivalent of bungee jumping. (Not that I've ever bungee jumped!)
My writing time is very limited these days. So I find that I do a lot of writing and plotting in my head before I ever get it down--I "write" in the car as I commute, in the shower, as I cook dinner, anytime I get a small block of silence.
ADAH - I wrote when I was a kid and teenager, and then stopped for many years. When I started working in publishing as an editor, I realized that I felt much more comfortable on that side of the table. Even with two books out, I still prefer editing to writing! It’s much easier for me to guide someone else’s work than to guide my own. (And less vulnerable too!) My deep, dark secret is that I’m an undisciplined writer. I’m so in awe of writers who carve out time and stick to it—I aspire to that. When I do write, it’s in the morning, usually before anyone else is up.
Basically, there is no one formula. Write whenever you can, whatever speaks to you. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Nancy - I love to sing! Musical theater is my favorite, but I like all kinds of music. I also love to play Scrabble. Puns crack me up, the more awful the better.
Leslie – I'm kind of an open book, so that's a tough one. How's this: Like Irving Berlin, who used to compose songs in the bathtub, I used to read in the bathtub. I ruined a lot of good books that way, so I don't advise it.
Adah - I used to do a fair amount of ballroom and swing dancing. I don’t as much these days, but I still maintain that nothing feels as good as a good waltz.
All of these are interesting tidbits. What about Irving Berlin, or his story, fascinated you and made you want to create a book about him?
Nancy – I love the music of Irving Berlin! My grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Bialystok, used to sing his songs in our house in the Bronx. All four of my grandparents were Jewish immigrants who had come to America around the same time as Irving Berlin and every time I hear that music, it summons up memories of my grandparents, now gone, that I love so much. When I fell in love with Broadway musicals, many of my favorite songs were by Irving Berlin.
I wanted kids to know that an immigrant created many of America’s favorite and most popular songs and, indeed, the tunes by which we celebrate most of our popular holidays. Irving Berlin inspires me with his talent, his perseverance and his generosity. He serves as a timely reminder of the gifts that immigrants bring to America.
Leslie – I grew up in a very musical family, and Irving Berlin was part of our soundtrack. My older sister had a jewelry box that I coveted; it played Berlin's "Always" when you opened it, still one of my favorite Berlin tunes. I've long been fascinated by the fact that a Jewish immigrant, chased from Russia by the pogroms, ended up in America where he wrote "White Christmas," the quintessential Christmas song. Actually, there was a huge circle of Jewish songwriters who were his peers: George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, Harold Arlen. Pretty much the pantheon of early to mid-twentieth century American songwriters.
Also, given the times we're living in, I was looking for a good immigrant story. My grandparents were immigrants. Irving Berlin is the ultimate success story, and the ultimate answer to the current immigration debate.
Adah - I arrived at Irving Berlin’s story somewhat accidentally. I was working as an editor and saw a manuscript for a picture book biography about Bing Crosby and White Christmas. I knew that White Christmas had been written by Irving Berlin, and I was always tickled by the fact that one of the most beloved Christmas songs out there was written by a Jew. The Bing Crosby manuscript wasn’t right for me, but it prompted me to look a little deeper into Berlin’s life, as I thought “the Jew who wrote White Christmas” might be a more interesting story. That Google deep dive revealed that Berlin was also the immigrant who wrote God Bless America, and that story really excited me. This was in late 2013 or early 2014, so long before our current administration, but even then it felt like a very relevant story to tell.
Amazing how Irving's music has woven its way into and through your lives and family memories. What was your “in” into Irving Berlin’s story? The part you decided to highlight and center your book around.
Nancy – I had always been curious about why there were so many wonderful Jewish composers on Broadway. As I was digging into Irving Berlin’s life, my friend, music educator Mark Kreditor, pointed out how many Jewish composers borrowed bits of melodies from prayers. When he showed me that the last three notes of the shema were the same as the last three notes of God Bless America, I knew this was no accident for the son of a cantor.
That was my “aha!” moment. Irving melded melodies as he melded his roots with his new “home sweet home.” When I learned that he gave all the royalties from the song to the Girl and Boy Scouts of America, that strengthened my belief that the song was like a prayer like the prayers his father sang in synagogue, composed for the country that had given him a chance to do what he loved with people he loved.
Leslie – I think it was the largeness of the story that attracted me. Everything about Berlin was big. He was incredibly prolific--he wrote more than 1,500 songs. How many other songwriters can say that? Berlin was an insomniac, which partially accounts for how much he was able to accomplish! I tried to make sure that the soundtrack occupied a big place in my manuscript. Jerome Kern, another wonderful American songwriter, wrote: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music; he is American music."
Another "large" part of the story: Berlin lived to be more than 100 years old, all but the first four spent in America. Many of his songs were valentines to the country that had adopted him. He had an enormous love for the U.S., matched only by his generosity toward it. Not only did he donate all the royalties of "God Bless America" to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America--something they're still benefiting from today--he also donated all the proceeds from the shows he toured during both world wars to patriotic causes. He didn't keep any of the earnings. I was also surprised and moved to learn that when he toured his wartime acts, he did so with an integrated cast and crew, and he refused to perform anywhere that didn't welcome all of them. That put him a number of years ahead of the U.S. Armed Forces, which didn't integrate until several years after the end of WWII.
I also should thank my publisher for another "large": the wonderfully generous trim size of the finished book, which I think serves its subject well.
Adah - For me, the story always centered around God Bless America. I’m a huge Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers fan, so I knew Irving’s music from his musicals, but I had no idea he was such a prolific writer, and the whole piece about God Bless America was completely new to me. But from the moment I started reading and researching, I knew that the story of the immigrant who wrote God Bless America was the story I wanted to tell. And in fact, while writing it, I felt that I was telling the story of the song as much as the story of Irving Berlin.
Part of what makes each of these biographies so unique is that you each truly approached the man and his life from very different starting points. How did you find the voice for the story? What other voices or ideas (if any) did you try?
Nancy –Perhaps because I started out as a journalist, I write from the outside in. By that I mean, I see the story from the outside as if from a distance. The challenge for me is to move closer in and, eventually, inside the character so I can feel what he or she is feeling.
I found Irving in that five-year-old refugee who was so grateful to find refuge in America. He had a thankfulness that got him through tragedies that would have felled anyone with a less indomitable spirit. He loved his family, his music, his “show” people, his country and he showed his love, all through his life, with his music.
Leslie – Unusually, the first draft was not that far from what eventually became the final book. There was some trimming and rewriting, and I tried to keep in mind to anchor the book in details that would resonate with a young audience. I also wanted to make sure to convey not only the sweep of Berlin's life, but also the sweep of American history. After all, Berlin lived through the Depression, two world wars, and so much more.
In some ways, reading the long, long list of Berlin's songs is like reading a history of our country. In addition, I loved that the illustrator (who was fabulous--shout-out to David C. Gardner for that gorgeous art) used the continuing motif of the Statue of Liberty, which arrived in America just a few years before Berlin himself.
Adah - I had come across the tidbit of Irving singing while selling newspapers, and I could picture it so clearly that I knew I wanted to open on that scene. But my first drafts were much more straightforward. Some of the early feedback I received was that for a book about a composer, the manuscript really didn’t “sing.” I took that feedback to heart when I revised, and listened to a lot of Berlin’s music while I wrote, as well as to a lot of music from the time period. All of the rhythms and sound effects in the book come from me trying to translate the feeling I had while listening to the music into words and sounds. In fact, most of them correlate to specific songs!
It’s so fun to read all three books together; they truly do have three distinct voices for the same story. Additionally, since none of them focus on the same combination of elements in his life, this gives the reader a really rounded view of Irving Berlin. How did you choose what to include or leave out (such as schooling, crowded apartment, singing as a waiter, marriage, or donating his proceeds)?
Nancy – The heart of my narrative is gratitude and the good things that happen when we welcome the stranger. This is a story about a small, frightened boy who came to a new country with nothing but music in his heart. This country, America, gave him an opportunity to not only share that music but rewarded him handsomely for it. He thanked America the way he knew best – by writing songs for the U.S. Army and donating royalties from his army songs to the army and veterans and “God Bless America” to the Girl and Boy Scouts of America. To focus on that narrative, I cut out details about his marriages and his schooling (other than a reference to dropping out of school early when his father died) and focused on the songs and details that illuminated this narrative.
Leslie – There are certain things that just didn't fit the narrative or weren't as appropriate for a young audience. Berlin lost his infant son, and that didn't make the final book. Actually, it was right around Christmastime, and some people speculate that the nostalgic tone of "White Christmas" was a result of that tragedy. He also was very reclusive in his last few years, which I hinted at but didn't dwell on.
Adah - I always knew that I wanted my focus to be on Irving as an immigrant, so I looked at the elements of his life through that lens. I tried to include the pieces of his past, of his culture, his home life, etc., that shaped his future and his contributions to America.
How long did it take, from the time you started researching Irving Berlin, until you had a saleable manuscript? What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Nancy – Honestly, other than my first book (which took 11 years from idea to sale!), I never keep track of the time it takes me to write a manuscript. I believe it was a few months. Once I get an idea, I’m obsessed, and I can’t put it down until I’m done. The hardest part was staying focused on the central thread because there is so much to say about Irving Berlin (which is why you can have three different books catching different fish from the same ocean of facts). I have to thank my editor, Marissa Moss, at Creston Books, who saw the potential before it was polished. She gently prodded and guided me to dig deeper and go where I needed and wanted to go. She brought out the best in me and in the story and for that I am truly grateful.
Leslie – I don't remember how long the process was. But it was long enough to listen to an ample amount of his music as I wrote--especially my favorite, Ella Fitzgerald singing the Berlin songbook. It helped to have an editor who loved Berlin (or so she says!) as much as I did.
Adah - I first had the idea for God Bless America in late 2013 or early 2014, and Disney bought the manuscript in early 2017. The hardest part for me was making it come alive. We’re in a wonderful golden age of picture book biographies, where—luckily for readers—a straightforward telling just doesn’t cut it anymore. I felt challenged in the best way possible while writing this.
I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that three different focuses and voices also had three different trajectories to story completion. Interestingly, two of the books have a timeline (though significantly different), two have further readings (though none are the same), two list select (“favorite”) songs, and one has 5 pages of back matter. What accounts for such differences? Who determined the length and content of your back matter?
Nancy – My editor, Marissa Moss [Creston Books], left the back matter to me, although she did tell me when I needed to trim! I used it to flesh out parts of the story that I thought readers would find fascinating, but had to be cut to keep the book flowing and focused. That’s where I put his birth date, details about his transposing piano that allowed him to change keys with a lever, more of his famous songs, the tragic death of his first wife, his second, happy marriage, his children and the death of his son, more about the history of “God Bless America” and his death.
It was also important to leave space to thank the Berlin family, as they were kind enough to read the book in manuscript form to prevent any errors and to Ted Chapin, Chief Creative Officer of the Rodgers & Hammerstein company who read the book in advance as well. I included a timeline because I felt it gives an opportunity to see Irving’s story as an important part of American history.
Leslie – [Sleeping Bear Press] It was up to me to choose what to put in the back matter, though "further readings" is pretty standard. I felt that there were certain things that didn't work in the main body of text, but were important to putting Berlin's story in context. In addition, my office in NYC (I am an editor at Sesame Workshop) shares a building with ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which Berlin was a founder of. So I felt I needed to mention that!
As for favorite songs, it was a chance to put myself in the story. Plus, I am always fascinated to learn about other authors' favorite books, songs, movies, whatever. Hopefully, my readers are as well.
Adah - [Disney-Hyperion] Some of the backmatter was a question of rounding out the story that was (or I guess wasn’t) told, some of it was at the request of my editor, and some was a matter of what space was available.
Again, not to be redundant, but the beauty of the differences in your back matters allows for even more of a peek into Irving's life and a wealth of resources for further investigation. You all did an amazing job. All three of you have written other nonfiction stories. How is your Irving Berlin story different from these nonfiction stories? Or is there perhaps a common thread among them?
Nancy –What most of my biographies have in common is the focus on someone who is not the biggest or strongest, rich or famous, but is strong in heart – someone who has a dream not just to make things better for himself or herself, but for the world. What made this story different was showing how Irving Berlin interpreted the world through notes he heard and wrote. The story begins with the music of the shema prayer from the passengers as they approach the Statue of Liberty. The feeling of welcome from that Statue fills Irving with a thankfulness that makes him promise to write a song of thanks. The book ends with “God Bless America” as the song he wrote to fulfill that promise.
Leslie – I don't know that there's a common thread, except that, so far, my subjects are all American. The main thing they have in common is that they are all people that I admire in some way. I'm not sure I could write the book otherwise. It's simply too much time to waste on someone I don't like. In Berlin's case, he both shows the promise of our country at its best, and he has filled my life with beautiful music.
Adah - My other book, Bunk 9’s Guide to Growing Up, is a book for pre-teen girls about the physical and emotional changes that happen during puberty. So it’s very different! But at the same time, both of these books tackle important issues. God Bless America shows the value and contribution of immigrants. Bunk 9’s Guide to Growing Up is a body-positive exploration of puberty. I hope readers find the positive messages in each.
When did you first find out that you each were writing a book on Irving Berlin and that all three would be published so close together? [It’s fun, when you search one title in Amazon all three pop up as “also viewed” or “bought together.”]
Nancy – Mine was the first that I saw on Amazon for the longest time. Then I saw Leslie’s pop up. Finally, I saw Adah’s! At first, I was taken aback as my goal has always been to shine a spotlight on someone who hasn’t been written about. In my classroom visits, I would sing “God Bless America” and ask the kids who wrote the song, and no one knew. So I felt there was a need. Although the book was timed to the 100th anniversary of when “God Bless America” was written and the 80th anniversary of when Kate Smith first sang it, I didn’t anticipate two other books.
I have to say, however, that I have loved getting to know Leslie and Adah and that I have enjoyed their different approaches. In fact, I’m working on a lesson plan for a class I will be teaching at The Writing Barn in Austin that will include all three books as an example of how there isn’t a right or wrong way to tell the story – how the important thing is to tell the story that resonates with you.
Leslie – My project had been in the works for quite a while, and I didn't see anything at all similar--until I did! That's always a danger when you write nonfiction, and it's happened to me before. The odds of them all coming out within weeks of each other, well, that doesn't usually happen. But it was the 100th anniversary year of the original writing of "God Bless America," so I think the three of us all had the idea. Still, I think Irving Berlin is a big enough person to fill (and deserve) three books.
Adah - I heard vague mention of another Berlin manuscript floating out there while I was on submission, but it wasn’t until I was well into the publication process that I knew there were two, and that they were being published so close together to God Bless America. I definitely had a moment of panic! But luckily all three complement each other!
They definitely do work well together. Did the publication of the other two books so closely to yours cause you to adjust your typical or planned launch, release, and/or publicity efforts?
Nancy (May 1, 2018) –I didn’t do anything differently. I just do what I always do – reach out to friends and supporters, participate in as many blog tours as I can, post early and often, accept all offers to present and go, go, go. Marjorie Ingall reviewed and recommended all three of our books together for The Tablet. In a way, that helped reinforce the idea that you don’t have to see the books as an either/or choice, but that you can enjoy all three. To quote Marjorie, in words that went right to my heart: “Spoiler alert: I like them all!”
Leslie (May 15, 2018) – No, and in some ways, the situation drew more, not less, attention to the books. Some reviewers have reviewed them together, and both mine and Nancy's were Sydney Taylor Notable books.
Adah (June 5, 2018) - Not that I know of, though who knows what happened behind the scenes at Disney…
Business as usual, that's good to know. Is there something you want your readers to know about YOUR Irving book?
Nancy - Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing – I provide a free Teacher Guide and a project with every book, available on my website, nancychurnin.com. For Irving Berlin, the project is MAKE AMERICA SING. I would like parents and educators to send in the children’s favorite things that immigrants have brought to America – it can be a favorite food, music, holiday, expression, item of clothing, anything. I hope as we look at all these gifts it will remind us all of how thankful we should be to the immigrants who have come to America.
Leslie - Write On, Irving Berlin (May 15, 2018) – I just want readers to have fun learning more about this extraordinary man, and perhaps to reflect on how lucky we are to live in a country with such a breadth of talent, coming from so many people with so many different backgrounds and stories. I hope readers will be interested enough after reading the book to explore Berlin's music further--they won't be disappointed!
Adah - God Bless America: The Story of an Immigrant Named Irving Berlin (June 5, 2018 ) - I hope, of course, that readers take away a deeper knowledge of Irving Berlin’s life and music. But I also hope that God Bless America inspires readers to take a closer look at the immigrants around them and to value the big and small contributions they make to our communities.
So a bit of tolerance, and a deeper of understanding of an amazingly talented man. What was the most frustrating aspect or period of time writing this particular book? Any advice for other authors, published or not?
Nancy – The challenge is the same with each book. I have an idea, a vision, a sense of the story I’m trying to tell. That first draft that you pour out on the page is never exactly what you hope it will be. But it is the raw material from which you will carve or hone a story. My advice for other authors, published or not, is to get that draft out from beginning to end and not be discouraged when it doesn’t measure up to what you thought or hoped it will be. If you keep that vision in your head and heart and keep working at the story, revision by revision, it will not only get closer to what you were thinking and feeling, it may, in some ways be better, as you discover things on your journey.
Leslie – That it couldn't have an actual soundtrack to go along with it! It's a challenge to convey the depth of Berlin's talent without actually playing his songs. And of course, I wish I could have talked about more of them. Some songs, obviously, were better than others, but the titles alone were often hilarious: "Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars" and "I Say It's Spinach (and the Hell with It)."
As for advice to other authors, I try not to do it. Everyone has to create in his or her own way. But if I had to offer one piece of wisdom, it would be this: Try not to be wed to any preconceived idea of how to tell your story. Because once you start writing, somehow you often end up in the back seat! Unexpected things may happen.
Adah - I think as writers, most of us are able to see the flaws in our work, but I would bet that most of us also secretly fantasize of sending a manuscript out on submission and getting a call with an offer the very next day. That first rejection is always the hardest. But it’s important to push past it, see the value in the critique you receive, and use feedback to make your work better.
Excellent advice, thank you all. What stood out, or impressed you the most, about the other two books?
Nancy – I like Leslie’s breezy style and the way she captures Irving’s joy in writing, that part of him that was a music machine: “Irving wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. He wrote music for plays, for movies, for friends, for strangers. He scribbled ideas on napkins and on the sleeves of his shirt.”
I like the way Adah finds words that evoke sounds, like “cloppity-clop-thwack march, tramp pow” and how she lets kids know about the prejudice Irving faced then in a way they can understand today: “And while some people didn’t like that the voice of America belonged to an immigrant and a Jew, most people felt that a refugee was just the right person to celebrate the hope America held.”
Leslie – The writing was just so good--and it's always a pleasure to read good writing. Both books had a lot of heart. I loved the way Nancy tied in the Shema prayer, and I loved the playfulness of Adah's verbal descriptions of the music (I guess she created her own soundtrack!) It was a lot of fun to see Berlin through the eyes of two talented colleagues, and to see the way the other artists interpreted it as well.
Adah - There’s information in both Leslie and Nancy’s that makes me go, “Aha! Well, we used the same source material here…” Yet despite the overlaps, we wrote three very different books. I love how packed with information Leslie’s is, yet it’s still so fun and easy to read. You feel full of knowledge afterwards, but never bogged down. And I love how deeply Nancy’s goes into Irving’s childhood, taking a look at his story through that lens. I think it gives young readers an “in” that they can really connect to. There’s also a theatricality to Nancy’s that’s beautifully matched to who Irving was.
That was fun! Seeing the other books through each of your lenses is a rare treat. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Nancy – My newest book, Martin & Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank (3/5/2019) follows the parallel journeys of these two great spirits, both born in 1929. They were of different genders, races, religions, countries, spoke different languages, but their hearts beat with the same hope for humanity. They faced hate with love and left us with words that inspire us today. I have two more books due out in 2020: Beautiful Shades of Brown, How Laura Wheeler Waring Painted Her World and For Spacious Skies and Katharine Lee Bates and ‘America the Beautiful.
Leslie – My book, The Rabbi Slurps Spaghetti, is newly out in April--I think one of the rare titles that show kids (in a fun way!) what a rabbi's job entails. I have a bunch of books coming out in late 2019 and in 2020, including a really fun Hanukkah story (Holiday House) (no spoilers), and two early readers (Albert Whitman) about a bat and a sloth who share the same branch in the rain forest. I also have a nonfiction project that I'm in the middle of, but it's too early to talk about.
Adah - I’m toying around with a few ideas, but nothing has stuck yet.
Well, I for one can't wait for your other books and projects to be published. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Nancy – I have so many! The first book that my mother read to me that I fell in love with was The Wonderful 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.
Leslie – Way too many to name. Charlotte's Web was, is, and will always be my favorite; it captures the essence of life, I believe. But if I had to name a few other childhood favorites, I loved Sendak's Pierre (very subversive) and May I Bring a Friend? by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, so fanciful and fun. When I got a little older: both the Lloyd Alexander and the Edgar Eager magic book series; The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (the first book I ever owned myself and didn't have to share with my sisters!); Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Patterson.
Adah - There’s no way to narrow it down to one. I loved—and still love—Russell Hoban’s Frances books, everything by Astrid Lindgren, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, Katherine Paterson, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry… the list goes on.
This is a great list of wonderful books. 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?
Nancy – 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, challenges, conferences filled with amazing educators and librarians and all the wonderful friends I have made in my critique groups. I advise everyone to find your tribe as soon as possible!
Leslie – When I was growing up, it never occurred to me that being a writer was even an option. "Regular" people weren't authors! It seemed like such a remote and magical kind of occupation. So every year that goes by that I continue to write children's books feels like an immense privilege.
I tend to have imposter's syndrome; I look around and can't believe the talent I see around me in this field. So many creative people, with amazing imaginations, an incredible ability to weave pictures with words, tell moving, and exciting stories. (I also have the twin syndrome: "Why didn't I think of that?" syndrome.) I don't know that it's something I'm glad I didn't know about in advance, but I guess my philosophy is the same I apply to all the parts of my life: Stay in your own lane. Do what only you can do and try to clear away the rest.
Adah - I came from the publishing side, so I think I had a pretty realistic idea of what to expect, at least once the manuscript was accepted. But I cannot say enough how important it is to have readers who you trust for critique. I wasn’t privy to that as an editor, and it was an invaluable experience.
I agree with you all. Good critique partners are worth their weight in gold. What is your favorite animal? Or the one you are currently enamored with. Why?
Nancy – My dog named Dog and my cats named 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. My husband keeps bugging me to write it and one day I will give in.
Leslie – That's a non sequitur question! I love all animals (except maybe mosquitoes and wasps). The weirder the better. In my next life, I plan to be a nature photographer. I still am awestruck by the fact that all these crazy different creatures share the planet with us. In my personal life, my favorites have been, of course, my dogs, starting with a neurotic but wonderful childhood dog, an American foxhound named Alice. At the moment, I'm between dogs...which makes me very sad. Soon, I hope.
Adah - I have to admit I’m not a huge animal person—or at least not a pet person. It’s definitely a big flaw of mine! That said, I love farm animals, and I’d be delighted to spend the day cuddling some baby goats or lambs!
Whew, you made it through to the end! Thanks for sticking with us. I hope you found this as interesting and informative as I did.
Thank you, Nancy, Leslie, and Adah for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly a rare treat to chat with you all, together.
To find out more about Nancy Churnin, or get in touch with her:
To find out more about Leslie Kimmelman, or get in touch with her:
To find out more about Adah Nuchi, or get in touch with her: