The Picture Book Buzz

The Perfect Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Nancy Churnin and Review of Two New Picture Books

Nancy Churnin writes beautiful nonfiction picture book biographies on little known individuals or those with little known stories. She 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. By sending letters to get Hoy in the Hall of Fame or by helping their community, a new kid on a team, an immigrant, or over the holidays. Be sure to visit her website and read the testimonials from kids and classrooms.


Nancy is the author of 10 books, including Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring (2020), For Spacious Skies: Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration for "America the Beautiful" (She Made History) (2020), Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank (2019), Charlie Takes His Shot: How Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf (2018), Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing (2018), The Queen and the First Christmas Tree: Queen Charlotte's Gift to England (2018), Manjhi Moves a Mountain (2017), and The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game (2016).

[For general information about Nancy , see our earlier interviews (here) and (here).]


Her newest picture books, Dear Mr. Dickens, releases October 1st AND A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah releases October 5th.



Welcome back Nancy, I'm really excited to talk with you about these two books.



What was the inspiration for Dear Mr. Dickens?


I was always troubled by the way Charles Dickens, a writer I love and admire, wrote in such an ugly way about the criminal Fagin in Oliver Twist, referring to him as “the Jew.” I always wished I could have written a letter to Dickens, telling him how hurtful that was and that he should do better. When I discovered that a Jewish woman in his time, Eliza Davis, had written such a letter and changed his heart, I knew I had to write their story.


Talk about kindred spirits. How about for A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah?


My sister, Sharon Churnin Nash, and I are lifetime members of Hadassah, an organization of Jewish women dedicated to healing the world by helping others. I wanted to know how Hadassah had come to be. When I learned it was founded by Henrietta Szold, I wondered why I didn’t know more about her. I started to research her. The more I learned about her and her passion for helping others, the more I wanted to share her inspirational story.


I am so glad you took the time to learn about her. What was the toughest part of your research and/or writing for Dear Mr. Dickens? What about for A Queen to the Rescue?


The toughest part about researching Dear Mr. Dickens was getting my hands on the full text of the actual letters. That took some sleuthing. Luckily, I had the help of my hero librarian at the Parr Library in Plano, Texas in locating a copy of Charles Dickens and His Jewish Characters, edited by Cumberland Clark (Chiswick Press, 1918) less than an hour away from me in the rare book collection of the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Once I had the letters, the double challenge was to get the story right – not to veer away from the facts – and to make the story of a correspondence active and engaging.


With A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah, the first challenge was to gather all the information from multiple sources as Henrietta had never written an autobiography. Then, when I discovered the enormity of what Henrietta had done to help others, I had to choose a few of most important contributions and make her journey kid-friendly and compelling.


Did you learn something during the researching or writing of either or both books that will help you with future books?


What I learned from both manuscripts is that you can take on mature themes like the importance of speaking up, righting wrongs and forgiving someone who has truly atoned in Dear Mr. Dickens and taking action to heal the world in A Queen to the Rescue – if you find a child-friendly way into the story.


It's just finding the child-friendly way in that can be a challenge. Titles can be tricky; how many tries did it take to arrive at these titles?


Dear Mr. Dickens was the easy title. Because this was always about the letters Eliza wrote to Charles Dickens, I knew that had to be the title. The only thing that changes was that in an earlier version I had it as Dear Mr. Dickens, Sincerely, Eliza Davis. But I decided shorter was better!


A Queen to the Rescue took a while mainly because for a long time I struggled with how to tell Henrietta’s story in a kid-friendly way. I had an aha! moment when I realized how much Henrietta admired the Biblical Queen Esther, the Jewish queen who risked her life to save her people. Jewish children celebrate the Queen Esther story every year at Purim by wearing costumes, eating a delicious cookie called hamentashen and shaking noisemakers called groggers.


I realized Henrietta was trying to be like Queen Esther in her own time – standing up to save her people, and all people, really. Hadassah, which she founded as the first charity created and run by women, is the Hebrew name for Esther. It struck me that this is how kids who love having fun at Purim, could relate to Henrietta. While they dress up every year as Queen Esther, the king and others in Esther’s story, Henrietta took concrete actions to be like Queen Esther. She was truly A Queen to the Rescue, who went on to save 11,000 children during the Holocaust.


I hope this title encourages kids to think of Queen Esther not just as a long-ago queen in a fancy tiara and robe, but how they, like Henrietta, can bring Queen Esther’s courage and commitment to helping others into their own lives now.


I love that you told me that each your picture book biographies “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.” How does this unifying thread (or theme) resonate with Dear Mr. Dickens and A Queen to the Rescue?


Eliza Davis in Dear Mr. Dickens was not rich or famous as Charles Dickens was, but she had “the same three things that Charles Dickens had: a pen, paper, and something to say.” The thing that made her different in Victorian England was that she was Jewish at a time when Jewish people were not given the same rights as others. They had to live in different communities, they couldn’t go to universities, certain trades were closed to them, they couldn’t serve in Parliament. So that made her different, but it gave her the perspective she needed to speak up for a community that needed a voice.


Henrietta Szold in A Queen to the Rescue was a woman during a time in America when women didn’t have the right to vote or own businesses or determine their own destiny. When she couldn’t find male-run charities doing the work she felt needed to be done, she founded her own, Hadassah, in 1912 and recruited women to run and raise money for those needing healthcare and life-saving services in Palestine. In so doing, she not only helped those she was trying to serve, but she empowered the women who were running Hadassah, giving them the confidence that they, too could make a difference. I think there’s a connection between those women she empowered to be confident, capable women and the growing insistence for women to receive the vote, which became the law in America in 1920.


You really do have a great knack for finding and sharing these type of biographies. How long did it take from idea to publication for Dear Mr. Dickens and A Queen to the Rescue?


A Queen to the Rescue was the much quicker journey. I came up with the idea of writing Henrietta Szold’s biography when I was accepted by PJ Library to attend their TENT program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst in 2019. I worked on it there. After many revisions, it sold to Marissa Moss at Creston Books in 2020 and it came out in 2021 with Yevgenia Nayberg’s brilliant illustrations.


I actually wrote my first version of Dear Mr. Dickens in 2013 before my first manuscript, The William Hoy Story, How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game, was sold and published in 2016 by Albert Whitman & Company. At the time, there didn’t seem to be editors who could see the potential in a picture book story that was about a correspondence that changed lives, although honestly, we only tried a few.


Then, in 2020, after four successful books with my then editor Wendy McClure at Albert Whitman & Company, she asked what else I had for her. I mentioned a few things I was working on and brought up Dear Mr. Dickens. The minute she heard the idea, she wanted to see the manuscript. Right after she read it, she and her team wanted it. After that it was a whirlwind from edits to finished book. I am thrilled by how it worked out. It is everything I dreamed it would be when I first conceived of it. If anything, it is better now because of what I learned and because of the care Wendy took with it, than it would have been if I had sold it in 2013.


Definitely a poster child for never giving up on a manuscript; of being willing to wait until it's the right time. What's something you want your readers to know about Dear Mr. Dickens and A Queen to the Rescue?


I want children to know that the words you speak and the actions you take matter. You don’t have to be famous or rich or powerful to make a difference. Eliza Davis didn’t want or need to be famous. She just wanted one person that she admired, Charles Dickens, to know that she thought he had done wrong by the Jewish people and could do better. She changed his heart and because she did, he went on to write words that encouraged England to change laws in a way that made them fairer for Jewish people. She led a simple life of doing good and in that way changed the world for the better.


Henrietta Szold was not interested in fame either. That’s why she didn’t write an autobiography. But she did want to change the world for the better and create and improve organizations that would continue that mission after she was gone. Hadassah, the charity she created, continues to help others around the world. I hope her example will inspire kids to think of organizations they can create that can involve others in a way that allows them to continue through generations, too.


I hope you succeed in inspiring lots of kids (and adults) to take a stand and make the world better. What was the most interesting thing you learned about Charles Dickens and Henrietta Szold?


I am even more impressed with Charles Dickens than I was before I knew this story, because now I know he had the ability to truly listen, to acknowledge when he was wrong, and to do better. I agree with Eliza Davis when she praised him for having “the noblest quality man can possess,” the ability to atone, or make amends for a wrong.


I was also very touched by how Henrietta never let her own personal disappointments keep her from doing the right thing. Henrietta was open about her sadness that she never married or had children. But there is more than one way to be a mother. Henrietta saved 11,000 children from the Holocaust. She greeted each child who arrived by his or her name. She checked up on them to make sure they were well cared for, were going to school, or fulfilling their dreams. She is considered the mother of Israel because of all the children she saved and all the children those children would grow up to have.


In the Jewish tradition, when a person dies, the person’s child is supposed to say Kaddish – the prayer for the dead. When Henrietta died, one of the boys she saved from the Holocaust said Kaddish for her. By saving him, she became another mother to him.


Henrietta is also a reminder that your life may not always turn out as you dreamed, certainly not in every aspect, but you need to keep moving forward, making good choices, and doing the right thing. That’s how you help heal the world.


Thank you for sharing the ways these individuals touched your life. Did anything surprise you when you first saw Bethany Stancliffe’s illustrations in Dear Mr. Dickens and Yevgenia Nayberg’s illustrations in A Queen to the Rescue? Which is your favorite spread in each book?

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2021. Image © Bethany Stancliffe, 2021.


I love how Bethany Stancliffe captures the Victorian feel of the times and brings a sense of action and urgency to a story which is about the exchange of letters. I love the little cat that appears on many pages and the inclusion of Eliza’s young son, who helps us see the story through a child’s eyes. I love so many of the spreads, but my favorite is near the end when we see Charles Dickens’ study juxtaposed with Eliza Davis’ sitting room. He is reading the Bible she gave him as a gift. She is reading his letters. Her child is reading Dickens’ new book with the cat sitting in the chair with him. It’s a spread filled with words that remind us of the power of those words to change and nourish minds and hearts.

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2021. Image © Yevgenia Nayberg, 2021.


Yevgenia Nayberg brings so much intense emotion and intellect to each illustration in A Queen to the Rescue. There are many illustrations that I love – Henrietta’s dreamy, thoughtful look on the very first page when she is wondering how she can one day save her people as Queen Esther did in her time; the tension and stressfulness of her times as she pushed through to make things better wherever she could and, ultimately save the children. But my favorite spread is the joyful one where she dances the hora with the children she has rescued. Henrietta knew that to truly rescue children, you need to save the spirit, too. She wanted the children she saved to laugh, to smile, to have a childhood. That says so much about her. She worked so hard day in and day out getting people the physical care they needed, but she always remembered that laughter and love were the best medicine of all.


Great choices; both of these are such powerful images. How are, or have you been, staying creative during these times? Have you found anything that helps you “prime the well”?


I love spending time with my family, walking my dog named Dog every day and just playing around with ideas. I don’t have a lot of hobbies, really. I’m grateful not to have a whole lot of talents. But I enjoy going to theater. I do a regular theater column for a magazine called fyi50plus, edit Dallas’ youngest critic, six-year-old Mila Vincent, who writes book reviews and theater reviews. I can get really lost reading a good book or story and playing around with new ideas – revising old stories and creating new ones. I have loved writing since I was a little girl scribbling my ideas and poems in a notebook. I’m still doing that – and want nothing more than to keep doing it.


Sounds perfect to me! Are there any upcoming projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


My agent is working on a contract for what may be my first board book! It’s short, it rhymes, and it was a delight to write. I can’t say much about it than this – that I hope it gives toddlers a window into kindness. I also have my first historical fiction picture book going to acquisitions soon. I will be thrilled if that one makes it through.


Interesting; definitely have to keep an eye out. If you could meet anyone real, literary, or imaginary who would that be?


After writing these books? Charles Dickens, Eliza Davis and Henrietta Szold, of course! I add names with every book I write. I would love to meet William Hoy, Dashrath Manjhi, Charlie Sifford, Irving Berlin, Queen Charlotte, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Anne Frank, Laura Wheeler Waring and Katharine Lee Bates, too.


Thank you, Nancy for stopping by for this interview. I always enjoy talking with you.


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

Website: http://www.nancychurnin.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NancyChurninBooks/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/nchurnin

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nchurnin/


Some Upcoming Events to Note:

1) Nancy will be presenting Dear Mr. Dickens as part of a free virtual panel at the National Women’s History Museum in Washington D.C. Oct. 1. It’s called Brave Girls Honor Brave Women, and she’ll be on a panel with authors Karen Greenwald, who wrote A Vote for Susanna, and Songju Daemicke, who wrote Tu Youyou’s Discovery:


https://www.eventbrite.com/e/brave-girls-honor-brave-women-a-very-special-brave-girls-book-launch-tickets-166324273379


2) Nancy will also be presenting Dear Mr. Dickens and A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah at Interabang Books in Dallas Oct. 2 at 2 p.m.



Reviews of Dear Mr. Dickens and A Queen to the Rescue:

The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah


How exciting to have two great picture books release four days apart. Especially when they are written by the amazing Nancy Churnin. While both very different, they share the underlying core facet of being "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." Women determined to stand up for societal justice. Hope you enjoy these sneak peeks into Nancy's newest nonfiction biographies.


Dear Mr. Dickens


Author: Nancy Churnin


Illustrator: Bethany Stancliffe


Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company (2021)


Ages: 4-8


Nonfiction



Themes:

Speaking up, fairness, and discrimination.


Synopsis:

In Eliza Davis's day, Charles Dickens was the most celebrated living writer in England. But some of his books reflected a prejudice that was all too common at the time: prejudice against Jewish people. Eliza was Jewish, and her heart hurt to see a Jewish character in Oliver Twist portrayed as ugly and selfish. She wanted to speak out about how unfair that was, even if it meant speaking out against the great man himself. So she wrote a letter to Charles Dickens. What happened next is history.


Opening Lines:

Think of someone famous you admire. What would

you do if that person said or wrote something unfair?

Would you speak up?

Would you risk getting that person angry?

Eliza Davis did.


What I LOVED about this book:

What I love most about Nancy Churnin's books, and this one in particular, is that she focuses of little known moments of ordinary people. Eliza Davis was an educated, articulate woman who 1863 decided that she couldn't sit by and let an author she admired perpetuate a hurtful stereotype. She decided to take a stand, to speak up, and try to change the mind of Charles Dickens.


When Dickens initially rejected Eliza's argument that his portrayal and description of Fagin, in Oliver Twist, was wrong or discriminatory, as simply "unfair or unjust," she used his work against him. Channeling the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, Eliza wrote an impassioned reply which reminded him of books he loved as a child, the statistics within his current writings, and the judgement of future generations.

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2021. Image © Bethany Stancliffe, 2021.


Bethany Stancliffe did an amazing job portraying the period. Her beautifully toned illustrations providing a glimpse of English life, both from inside Eliza's house and quintessential walled garden to Dickens' study and the old printing presses. The inclusion of an expressive white cat was a nice touch.

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2021. Image © Bethany Stancliffe, 2021.


What makes this such an amazing picture book is that the ability to use reasoned, logical, impassioned pleas for change, justice, or action is something every kid (or adult) possess today. We've seen people of every age, race, gender, and sexual preference step up and ask society and our leaders to act humanely, protect those in need, and fix the environment. What do we feel passionate about? What do we want to fix? Who could we appeal to?


This is a great biography of a little-known woman who made a big difference in the life of an author and the Jewish people in England with power of her pen. A wonderful addition to discussions of anti-discrimination, empowerment, and the power of literature to change lives.

____________________________________________


A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah


Author: Nancy Churnin


Illustrator: Yevgenia Nayberg


Publisher: Creston Books (2021)


Ages: 9-10


Nonfiction



Themes:

WWII, Holocaust, Jews, compassion, and social justice.


Synopsis:

Henrietta Szold took Queen Esther as a model and worked hard to save the Jewish people. In 1912, she founded the Jewish women's social justice organization, Hadassah. Henrietta started Hadassah determined to offer emergency medical care to mothers and children in Palestine. When WWII broke out, she rescued Jewish children from the Holocaust, and broadened Hadassah's mission to include education, youth development, and women's rights. Hadassah offers free help to all who need it and continues its mission to this day.


Opening Lines:

From the time Henrietta was little, she loved hearing about the woman who

risked her life to save others. While her sisters twirled in sparkly Purim skirts,

Henrietta marveled at Esther, who told a king to stop the wicked, powerful

Haman from hurting her people.


As children swung groggers — noisemakers — and gobbled hamenstashen,

Henrietta wondered if one day she’d have the courage to stand up and make

a difference, too. After all, Esther had shown her the way.


What I LIKED about this book:

Following the example of Queen Esther and her parents, Henrietta spent her life looking for ways to help others. Although she had fewer options or opportunities to make a difference than a man, she spent her life leveraging what she had - a strong will, determination, and a deep compassion for others. In her first role, Henrietta worked hard as a teacher to help her students.

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2021. Image © Yevgenia Nayberg, 2021.


When Jewish immigrants fled Poland and Russia, she created the first night school to teach these adults English and American customs. When she noticed a lack of Jewish books, she became the first editor of the Jewish Publication Society. Then she founded the charity - Hadassah (Esther's Hebrew name) - to fight the disease and hunger suffered by families in Palestine, ensuring "every faith received heathcare, food, and education." She made a difference in a lot of lives. Nancy Churnin doesn't shy away from harsh historical realities, instead she does a great job of explaining them in a way that is both intellectually and emotionally accessible to children.


For instance, Nancy straightforwardly explains Hitler's hatred of Jews and then focuses on Henrietta's risky work to convince officials and secretly meet with parents to get 63 kids out of Germany. And her vigorous lobbying to save 870 children who'd escaped Siberia. The stylistic illustrations of Yevgenia Nayberg capture the emotions (both joyous and raw) and the societal realties without being too graphic.

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2021. Image © Yevgenia Nayberg, 2021.


Nancy does a great job capturing the dedication and determination Henrietta used to rescue, in total, 11,000 children, with the help of Hadassah. Noting that Henrietta hoped these kids would in turn follow Esther's example and that "every one of them, boys and girls, could stand up, be brave, and make a difference, too." An author's note, explanation of Purim, timeline, and annotated bibliography offer additional personal and societal information. This is a wonderful biography of a little-known woman whose compassion and determination continue to help others long after her death.

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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