The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Nancy Churnin, Shayna Vincent + Review of Mama's Year w/Cancer
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 16 books, including Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern, Halloween Comes to America (9/7/2023), Dear Mr. Dickens (2021) A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold,, Founder of Hadassah (2021), 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).
Shayna Vincent is an Oklahoma native but has resided in North Texas her adult life. She married her high school sweetheart, Devon, and has two daughters, Mila age 8 and Avivah age 4.
In July 2019, at age 34, Shayna was diagnosed with breast cancer. While she was terrified of her own future, she was even more scared for her then 4-year-old and 10-month-old daughters. As she searched for resources and children’s books on how to have these tough and delicate conversations with her oldest daughter, she realized there was little to be found.
She underwent chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiation, and 4 additional surgeries. During the diagnosis and treatment chaos, she was encouraged by cancer support groups to turn to writing as a therapeutic coping mechanism. Shayna’s private journaling eventually led to co-authoring Mama’s Year with Cancer, a book about a mother managing chemo from a child’s perspective.
Unfortunately, in October 2021, just as Shayna finally felt cancer was behind her, she found out it had returned and spread to her liver and throughout her bones. She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, also known as stage 4.
Throughout her illness she continues to work full-time, serving as the Director of Professional Development for the University of North Texas at Dallas - Caruth Police Institute. Her work continues to allow her to connect with and help law enforcement leaders by developing and implementing leadership curriculum, with a focus on mental health, communication, and conflict resolution.
Their picture book collaboration, Mama’s Year with Cancer, releases on September 7th.
Welcome Nancy and Shayna, I'm so excited you could both come talk with me!
Shayna let’s start with you. Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing?)
SHAYNA – I’ve known I can best express myself in writing, but I never considered myself a writer. After my cancer diagnosis, I joined a virtual support group that was centered around using writing as a healing tool. I struggled a bit at first because there weren’t any guidelines, but I soon found it to be mentally and emotionally therapeutic.
On a side note, I’m very old school in the fact that I love buying greeting and thank you cards and writing a personal message inside. It makes me truly happy when I’m able to convey to a loved one how much they mean to me – and give them something they can look back and read years later.
What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written a manuscript?
SHAYNA – It wasn’t a fun place to be, but many times while I was at my cancer center or home recovering from treatment or surgery, ideas for the book would pop into my head. As for actually writing, that took place at home.
Sorry you had to go through this. How did the two of you meet? What led to your decision to collaborate on Mama’s Year with Cancer? How did you divide up the work/writing?
NANCY – We met through Shayna’s mom, Johannah Luza, and Shayna’s daughter, Mila. Johannah, who is also a children’s book author, brought Mila to my presentation of Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing at the Dallas Jewish Community Center when she was three. Mila loved singing Irving Berlin songs with the audience. We had so much fun! We stayed in touch, with Johannah bringing Mila to my presentation of Martin & Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank at Interabang Books in Dallas in 2019. Mila’s hand was the first go up after my talk. When I called on her, she asked if we could sing Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Which we did! It was while we were at Interabang Books that Johannah told me about Shayna’s diagnosis. Knowing Shayna needed rest and Johannah and Mila needed distractions, I got the idea of teaming them up to do theater reviews for a senior magazine I was freelancing for, fyi50plus, from a grandparent/grandchild perspective. Johannah and Mila did an amazing job; they’re still doing their column, which is called MilaSays. Over time, Johannah shared how Shayna struggled to find books that she could read to her daughters to help them understand their journey as a family with a parent fighting cancer. Shayna had a lot of ideas and experiences and insights to share for a book she envisioned. I offered my experience as a children’s book author in helping her shape the story. We ended up becoming full collaborators. We sent the story back and forth with fresh revisions and notes until we were both satisfied it was truthful, age appropriate, a story that would make kids want to turn pages, and said what we wanted it to say.
SHAYNA – I shared my story with Nancy and she used her author expertise to help us craft it for readers. I’ve said before that life handed me lemons in the form of cancer, and Nancy helped me turn them into lemonade. She showed me how to take my story which was filled with deep, raw pain, and transform it into a way to help others. I’m incredibly lucky that Nancy took a leap of faith and wanted to attempt co-authoring. I think being very open and honest with each other allowed us to create our book.
What was your inspiration or spark of interest for Mama’s Year with Cancer?
NANCY – The better I knew Shayna and her family, the more I realized how Shayna’s passion to help others and heal the world drives her. Cancer is a terrible, unpredictable condition. I knew Shayna yearned to find a way to use her experience to help others. I could see that if she told the story through her child’s eyes, then children would identify with the young narrator and those going through similar experiences would feel seen and supported and those with friends going through those experiences would understand and find ways to talk about cancer and be supportive. Once we realized that we were both on the same page – literally – in what we hoped the book would say, we co-created at a speed that was truly amazing. Cancer, sadly, is so much more common than many realize. We both did dedications. My dedication was for my sister-in-law, Suzanne Updegraff Granberry, a breast cancer survivor for many years, and for my niece, Jaimee Granberry. Jaimee, the mother of three young girls was diagnosed while the book was in progress. Jaimee has already told me she is looking forward to reading it to her girls. I hope the story will destigmatize and help them understand what cancer is, that it will make them feel supported and seen.
SHAYNA – My daughters (4yrs and 10 months old at the time of my diagnosis) were my inspiration.
My life turned upside down the moment I was told I had cancer. Honestly, the worst initial part was having to abruptly stop breastfeeding my youngest and trying to figure out how my husband and I were going to tell our oldest what was happening. I searched for resources on how to talk with children about cancer, but only found a few books that were semi-helpful. Co-authoring Mama’s Year with Cancer allowed me to help other moms who were also trying to navigate this new life.
What was the hardest or most challenging thing about writing for Mama’s Year with Cancer?
NANCY – The biggest challenge for me was finding the balance between being truthful and not giving young readers more than they can emotionally or intellectually process. That’s why it helped to have a young narrator to keep us in the world of a child’s understanding. I also wanted to make sure that in my efforts to help Shayna shape this into a compelling narrative, we would not lose the sound of Mila’s or Shayna’s voices, their hopes, their worries, their whimsy, their passion, their faith. I am happy to be an invisible co-author, helping Shayna channel what she wanted to say. This is Shayna’s story. This is her family’s story. I hope she will always feel ownership of her story as she has told me she has felt throughout our journey.
SHAYNA – Writing Mama’s Year with Cancer was overall very therapeutic for me, but also very emotional. The book focuses on one form of treatment, chemotherapy. It was challenging to take the most difficult and complex experiences in my life and narrow the information down while keeping it in a positive light for children.
How long did it take from idea to publication for Mama’s Year with Cancer? Do you recall how many revisions you did?
NANCY – The writing took a few months and when I finally sent it to my editor, Sue Tarsky at Albert Whitman, she got back to me the next day saying she wanted to acquire it. This was one of the fastest journeys from manuscript to publication I have ever experienced. It’s as if this story needed to be in the world and refused to take the time that most stories do. I think it helped that Shayna knew what she wanted to say and that everything she shared resonated with me so deeply that I felt like an extension of her during our collaboration. Also, despite everything Shayna was going through with cancer, with caring her family, with her dedication to her work, she always got back to me right away with changes and revisions. We were absolutely in sync even in our passion for working quickly.
SHAYNA – The author world is all new to me so I didn’t have any idea how long the process is, but Nancy said it was lightning speed! It was an unexplainable feeling hearing that the publishers knew this book needed to be out in the world and they wanted to be a part of it.
What's something you want your readers to know about Mama’s Year with Cancer?
NANCY – I want them to know what to expect if they have a loved one with cancer in terms of what may happen and how they might feel emotionally. I want them to know they are not alone and they have resources. In the book, you see the child go to the school counselor’s office where she doesn’t always talk, but sometimes draws pictures that express how she feels. You see her pray for her mother. You see the child doing what she can do to help – coming up with jokes for her mother to read during chemotherapy, pasting get well notes on her mom while she naps, sharing details about the fun outings she had with her grandmother when she comes home to her mother. You also see family and friends bringing food to the house and grandparents stepping up to help. I also hope that it gives children with friends that have a parent with cancer understanding of what their friend might be going through and ideas on how to show support and care.
SHAYNA – I want readers to know that book won’t answer all of the questions about chemo or all that a family might face while having cancer, but it does provide an honest approach that will lead to more discussions. I firmly believe it will empower both adult and child readers.
I also want them to know that they are not alone. Just about every person has a loved one that has faced cancer. Reading the book, along with provided resources, will not cure cancer, but it will educate all ages on how they can provide care and show their love to a cancer patient.
Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first saw Wazza Pink’s illustrations in Mama’s Year with Cancer? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Nancy Churnin & Shayna Vincent, 2023. Image © Wazza Pink 2023.
NANCY – I love all of Wazza Pink’s illustrations, particularly the way she shows both concern and joy, which captures the heart of what Shayna and I have tried to convey – that cancer is serious and it is natural to worry and even to get upset and angry, but there will also be moments of joy and laughter and there will be people to support and love the kids throughout the journey. But I did my happiest double-take when I saw the spread of the child going to synagogue to ask the rabbi to add her mother’s names to the prayers for the sick. We had sent Wazza Pink a photo of Shayna’s synagogue and she created an illustration that looks just like it. I know that is so special for Shayna’s family and her congregation.
SHAYNA – I had seen other children’s book illustrations about cancer. Honestly, some were scary to see, even as an adult. While the topic of our book is deep, Wazza Pink’s illustrations truly brought warmth to the subject. The use of bright colors and heartfelt faces will hopefully ease the readers during these difficult discussions.
Text © Nancy Churnin & Shayna Vincent, 2023. Image © Wazza Pink 2023.
It’s hard to choose a favorite spread because many of the illustrations are actual events that happened in our family. One of my favorites is the day I spent in my front yard, having a picnic and tea party with both of my daughters. It was a beautiful spring day with perfect weather. We squeezed out every minute and ounce of sun we could before going inside at sundown. Being together that day holds such a sweet memory in my heart.
Thank you both for sharing these behind the scenes memories and importance of these illustrations. Are there any upcoming projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
NANCY – Mama’s Year with Cancer is one of six books I have coming out this year. Thank you for your kindness in doing an interview with me about Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern, Halloween Comes to America, historical fiction about the Irish immigrants that brought their Halloween customs to America.
The other four books are a picture book biography, Valentines for All, Esther Howland Captures America’s Heart, the story of the woman who started the first Valentine card company in America, coming Nov. 7 from Albert Whitman; my first board book, Counting on Shabbat, a rhyming story of counting, Shabbat and kindness as an elderly person is cheered by the arrival of a young family, coming Nov. 7 from Kar-Ben; and my first two chapter book biographies, recently released from Core Knowledge: Thomas Edison, How a Boy Who Learned Differently Changed the World, about how Edison’s different way of learning and his near-deafness helped him become a great inventor and Elizabeth Freeman, Fighting for Freedom, about an enslaved woman who sued for her right to freedom in Massachusetts in the late 18th century and won, resulting in Massachusetts becoming one of the first free states in the nation.
I do want to note that co-authoring with Shayna was such a lovely experience, I have recently sold another co-authored book that I cannot share because it hasn’t been announced yet and have multiple co-authored projects in progress.
SHAYNA – I don’t have any upcoming writing projects, but I would love to co-author another children’s cancer book about radiation as well as one on surgery. Right now, I’m continuing to work full-time and spend as much quality time with my family as possible, as I undergo continuous cancer treatments.
Wow, Nancy, that's amazing! Shayna I hope you get to co-author those books! Shayna, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing, publishing, or not?
SHAYNA – My mom gave me so many pieces of wisdom growing up that still stick with me to this day. The piece that I live by and hope my daughters will always follow is simple: be kind to others. You never know what someone is going through. Kindness doesn’t cost a thing and can be shared at any moment in time with anyone.
In the past 4 years that I’ve lived with cancer, I’ve been in awe of my family, friends, co-workers, and even acquaintances that have offered help to me and my family in various ways. Their generosity and kindness have meant the world to me and it crushes me that I can never repay them for what they’ve done.
Co-authoring this book is just a small way that I can help other moms, caretakers, and children who have cancer in their life.
Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
NANCY – I will always have a soft spot for Central Park in New York City, the city where I grew up. It was always a magical place to visit and to see Shakespeare in the Park. Later, as a graduate student at the Columbia School of Journalism, I lived close enough to jog there in the mornings. That said, now that I am a longtime Texan, I’ve developed a deep love for Samuell-Grand Park in Dallas, a humble contrast to most viewers, but which is elevated by becoming home to the wonderful Shakespeare Dallas where I have also spent many nights enjoying Shakespeare under the stars. I’m grateful to all the talented artists that make these transformational evenings possible, working with nature on the lighting, and reminding us that Shakespeare is for everybody.
SHAYNA – I spent a day in NYC several years ago and fell in love with everything about Central Park. However, I’d have to say my favorite is a local park that my girls and I have spent endless hours at the past 5 years. I have some of the best memories of soaking up the sun, watching them make friends, become independent, and simply have fun. We’ve cried on the bench talking about cancer, celebrated learning the monkey bars, laughed until our bellies hurt on the merry-go-round, and conquered climbing “the rock.” I really try to be ‘in the moment’ while at the park and I think that’s why I have so many sweet memories there.
Thank you, Nancy and Shayna for stopping by for this interview. I always enjoy talking with you both.
To find out more about Nancy Churnin, or contact her:
To find out more about Shayna Vincent, or contact her:
Review of Mama's Year with Cancer
I still remember my young kids' questions, when my mother came to stay with us, for her nine weeks of radiation treatment after breast cancer surgery. But mostly, I remember the care and love they showered her with - lifting her spirits with favorite movies, Mad Libs, and millions of snuggles. Even my cat got in on the therapy - often wrapping about her when she napped.
Unfortunately, a book like this didn't exist and, like co-author Shanya Vincent, we stumbled our way through answering the questions and trying to provide reassurance (even when we ran a little short ourselves). This gorgeous, gentle book lovingly offers families a starting point that they can adapt to their own needs for dealing with cancer in the lives of their family or friends. It is a precious gift shared with us by Shanya Vincent and her family.
Mama's Year With Cancer
Authors: Nancy Churnin & Shayna Vincent
Illustrator: Wazza Pink
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Co. (2023)
Cancer, family, emotions, and bibliotherapy.
This tender story explores the impact of a parent's cancer diagnosis on a child's daily life, while offering kids ways to help loved ones on their recovery journey.
This poignant story follows a child who watches her mother go through the pain and distress of hospital stays, surgery, and chemotherapy. She helps her mother by sharing jokes, crafting get-well cards, and giving hugs, and she tries to be understanding when they can’t do all the things they used to do. Finally, after a year of treatment, her mother gets to ring the bell that means she is better.
Mama is sick. But not with a cold. With cancer.
"That's a big sick," Mama says.
"When will you be better?" I ask.
"Maybe in a year, if I do what the doctors say,"
Mama says. "When I'm better, I get to ring a bell."
What I LOVED about this book:
The opening lines and the softly colored illustration are full of caring, honesty, and love. While the parent's comments are not sugar coated, they are not overly gloom & doom either. I adore that Wazza Pink added an adorable calico cat to the story. Cats can be amazingly empathetic (when they want to). I've had two cats fulfill this lap warming, loving role for two different family members battling cancer. It's really a precious gift to observe - and receive.
Text © Nancy Churnin & Shayna Vincent, 2023. Image © Wazza Pink 2023.
Touchingly written from the daughter's point of view, Nancy and Shayna weave the girl's thoughts and personal experiences throughout an accurate, but child-centered - description of Mama's cancer treatment. For instance, knowing Mama has to sit still for forty-five minutes, while "a medicine called chemotherapy...goes into her body," the young girl tries to sit still for the same amount of time and discovers, That's a long time!" And because Daddy tells Mama jokes to pass the time, she gives him weekly lists of jokes she's heard or created. These personalized interactions of the girl, a child reader or listener start to relate.
During some touching scenes, Mama explains cancer isn't catching, why her hair comes out when the daughter brushes it, and shows her "pretty head wraps and wigs." Then while Mama rests, the young girl fills her room with get-well cards. I love that Wazza included a bell in two of the child's drawings, harkening back to Mama's earlier comment of ringing a bell when she's better. At the child's suggestion, Gigi creates a special bell cake for Mama's birthday. I love how the text and the beautiful, colorful illustrations weave bells, and the hope they represents, throughout the entire story.
The voice and the illustrations so perfectly capture a young child's experience - like neighbor's offerings of food and sneaky moments with her Aunt. Throughout, I love the expressions on her face and those of the cat; they are priceless.
Text © Nancy Churnin & Shayna Vincent, 2023. Image © Wazza Pink 2023.
People bring food. Sometimes there are onions-eww!
Mama and Daddy are too tired to cook.
Aunt Jaime brings her awful tuna-cheesy-mixed-with-I-don't-
know-what casserole. But she also brings gooey triple chocolate
chip cookies to make up for it.
Mama loves chocolate chip cookies, but she takes one bite,
and falls back asleep.
As the year progresses, trips to a play with her grandmother, washing the car with Daddy, a picnic on the lawn with Mama, and celebrating holidays and special traditions help encase Mama's battle with a bit of reassuring normalcy. But Mama's tiredness, the bothersome port (making snuggles hard), and having to distance herself if she gets a cold were sometimes overwhelming and sad. And the child beautifully gives readers permission to feel these emotions. I appreciate that the book includes the girl's descriptions of her weekly visit with the school counselor.
With tenderness, honesty, and understanding, Nancy and Shanya offer a view, both heart-breaking and encouraging - packed to the brim with love, of a family's experience of living with and through a loved one's brave struggle with cancer. But this is a picture book and the ending is stupendous and encouraging. In a heartfelt author's note, Shanya bravely discusses how her family dealt with her cancer diagnosis. How "life was different, yet it was somehow the same. There was laughter. There were tears. There was a messy house." This comforting book is a wonderful way to help a child begin to grasp and deal with the changes and emotions that can occur when a family member, relative, or friend develops cancer.
- send your encouragement and light, like the girl in story. Make cards for kids to brighten their day and send them to Cards For Hospitalized Kids..
-create your own Kindness Day tradition with your family. Here are 10 kindness ideas to get you started.
- check out Patricia Newman's "How to explain cancer to kids with kidlit."
- explore the book's Teacher's Guide.