The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Nancy Churnin 2023
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 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).
Nancy's newest picture book, Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern: Halloween Comes to America, releases on September 7th.
Welcome back Nancy, what is the most unusual or fun place where you’ve written a manuscript?
Does under the paws of my cat, Gloria Swanson, count? I like to recline sometimes while I write and when I recline, Gloria Swanson reclines on me! She often looks at me skeptically when I write. I try not to read too much into her disapproval, but I think it usually goes paw in paw with choosing to work on a keyboard rather than pet and pay her homage, and also, perhaps, to an absence of feline characters in too many texts. Thank goodness I have a cat in Dear Mr. Dickens – thanks to brilliant illustrator Bethany Stancliffe – and four in the upcoming Counting on Shabbat – delightfully drawn by illustrator Petronela Dostalova!
Ha! I love how expressive cats are. What was your inspiration or spark of interest for Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern: Halloween Comes to America?
Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays and one of my kids’ favorites, too. There’s so much to love about this special celebration – the opportunity to be someone else for a night by dressing up as something or someone, the “tricks” that keep your mind guessing, the kindness of neighbors that give “mysterious” strangers treats, smiles, and joy.
I started wondering, as I tend to do, how all these traditions started. When I discovered that we have Irish families to thank for these customs, I got excited about telling this story about the gifts that immigrants have brought to America and how being in America brought a new twist to the traditions. I also soon realized that there was no way I could pinpoint one particular immigrant that popularized these customs. So I started on my own thrilling journey of writing historical fiction. Lila, who comes with her family to America, is fictional. But the history of the story is real, from the reason many Irish immigrants came – the Potato Famine in the mid-19th century – to the Halloween customs in Ireland and how they adapted those customs to America.
What a cool nugget of history! I am so glad you found a way to bring it into a picture book. You’ve written a number of picture books and a board book now, how did creating Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern compare with the creation of your other picture books?
This is my first historical fiction book, so instead of researching my characters’ words and actions, I immersed myself in the history, conjured my people, and let my imagination go. It was very freeing. It was also exhilarating as I felt Lila’s story tug me and lead me. I can’t tell you how I knew – I just did – that Lila would make a friend, Julia, at a vegetable stand and this friendship would lead to a wonderful discovery that would give Lila’s Halloween an American twist. It’s strange but magical how people that only exist in your mind can become so real that they do and say what they will, with the writer trying to keep up. I felt myself write the story as fast as I could as I felt them living it.
It is such an amazing thing to happen. And I can imagine the fun of being able to make up their emotions and dialogue must have been really freeing after writing so much nonfiction. What was the toughest part of your research and/or writing for Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern?
Getting the look and details of 19th century New York City just right! I’m a New York City native, by way of the Bronx, so the city is familiar to me. I’ve even been to Ireland, in the countryside and the city, so I was familiar with that, too. But it took a lot of research to figure out what everything looked, felt, and smelled like in the 19th century – what the streets, landscapes, peddler carts, and Lila’s family’s apartment might have looked like and how people dressed. I studied images from many places, including the Tenement Museum in New York City that I shared with my editor, Jon Westmark, who shared them with the illustrator, Anneli Bray. I’m joyful with the result. It is like being whisked back in time!
Text © Nancy Churnin, 2023. Image © Anneli Bray, 2023.
I think you, Anneli, and the rest of the team did a great job placing the reader into 19th century New York! Since we often focus on what was hard about putting together the research and writing of a book. What was the most fun or fascinating part of researching and/or writing Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern?
I loved learning about the spirit “Jack” who gives his name to the jack-o’-lantern and how this trickster inspired kids to wear sheets, pretending to be spirits like Jack, so he wouldn’t bother them. I also enjoyed learning how to make favorite Irish dishes like colcannon and barmbrack, the tradition of hiding items in these foods, and what finding the items mean. They’re both easy and delicious. I included a recipe for colcannon in the back of the book.
Guess if you're going to include a recipe in the back of the book, you have to try it out first - I mean, it has to work, right? 😊 You once 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 through Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern?
Lila is a dreamer who has dreams that she and others can’t always understand. She is different in her ability not only to dream vividly, but to tell stories in a way that makes what she imagines seem real to her little brother and sister Billy and Grace. Knowing that the little ones are homesick for all they’ve left behind, she wants them to believe that “Jack”—the spirit of Halloween – will also be in America, just as she does. But how? She faces a challenge when she can’t find turnips which is what they used to carve into jack-o’-lanterns in Ireland. But through making friends with Julia, a girl helping her family with their produce cart, she discovers something new – a pumpkin – that might work just as well, if not better. Soon she has a new story about Jack and Halloween to share with Julia, her siblings, and one day, children all over America.
I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that even this historical fiction fits within your broader literary theme. How long did it take from idea to publication for Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern?
I had the idea and first draft of Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern in 2013, three years before I became a debut author with The William Hoy Story in 2016! I always loved the story, but I couldn’t find the right home for it. Then I started focusing on picture book biographies. I put it aside, but kept coming back to it, tinkering with it, revising it. Finally, after I had published 10 nonfiction books, my editor at Albert Whitman set up a chat to talk about new ideas. This was in 2021. I brought up Lila’s story, which always had a special place in my heart. He was eager to see it. I sent it. He loved it and the book that had been waiting for a home since 2013 was acquired so quickly it felt like a Halloween trick and treat!
That's SO awesome! I guess good things come to 'books' that wait, too! What's something you want your readers to know about Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern?
I want them to know how grateful we should be to immigrants for the gifts they bring us. So many of our favorite celebrations, foods, music, art, life-saving discoveries have come from immigrants. I also want children to know that even as they move to different places and their lives change, while favorite traditions may not be exactly the same as they were, you can make new friends, and you can find ways of blending your new life with your old traditions in a way that may be as or more meaningful than before.
Such a perfect thing to remember these days! Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first saw Anneli Bray’s illustrations in Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern? Which is your favorite spread?
So many favorites! The cover where Lila and the jack-o’-lantern are exchanging glances is magical; it’s a reminder of how real stories can be. The little turnip jack-o’-lantern in Ireland made me giggle. It is so sweet and so is the spread where Lila’s Ma is reassuring her while her sister and brother sleep beside her in bed. That always makes me think of my mother’s stories about how she shared one bed with her two sisters growing up in the Bronx.
Text © Nancy Churnin, 2023. Image © Anneli Bray, 2023.
But the spread that made me tear up the most is the one where Lila meets Julia and you see the name on Julia’s family cart: Levine’s Produce. My grandmother’s father was a businessman and his last name was Levine. My grandmother was so proud of him. My grandmother is no longer with us, but I feel her smiling on the page. And I feel so proud to see a diversity of faces, including Jewish faces, in New York City where my grandparents raised my parents.
What a special tribute! Are there any upcoming projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I am grateful to have many upcoming books to report! You have been kind to feature another interview with me about a book coming out the same time as this one – Mama’s Year with Cancer, co-authored with Shayna Vincent. That is Shayna’s story of living with breast cancer, told from her young daughter’s point of view. It’s the book Shayna wanted in the world to help kids understand what to expect when a parent has cancer.
In November, Valentines for All, Esther Howland Captures America’s Heart takes me back to my picture book biography roots, but with a twist. It’s the true story of Esther Howland, who popularized Valentine Day cards in America in the early 1800s, but it’s punctuated poems that take you inside Esther’s heart. My first board book, Counting on Shabbat, a 48-word rhyming book about a senior who is alone on Shabbat until a young family arrives bringing food and cheer, also comes out in November. I will have more news on two new books in 2024 soon: Rainbow Allies, the True Story of Kids Who Stood against Hate and A Teddy Bear for Emily, both inspired by true stories, one contemporary and one from the past.
I am working on edits for two more books under contract that haven’t been announced yet. And there are more manuscripts in progress. I am truly thankful for the opportunity to do what I love to do.
Such exciting news, Nancy! Look at all those great books. The Mama's Year With Cancer interview with Nancy & Shayna and review will be posted on Wednesday. What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing, publishing, or not?
Follow your heart. Tell the stories that live inside of you, that are kicking and waiting and yearning to breathe on their own. The children’s book world is not a competition. We need all the stories. There will be stories that are for others to tell, but there are also stories that only you can tell in only the way you can tell them. Bring your light to the table with joy and without judgement. Your light may make all the difference in helping someone to see a truth that helps them live a better and more authentic life. Your light may even save a life by giving someone the warmth of being known and loved now or in a future we can only imagine.
Wow - thank you so much for that Nancy! I think you will have touched many and made a difference to many more today with that advice.
Thank you, Nancy for stopping by for this interview. I always enjoy talking with you.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern: Halloween Comes to America.
To find out more about Nancy Churnin, or contact her:
If you're in the Dallas area, check out this awesome upcoming event with Nancy Churnin:
Special Story Time on Saturday, September 30th at 10:30.
5600 W Lovers Ln #142, Dallas, TX 75209
She will read her new book, Lila and the Jack-O'-Lantern.