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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Nancy Churnin and Review of Counting on Shabbat

Nancy Churnin writes beautiful nonfiction picture book biographies on little known individuals or those with little known stories.

Author Photo of Nancy Churnin.

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.

Collage of Nancy's book covers.

Nancy is the author of 16 books, including Mama’s Year With Cancer (2023), Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern (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).


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


Her debut board book, Counting on Shabbat, releases on November 7th.


​​Welcome back Nancy,


What made you decide to write a board book? How different was the writing and/or publishing of Counting on Shabbat than your picture book manuscripts?

Book cover - family and a cat gathered around a table.

Counting on Shabbat clocks in at 48 words, which makes it a lot shorter than my picture books. It rhymes, which my picture books don’t. But most importantly, it challenged me to think in pictures and include art notes that I anchored in text. For instance, on the very first page, all the text says is: “One table dressed in white.” The art note elaborated that a senior, who was alone in his house (except, we later learn, for four kittens), had put a white tablecloth on the table to prepare for Shabbat.

Definitely sounds different from creating picture books. What was your inspiration or spark of interest for Counting on Shabbat?


My mother, who turns 98 on November 21, lives alone in her home (with the help of loving and attentive caregivers). I was thinking about how busy with people my mother’s life was, from growing up as one of four kids in a house without enough bedrooms or beds, to being a married woman, a teacher, a mother, an aunt, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, the person whose home was the center of all our family celebrations. A lot of that noise disappeared in her eighties, particularly after my father passed away. Like so many seniors, her life became quiet. In that quiet I could see how much the visits from family and friends brightened her days.


So, I thought how I wanted to tell a simple story of a senior who is alone, celebrating Shabbat, which Jewish families do every Friday at sunset through Saturday at sunset, and the joy it brings when a family comes to visit with food and cheer. I hope that this simple story inspires kids and families to remember our seniors and to visit and bring them food and cheer, too.


Such a wonderful thing to share with young kids. What was the toughest part of writing for Counting on Shabbat? How hard was it to perfect the rhyme?


I struggled with the rhyme! It looks so simple and obvious now, but I wrote this over and over, struggling with the meter and searching for just the right words. I took Rene LaTulippe’s online class, Lyrical Language Lab, and joined a rhyming critique group. I want to give a shout-out to critique members Natalee Creech, Marty LaPointe-Malchik, Colleen Murphy, Nancy Derek Riley and Joyce Schriebman for their patience, encouragement, and great notes as I went through version after version of this.


Rhyme can be so tough. But it's amazing when it actually all comes together. We often focus on what was hard about putting together the research and writing of a book. So, what was the most fun or fascinating part of writing Counting on Shabbat?


The part I enjoyed most craft-wise was the puzzle-solving element. I wanted the structure of a one to ten counting book. I wanted to keep the word count low. I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to rhyme. And I wanted to convey and encourage kindness. I had to do a lot of rearranging, rethinking, and revising to make all those pieces fit!


The other thing about this book that surprised and has filled my heart is to see how it has been embraced by a secular audience. The book doesn’t come out until November 7, and I have already presented it to three public schools. The teachers told me they were drawn to the message of kindness and that they wanted their students to learn about the Jewish weekly holiday of Shabbat. Also wonderful, every place I’ve presented it, the children have created letters of cheer to deliver to seniors. I am looking forward to presenting it at the New York City Jewish Book Festival November 19 and the Dallas Jewish Bookfest December 10.


I'm glad it's getting such a wonderful reception. Did it take about the same amount of time to publish Counting on Shabbat as it did your picture books?

This was one of my faster projects. I got the idea after attending a couple of workshops. One was offered by PJ Library, a wonderful non-profit dedicated to putting Jewish books in children’s hands; Jewish families with young children that sign up for PJ Library receive free books every month. At that workshop, I learned that PJ Library had a need for board books, something I had never tried before but wanted to attempt. Then I attended an SCBWI-Israel workshop that featured a panel of Jewish children’s book publishers. I was able to get a one-on-one with Joni Sussman, the publisher of Kar-Ben Publishing, an imprint of Lerner Books. I shared my idea for Counting on Shabbat with her. She encouraged me to send her the manuscript. I did and she accepted it soon afterwards.


Wow, that's wonderful. Is there something you want your readers to know about Counting on Shabbat?


It is my dream that this book will bring seniors and little ones together, that it will provide a mirror for those senior/toddler/child relationships that I think we should nurture. I created a project for this book called Counting on Kindness.

Stack of kids letters to seniors.

Everywhere I present the book, I ask kids to write letters of cheer as the children in the book do and to bring those letters to a senior center. If I have permission to share pictures of those letters or any kind things that children do for seniors, I share them on my Counting on Shabbat page on my website: https://www.nancychurnin.com/counting-on-shabbat. As more pictures come in, I will create a separate Counting on Kindness page.


I love that project idea. Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first saw Petronela Dostalova’s illustrations in Counting on Shabbat? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal spread - on left an older man putting pictures on a fridge. On the right, the family gathers around the table.

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2023. Image © Petronela Dostalova, 2023.


I adore Petronela Dostalova’s illustrations! The kittens crack me up – they have so much personality! Also, I have two cats who are very annoyed when I create books without cats, so I figure I built up some credit by featuring four in one book. But my favorite illustrations are the final ones because I can feel the joy of Petronela’s pictures in this celebration where the greatest presents that this family has brought to this senior are the gifts of their presence.


I love all the pictures on the fridge and the smiles as they gather at the table. Are there any upcoming projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I have two new picture books coming in 2024, in addition to a story in a 2024 middle grade anthology, tentatively titled Festival of Lights (edited by Henry L. Herz, Albert Whitman) which marks my debut middle grade publication.

Book cover - three kids on a bike, skates,  and scooter waving pride flags.

Rainbow Allies, the True Story of Kids Who Stood Against Hate (illustrated by Izzy Evans, Beaming Books) is the story of kids who wanted to help a beloved couple in their neighborhood when that couple returned home to find their house egged and their Pride flag torn down. I hope their solution will inspire other children to be allies, too.


A Teddy Bear for Emily and President Roosevelt (illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman) is historical fiction about the very real Emily Michtom, who was nine when her parents, Jewish immigrants living in Brooklyn, designed the first “Teddy’s Bear” to thank the kind President Theodore Roosevelt who spared a bear on his hunting trip.


I also have a new board book scheduled for a January 2026 release, but I can’t share details until it is announced.


These books sound amazing. Good luck with your board book and we'll keep our eyes open for these books. Thank you, Nancy, for stopping by. I always enjoy talking with you.


Thank YOU, Maria. I always enjoy talking with you!


To find out more about Nancy Churnin, or contact her:


Review of Counting on Shabbat


The talented Nancy Churnin has created a wonderful, rhyming board book on Shabbat, the joy of family, and sharing kindness.

Book cover - family and a cat gathered around a table.

Counting on Shabbat


Author: Nancy Churnin


Illustrator: Petronela Dostalova


Publisher: Kar Ben Publishers (2023)


Ages: Baby - 4


Fiction


Themes:

Counting, Shabbat, family, and older relatives.


Synopsis:

Shabbat brings 1 table, 2 candles, and 3 braids in the challah, kittens waiting to be fed, friends knocking at the door, smiles all around, and more. Count from 1 to 10 as you get ready for Shabbat.


Opening Lines:

1 table draped in white

2 candles set to light


What I LOVED about this book:

This is such a great book for little kids counting from one to ten. Starting with the beginning of an evening and setting the table...

Interna; spread - older man setting a table.

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2023. Image © Petronela Dostalova, 2023.


then feeding four kittens and welcoming a wonderfully diverse family to share Shabbat.

Internal Spread - on left wmona, man, and three kids. On right, old man setting out glasses  and three kids making drawings.

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2023. Image © Petronela Dostalova, 2023.


Much as I would love to show more spreads or discuss it more, as a board book, which counts to ten, these are all the images I can show you. But trust me, the rest of the book is just as adorable and Nancy's rhyme is simple but spot on. It's a sweet introduction for little kids to Shabbat and the joy that family brings to us all.


Resources:

- make a special drawing or painting and send it to a family member.

- can you find and count the items in the pictures? Where are all the ten smiles?

- with permission, please send photos of your acts of kindness to those who are elderly or alone and we will post them on the COUNTING ON KINDNESS page on nancychurnin.com

- check out a free teacher guide for the book.

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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