The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank together?
Nancy Churnin (NC): Sometimes I feel as if I’m being guided to where I need to go. I was looking up people born in 1929 because I was suddenly seized with curiosity about that year, which is, also, the year of the Great Depression. I was surprised at first to see both Dr. King and Anne Frank born in that year. Then I started thinking about these two great spirits. I began to think how amazing it was that two people so different on the outside could be so similar on the inside. Faced with hate, they responded with love and left us with words that inspire us today. Their common message was about our common humanity. It seemed fitting for them to be in a book together. Even though they didn’t get to meet in real life, they could enjoy being side by side in this book as the kindred spirits that they are.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
NC: The greatest challenge was finding balance: balance between Martin and Anne as I moved back and forth with their parallel stories. There is so much to say about each of them. I had to carefully distill the essence of their stories to the parts that were parallel. I also had to balance between tragedy and hope. I knew I shouldn’t soften the terrible things that happened, but I also didn’t want to burden kids with more sadness than they can process. I am very grateful to the book’s wonderful illustrator, Yevgenia Nayberg, who found ways to capture a somber mood. One of her many brilliant spreads is the one where the Nazis storm Anne’s hiding place. She hits the emotions hard with brown storm clouds, scattered pages and a house askew, without terrifying children by showing them faces that might haunt them.
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
NC: I read it for the first time to classes who requested it as part of World Read Aloud Day. While I’ve always been happy at the response to my books, I have never before experienced such stillness as I read. I offer a free teacher guide and create a project for each book, with a page set aside on my website for kids to share their participation. Teachers and students, too, seem taken with the project for Martin & Anne. It’s called Kindred Spirits. I’m asking kids, classrooms and schools to partner with kids, classrooms and schools in another part of their neighborhood, city, state or even in another country and have the kids explore their differences and celebrate the ways in which they’re the same.
TWM: Who inspires you?
NC: I am inspired by Dr. King and Anne Frank. They say children learn what they live. But no matter how ugly the world around them became, no matter what terrible things were said and done to Dr. King and Anne Frank, and those they loved, they responded with faith that people were good at heart, with a belief so strong and so true that we cannot help but heed their words and believe in our own power to love, heal and, to paraphrase Dr. King, help the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice. I am inspired by all the people I write about because I only choose to write about people who inspire me that I think will inspire children. I am also inspired by my parents, my late father, Douglas Churnin, and my mother, Flora Churnin, a retired teacher, who, along with my sister, Dr. Sharon Churnin, reads every draft of every revision of every manuscript I write. My parents raised me in a world of books and love. They instilled in me the belief that we are here for a reason and that reason is to make the world a better place. My siblings and I have each done what we can, in our own ways, to repair the world. I am inspired, too, by my kind husband and my sweet sons who are growing up to be young men that I believe will be doing what they can to make the world a better place, too.
TWM: Your book’s dedication mentions Bialystok. Can you say more about that?
NC: Both my maternal grandparents grew up in Bialystok, Poland. My grandmother’s family had the money to leave before the Nazi invasion. My grandfather’s parents were poor. While my grandfather, one of his brothers and his sister escaped, by grandfather and his sister settling in America, my uncle in Israel, his parents, twin brothers, their wives and children stayed behind. They were there when the Nazis marched through their village, rounded all the Jewish people in the synagogue and burned it to the ground on June 27, 1941. My late Uncle Reuven who went to Israel learned the details from one man who escaped when my great grandmother encouraged him to climb on her back to reach the vent in the ceiling. My mother has been haunted all her life by this. She named my brother for the murdered twin brothers. Later, my brother had twin boys and named them for our great-uncles. We all have different ways to remember. The important thing is to remember because memory is stronger than death. I want to give respect and honor to all whose lives were cut short (and I am thinking of everyone everywhere from Holocaust victims in Europe to those murdered and lynched in the United States). Evoking their memory brings gives them a place to live and breathe in our consciousness. The dedication is written with faith that love lives on.
TWM: What do you want kids to take away from this book?
NC: I want kids to see that hate and prejudice is wrong no matter who it is directed against. We shouldn’t discriminate because of skin color, religion, sexual orientation, gender identification, country of origin, legal status in a country or any other reason. Sadly, discrimination can happen at any time and in any place as evidenced in this story that goes back and forth from Europe to America in the early 20th century. Persecution often becomes acute in times of economic insecurity such as the Great Depression when people try to assuage fears by attacking the vulnerable in their community. But a mix of ignorance and failure to empathize with others can cause it to happen anytime and anywhere. I hope kids will feel protective of Martin and Anne and try to protect others as we should have protected them with the hope that more people can reach their 90th birthdays as Martin and Anne did not. I hope kids who feel the sting of discrimination will know their value as Martin and Anne did and have hearts big enough to respond with love instead of hate, so we can break the cycle of intolerance and work together to heal the world.
TWM: What are your promotional plans?
NC: I am very grateful to you, Barbara, for featuring Martin & Anne in The Whole Megillah. It was such a joy to share Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing with you here last year! I will have a launch party for Martin & Anne at Interabang Books, an independent bookstore in Dallas where even if you are ordering out of town, you can request autographed copies and I will sign and personalize them before they’re shipped out. I will be signing Martin & Anne in the Authors Area of the Texas Library Association at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, TX April 16 and 17. I will be participating in a TLA panel on Empowering Students with Empathy and Social Responsibility Using Kidlit on April 18. I will present Martin & Anne at the Ruby Bridges Reading Festival at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN May 18. And I’m looking forward to signing Martin & Anne at the Association of Jewish Libraries conference in San Fernando Valley, CA., where we will also celebrate my book Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing winning a 2019 Sydney Taylor Notable Award as well as a 2019 Social Studies Notable for Trade Books for Young People. I’ll sign at the American Library Association convention in Washington D.C. also in June. I’ve been talking with the Anne Frank Center about sharing the book as part of their wonderful tour of Letters from Anne & Martin—the timing of their show and my book is incredible. And I hope to be popping up in as many blogs and school presentations as I can!
TWM: What’s next for you?
NC: My seventh picture book biography, Beautiful Shades of Brown, the story of early 20th-Century African American painter Laura Wheeler Waring and her determination to see her portraits of great African Americans hang on museum walls, is being illustrated with a planned release date of 2020. I am finishing up edits on my eighth picture book biography, which is about Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote “America the Beautiful” to try to bring a divided country together. That book, For Spacious Skies, is scheduled for 2020. And I’m busy working on other manuscripts in various states of development. I left my job at The Dallas Morning News in January and am devoting myself full-time to children’s book writing and presentations. This is the year I’m trying to be brave like the people I write about!