Churnin, Nancy. Dear Mr. Dickens. Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe. Chicago: Albert Whitman, 2021.
Churnin, Nancy. A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah. Illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg. Creston Books, 2021.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Where do your ideas for books come from?
Nancy Churnin (NC): I have always been fascinated by the legend of the Lamed-Vav–the righteous people in the world who sustain the world in each generation. The Lamed-Vav may not be rich or famous; their deeds may not always get the recognition they deserve. And yet, they sustain the world. I am always looking for stories of people like that, people who may not be rich or famous, or whose deeds may not be well-known, but who have persevered not in search of credit or acclaim, but to heal the world because it’s the right thing to do.
Eliza Davis of Dear Mr. Dickens did not need the world to know of her personal devotion to charitable causes or that she had written to Charles Dickens and changed his heart toward the Jewish people. Seeing Dickens write with more compassion and empathy for the Jewish people which, in turn, led to his readers to be more compassionate and empathetic was all the reward she needed.
Henrietta Szold of A Queen to the Rescue didn’t expect fame or fortune for founding the first night school in America, founding Hadassah, the first charitable organization created and run by women or saving 11,000 children from the Holocaust. In fact, not enough people know she did all this, because her focus was simply to do good–not to talk or write about the good she did. For me, these women are among the Lamed-Vav of the world. It is incredible to think of how much good was generated by their deeds–how many lives were sweetened and saved because of them.
I am driven not only by the desire to shine a light on people who make our world better for generations to come, but also for young readers to see themselves in these subjects. I want them to be inspired to be Lamed-Vav. I want them to think of ways that they could be the Eliza Davis or Henrietta Szold of their generation and put those ideas into action. It’s my dream always that the story doesn’t end on the last page of the book, but it continues into their lives as they consider what they can do to heal and sustain the world.
TWM: What is your writing process? Do you, for instance, research until you feel ready to write? Do you make an outline or dummy?
NC: I research until I stumble upon the heart of the story which, for me, is always the subject’s dream. Instead of telling the full story of someone’s life, I’m telling the story of that person’s dream–the first articulation of the dream, the challenges the person faces in pursuit of that dream and the ultimate realization of the dream. The dream provides the bones, or outline, of the book. Then I dig back into the research to tell the vignettes that make up that journey and look into my heart to share those experiences feel. I rarely start off with a dummy. But when I get lost in the thicket of the research — which happens when you fall in love with a subject that has done as much as Henrietta Szold has–I find a dummy enormously helpful for bringing me back on the path I need to go.
TWM: Why do you write picture books and not longer form nonfiction or novels or verse?
NC: I started off writing picture books because I wanted to connect with young and elementary school readers. My children were young when I began and I was covering children’s books and entertainment for The Dallas Morning News. I was immersed in their perspective, their way of thinking and talking. It took me so many years to master–or feel comfortable with the form–my kids were big by the time my first book came out in 2016, but by that point I simply loved sharing stories with this age group. My mother, now retired, had taught elementary school and it felt as if I was continuing her work but in a classroom without walls. Your question makes me smile though because I recently signed contracts to write my first two chapter book biographies and I am looking forward to stretching in this way–especially because many of the kids at my presentations have asked me when I would have chapter books for them. I am looking forward to being able to bring these on my classroom visits.
TWM: Each book of yours appears to have an angle, a hook, a theme that carries throughout. In A Queen to the Rescue, for instance, you use Queen Esther and Haman. How do you come up with these themes?
NC: When I first got the idea of writing about Henrietta Szold for the TENT program, sponsored by PJ Library at the Yiddish Book Center in 2019, I didn’t understand why there wasn’t a picture book biography about this amazing woman who had accomplished so much. And as I began digging into the research I realized why — because she had accomplished so much that it was hard to convey it all in a picture book! Plus, most of what she had done, she had done as an adult–the first night school in America, founding Hadassah, saving 11,000 children. How could a child relate to this? I revised and revised this manuscript many times, seeking the thread that would entice a child to follow her story. And then a note started hitting me like a musical refrain–Purim.
Henrietta founded Hadassah on Purim. Hadassah is the Hebrew name for Queen Esther. Why do we revere Queen Esther? Because she stood up to a mighty king to save her people. What did Henrietta do all her life? Stand up to mighty forces to save her people–and all people. Plus, Henrietta celebrated Purim as a child. This gave me a thread that started from her childhood and carried through her life. Once I had this, my facts and my title–A Queen to the Rescue–fluttered into place. In the back matter, in the Purim section, you’ll see I discovered that one of the artifacts Henrietta brought back from her trip to Palestine in 1909, three years before she founded Hadassah, was an olive wood Purim scroll that she treasured and would later be featured in an exhibit about her life.
With Dear Mr. Dickens, the theme came more quickly–the importance of speaking up to people in power that have done or said something that needs to be challenged. What is remarkable to me is that both of these books, from different publishers, only accidentally came out in the same year and yet, when you think about it, they are both Queen Esther stories. They are both stories of women speaking up to powerful forces to save their people. They are a reminder that the importance of speaking up and taking action is always important and can take different shape and form in different places and times.
TWM: Both of these books are about women who made a difference. Is that your goal to keep writing about people who make a difference?
NC: I am drawn to the stories of people who heal the world and help make it a better place. I have a couple of manuscripts going to acquisitions in January that are my first to not be picture book biographies. One is historical fiction and the other is a contemporary story, inspired by an actual family facing a difficult challenge together. I also signed a contract for my first board book which is only 50 words. These books are not about people who change the world in the same big way that the subjects of my picture book biographies do. But they are about people that act out of love, friendship and kindness–who have different ways of bring light to the world.
TWM: Please describe your revision process.
NC: I love revising, but it’s an art like kneading bread. You can pound and pummel it, but when you get to the point where you’re not really improving it, you have to put it down and let it rest. I have been amazed at all the solutions to story problems I will find after a month that were not evident to me at the time!
Different manuscripts benefit from different approaches. One constant is that I do have to answer the question of “What’s the dream?”–which also happens to be a line from “The Time of Your Life,” a play by William Saroyan. I have to be able to articulate the dream so I can draw a clear line through the introduction of the dream that means so much to the main character, the journey and, finally, the achievement of the dream which echoes the beginning but in a new and more profound way.
If I feel myself over or underwriting, I create a dummy that sketches out how the story would fall on the pages. Finally, when I’m ready, I share my manuscript with trusted critique partners that can help me see if they’re hearing what I’m trying to say. I am ever mindful of this exchange between a writer and an interviewer asking the writer what a certain passage meant: “When I wrote this, Heaven and I knew what it meant; now, Heaven only knows.” Somewhere, there’s a place in Heaven for passages like that, but not in books for kids where we need to account for every word we put there.
TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring or struggling picture book writers?
NC: Articulate your dream–why do you want to write picture books? Keep that ‘why’ close to your heart and revisit it when you need courage and confidence.
Know yourself as the hero of your own picture book writing journey. View criticisms and rejections as what they are–challenges, like a thorny thicket, that all heroes face on the way to achieving their dreams. Persevere. Like a successful inventor, take each instance of what doesn’t work not as a setback but an advance because you have now eliminated another thing that doesn’t work, which helps get you closer to the thing that will work.
Don’t judge your journey by anyone else’s journey. We don’t really know the full truth of anyone else’s journey–and it is not for us to know that. We need the books that others write, and we should support others in our community, but we need your books, too.
Remember, it’s not about how fast you get to where you need to go. Some books take more time to season and deepen. Dear Mr. Dickens took eight years from conception to publication; A Queen to the Rescue took two. It takes as long as it takes. Writing is not a race and not a competition. Own your journey with pride. Enjoy the ups and downs, learn from them and know that the rejections you will one day share from today may encourage young people to continue despite the rejections they get tomorrow.
Don’t worry about the books other people are publishing or how many they’re publishing. The people who get to where they need to go are the ones that don’t give up. You should work on your craft–but no matter how much you know, there is no magic wand for anyone. Everyone faces the humbling, crappy first draft. Unless you are rewriting the same book over and over, every book presents fresh sets of challenges and discoveries that require us to stretch and grow. As Ms. Frizzle in The Magic School Bus says: “Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy!” And keep writing. We are waiting for your books.
For more about Nancy Churnin, please visit her website.