CAROL GORDON EKSTER: I just love social media. I connected with Nancy when we both had picture book birthdays on the same day, September 1, 2017. Her book was the beautifully written Manjhi Moves a Mountain, with Creston Books.
I messaged Nancy to ask about a future interview. She generously sent me her two newest picture books, Charlie Takes His Shot, Albert Whitman, January 2018 and Irving Berlin:The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, Creston Books, May 2018 (which gave me goosebumps!) and they are both mentor texts for any #kidlit writer who wants to both inspire and model amazing picture book biography texts. Here’s the interview:
Nancy, tell us how you came to writing and about your path to publication.
NANCY CHURNIN: In my work as theater critic for The Dallas Morning News, I interviewed Allen Meyer, the co-writer of ‘The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy,’ a play being produced by a high school in Garland, Texas. I was fascinated to learn that a Deaf baseball player, William Hoy, taught umpires the signals we still use today so he could play the game he loved. After the story ran, I received a thank you from Steve Sandy in Ohio. I wrote him he was welcome, but why was someone in Ohio interested in a play at a Texas high school? Steve explained that he was Deaf, a friend of the Hoy family and dedicated to spreading the word about this great Deaf hero. It seized me, then and there, that Hoy’s story should be a children’s book and that the children would help spread the word. I asked Steve if he would help me with the research and he said yes. It’s been incredible not only to see Steve and his lovely wife, Bonnie, so happy with the book, but the Hoy family and many people in both the hearing and the Deaf communities, too.
CGE: What inspired you to write picture book biographies? And you write so tightly with fabulous verbs, can you describe your process?
NC: After The William Hoy Story, I thought about all the other inspiring people whose stories the kids (and adults!) don’t know about yet. I began searching. I found an article about Manjhi, a man who spent 22 years chiseling a path through a 300-foot mountain so that the children in his village could get to school, the sick could get to a doctor and others could get to work or to the market more easily. That became my next book.
Then I thought about all the books on Jackie Robinson and wondered about other African American athletes who broke down barriers. I found the story of Charlie Sifford, a friend of Jackie Robinson, who was the first African American to play on the PGA Tour, and that became Charlie Takes His Shot.
Irving Berlin is the most famous person I’ve written about, but I learned on my school visits that the kids had no idea who had written “God Bless America,” much less that this patriotic song was written by an immigrant who came to America as a five-year-old refugee who didn’t have a penny in his pocket or speak a word of English.
As for the verbs, I’ve learned that they are a picture book writer’s best friends. Illustrators render most adjectives redundant. But verbs are all about action and doing. Kids’ minds and hearts are active, they want to go go go with you and verbs are the vehicles that take them on the ride.
CGE: What is your writing schedule like?
NC: Because I have a full-time job as a journalist, I fit in my children’s book writing as I have time. But even when I am doing other work, my subjects are busy in my heart and mind. I am most productive in the morning, so I try to do my children’s book writing before my workday begins. And if I have inspiration at night, I’ll write then, too. I trust that each thing will come in the proper time and there will be a proper time for each thing.
CGE: Tell us some of the highs and lows in your life as a children’s author.
NC: There are so many highs! Having a publisher say yes, getting to the end of the editing process feeling that every word shines and is just where it needs to be to have the most powerful impact, watching the illustrations come in to surprise and delight with a fresh and joyful perspective, holding a finished book in your hands and, best of all, sharing a book with children. The moment when you are reading to children and you can feel a story planting seeds in the soul is the most rewarding and humbling of feelings. It fills me with gratitude. It’s why I do what I do.
Compared to the highs, the lows are laughable – mostly they involve having an idea that just won’t translate to paper the way I see it or feel it inside. And yet I know that as long as there’s life, there’s a chance to keep working on that idea and bring it to life.
CGE: What does the future hold for Nancy Churnin?
NC: I hope to continue writing stories that will inspire and delight children and, I hope, open their minds to the idea that heroes and heroines are found everywhere, including inside them and that what it takes to make a difference is a vision or a dream and the willingness to persevere to bring it to reality. I also have some ideas for longer, possibly middle grade or young adult books that I would love to explore. Words open the doors to other worlds and in the future I look forward to visiting many, many more of those worlds.
CGE: Thank you, Nancy, for your inspiration and incredible books that I know will touch many lives.
You can connect with Nancy here: