Nancy Churnin’s book, THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, is one of my very favorite picture book biographies of all time. So when she joined my 20/20 Vision Picture Book group I was thrilled! Welcome to Writers’ Rumpus, Nancy!
Kirsti Call: Your book, BEAUTIFUL SHADES OF BROWN: THE ART OF LAURA WHEELER WARING is a powerful story of following your dreams and breaking racial boundaries. What inspired you to write the book?
Nancy Churnin: One of my missions is to shine a light on people that have made a positive difference in the world, people that kids might not know about otherwise. I’d been wondering why I wasn’t seeing more biographies of painters of color or women painters. And then, as it so often happens with me, I was struck by an image I found — a regal portrait of Marian Anderson in a long red gown, thoughtful, full of feeling, looking as if she was just about to sing. Who painted this, I wondered. When I saw the name, Laura Wheeler Waring, I wondered why hadn’t I heard of this magnificent artist before? I looked up everything I could find about her and found very limited information! I reached out to the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which have her paintings in their collection. They were incredibly helpful and put me in touch with her heir, Madeline Murphy Rabb, who was also supportive, helping me to chase down answers I could find nowhere else. As I gathered information, I was struck by how she was not only an extraordinary artist, but how she had used an exploration of the brown palette in a revolutionary way to both artistic and political effect. Her grandparents and parents had fought for civil rights. Laura wasn’t comfortable with the spotlight or speaking in public. But she found her own way to make a powerful difference in the fight for equality. She used her paintbrush in a wordless case against segregation and discrimination. She fought for racial equality by creating portraits of brilliant and accomplished African Americans of her time. More subtly, but also profoundly, the colorist skills she developed and used, showing the rainbow of variations in the color brown, not only illustrated the beautiful variety in that color that contains so many others, but reminded us that people of color are not a monolithic group. In fact, the larger point that comes home is that none of us belong to a monolithic group. We are each individuals and at the same time intertwined with tints of common colors, like traits, overlapping and harmonizing in unexpected ways. We are all diverse and unique, yet connected with much more in common than what is different, and that is what makes the world beautiful.
KC: How did you choose which details to include?
NC: That is always the most challenging part of writing picture books for me! In earlier versions, I included more about her parents and grandparents. But ultimately, with the guidance of trusted critique partners and my editor, Marissa Moss of Creston Books, I realized I had to keep the spotlight on Laura and trust her to shine the light on her own story. Like a painter who must imply rather than paint every leaf on a tree, I kept my focus on her journey as the child who saw the beauty in her family members and community and wanted them to see that beauty, too, to the woman who helped a new generation and generations to come see the beauty in themselves and their larger community. I would like to add here that Felicia Marshall, our illustrator who, to me, has channeled the spirit of Laura Wheeler Waring, was very moved and influenced by the photo of the little girl that looked up in awe at the portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama in the National Portrait Gallery — which is where you will find many of Laura Wheeler Waring’s paintings as well. Look closely at Felicia’s final spread and you’ll see an homage to that image with the unspoken message of what representation can mean to kids and, indeed, to us all.
KC: What did you learn from your research for this book?
NC: I learned that there are many ways to fight for what’s right and each way deserves honor and respect. Laura Wheeler Waring painted her beliefs. And she made a difference. The Harmon Collection of paintings of African Americans, which featured many of her works, began its tour in 1944 and changed hearts and minds in advance of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling for the integration of public schools in 1954. The correlation was so strong that the exhibit stopped touring after the ruling with the idea that the exhibit’s mission had been achieved. Of course, looking back, we realize the enormity of how much more needed to be done — there are so many injustices with which we’re still grappling. I hope remembering Laura Wheeler Waring will inspire kids not only because of her genius as an artist, but as a reminder that there are many ways to fight for what’s right and that the paintbrush, like the pen, can be mightier than the sword. I hope she will inspire kids to find their own ways to fight for what’s right.
KC: What else are you working on?
NC: I am very excited about my next book, FOR SPACIOUS SKIES: KATHARINE LEE BATES AND THE INSPIRATION FOR “AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL.” Most kids know the song “America the Beautiful,” but few know that it was written by a woman. They also don’t know that that woman lived through the Civil War as a little girl, that she became a suffragette and lived to cast a vote, that she went to college and became a professor, chairman of the English department at Wellesley, author and editor at a time when women were discouraged from getting an education and wrote this song as a prayer that it would help bind the wounds of a warring nation, reminding all Americans that we are one family from sea to shining sea. The book comes out April 1 from Albert Whitman. The year marks the 100th anniversary of when Katharine and American women cast their first votes, with breathtaking illustrations by Olga Baumert that will make you marvel at those purple mountain majesties.
KC: What is your advice for aspiring authors?
NC: Don’t give up. Learn from criticism; don’t let it beat you down. Just as your main character is the hero of his or her own journey, you are the hero or heroine of your own writing journey. As in any quest, there will be times when prospects for success seem bleak, when the challenges seem overwhelming, when you feel abandoned and alone (even though you are never truly alone and support is there if you reach out for it). But the only ones who fail are the ones that give up. My first book took 13 years. Some books have taken a matter of months, but others continue to take years. Each one takes as long as it takes. Keep the faith and you will get where you need to be when you need to get there. You never know what you are learning from your journey — including the difficulties — and how that may deepen your art and make it better and, ultimately, more powerful and lasting.
KC: Thank you Nancy! I loved learning more about your writing journey! All of Nancy’s books come with a project. The project for BEAUTIFUL SHADES OF BROWN is Paint Your World. She would love art teachers and families to send her art by kids of people in their family and community so we can all celebrate how beautiful they are. Here’s a link to the page for this project:
Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of eight picture book biographies including BEAUTIFUL SHADES OF BROWN: THE ART OF LAURA WHEELER WARING; IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING, a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable and National Council for the Social Studies Notable; MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN, winner of the South Asia Book Award and the Anne Izard Storytellers Choice Award and a Junior Library Guild selection; and THE WILLIAM HOY STORY: HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME, on multiple state reading lists. A former theater critic for The Dallas Morning News and the Los Angeles Times, Nancy is a full-time children’s book writer living in North Texas with her husband, Dallas Morning News arts writer Michael Granberry, a dog named Dog and two cantankerous cats.