March 03

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The Kindred Spirits of Nancy Churnin by Gary Anderson

Since Nancy Churnin’s publication debut, The William Hoy Story in 2016, she has consistently produced high-quality, award-winning picture book biographies.  Manjhi Moves a Mountain; Charlie Takes His Shot; Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing; and The Queen and The First Christmas Tree comprise a remarkable body of work produced in a relatively short time.  Nancy also frequently visits schools where her enthusiastic persona and love of young readers inspire students (and teachers) to move beyond her books to take action that makes a difference in the world.

Nancy Churnin’s newest book is Martin & Anne:  The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank (Creston Books), a captivating dual biography illuminating parallel aspects of two of the Twentieth Century’s most compelling voices.  I’m honored that Nancy agreed to participate in an email interview to tell Nerdy Book Club members about her work.

When talking to authors of books for young readers, I always wonder what you all were like as children?  So, what can you tell us about what you were like as a young reader?  What were the books of your childhood?  Is any of that still with you as an author of children’s books?

I dedicated my first  book, The William Hoy Story, to my parents for bringing me up in a world of books and love. My parents grew up during the time of the Great Depression and when they got married they had very little money. The first thing they bought as a couple was the book, Tomorrow Will Be Better by Betty Smith. Over the years, they added many books to their collection. We had one room that I learned years later had been designed as a dining room. That became our library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and comfortable chairs to sit and read everything you could imagine: children’s books, poetry, classics, history, fiction, non-fiction. Of course, that was not enough for me. I had to have shelves in my bedroom too, and soon the books were overflowing there. The first book I remember my mother reading to me was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. My mother wanted to take off on Sundays, so we made a deal that she would read me an extra chapter on Saturdays. I also loved walking to our local library on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. I’ll never forget the day the librarian said she had a book she knew I would love. She told me the title and I was confused because the title made no sense! But I trusted her and I’m glad I did, because that book was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I had to read everything by C.S. Lewis after that. In fact, from that point on, once I fell in love with an author’s work, I had to read everything that author wrote. I was omnivorous in what I liked, and I read Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Butler Yeats, plays by Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, anything and everything I found on the shelves at home and my local library. My father passed away a few years ago. My mother still keeps Tomorrow Will Be Better by her bedside.

Your career as a writer has had many chapters.  What brought you to writing for young people?

In 2003, I was intrigued by a play that Garland High School in Texas was staging called The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy, about the 19th-century deaf baseball player, William Hoy, who had taught umpires sign language, including signals we still use today, so he could play the game he loved. I interviewed the co-playwright, Allen Meyer and wrote a story for The Dallas Morning News. I received a thank-you email from Steve Sandy in Ohio. Puzzled, I thanked him and asked him why someone in Ohio was interested in a play in a high school in Garland. Steve told me he is Deaf, a friend of the Hoy family, and dedicated to spreading the word about this great deaf hero. Steve and I became friends over email and the more I learned about Hoy, the more I became determined to help Steve’s dream of making Hoy well known come true. I offered to write a children’s book if Steve would help me with the research. Steve shared photos, letters, family photos, newspaper articles from the 19th century and gave me an education in what it meant to be deaf in that century and today. While I had always dreamed of writing children’s books, what I slowly learned is that I needed to learn a lot more about the craft to write a successful one. I signed up for every online class, challenge and critique opportunity I could and revised, revised and revised. Finally, through joining 12X12, which gave me an opportunity to submit to an agent, I sent a new version of The William Hoy Story to Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary who became my agent in 2013. In 2014, she sold The William Hoy Story to Wendy McClure of Albert Whitman & Company. It had been a long journey, but a joyful one, made sweeter by the way Steve, the Hoy family, members of the Deaf community, and Deaf and hearing children took the book to their hearts. I had an aha! moment where I thought there but be a lot of people like Hoy who had not yet gotten a spotlight they deserve. I decided I wanted to write about people that the kids don’t know about yet — that I didn’t know very much about yet — that would inspire them and inspire me, people who persevered against the odds to achieve their dreams and made the world a better place. That’s how I began writing picture book biographies.  It has been extremely gratifying watching the kids’ eyes light up as they welcome these great spirits into their hearts.

Martin & Anne is a dual biography of two iconic figures.  How were the parallels in the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank revealed to you?

What interests me even more than what someone does with his or her life is what is in his or her heart, what that person aims to do. What caught my breath and filled me with wonder is how both Dr. King and Anne Frank responded to the hatred and cruelty they faced from the time they were born. It would have been understandable if they answered hate with hate. Instead, incredibly, they maintained faith and love in humanity. Both believed in justice and kindness and the essential goodness of the human spirit. Until I wrote this book, I’d dedicated myself to telling stories about people kids would not otherwise know. But sometimes I find myself directed where I’m supposed to go, with my heart telling me what I’m supposed to do. The idea for this book started in 2017, when I was looking up people who would turn 90 in 2019. I was surprised at first to see Dr. King and Anne Frank both born in 1929. But then, the more I thought about them,  the more I realized how similar their spirits were. The differences of gender, faith, race, language, and country seemed superficial compared to the words they left to inspire us. Then I thought about how polarized our world had become, with people putting themselves and others in boxes, walling themselves off to anyone who seemed different, feeling fear and anger for those who seemed unfamiliar. And it came to me how important it was to point out the connection between these two people to kids. It was important to see, in the words of The Little Prince, that the “essential is invisible to the eyes” and how alike Dr. King and Anne Frank were in what is truly essential. I hope Martin & Anne will encourage kids and those of all ages to consider how underneath differences of gender, faith, race, language and country, how alike we may be, how we may all have kindred spirits whose hearts beat with the same beliefs in our common humanity.

 What about Martin & Anne do you hope will appeal to readers?

I hope that Martin & Anne will allow them to see these two iconic people in a fresh way. By starting with each of them as babies and showing their parallel journeys, I hope the book will help readers see them as people not unlike themselves which then, opens the door to the possibility of the reader making similar decisions about how to respond to and live in the world. I hope that by focusing on what they have in common, it will give readers of different races, faiths, genders, who speak different languages or come from different countries, different ways into the story, that they will see that the story of Dr. King and Anne Frank is not a story for one particular group, but for everyone.

Near the end of Martin & Anne you write, “Martin and Anne were born in different places, but they both dreamed that one day all babies would be seen as beautiful.  As all babies are.”  What do you think Martin and Anne would think about our progress on this dream of theirs?

It is easy to be discouraged about our progress when we measure it against where we want to be. And yet I am reminded by what Dr. King said:  “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I am not suggesting we should be patient with injustice. We should not. It is incumbent on all of us to do what we can every day to do, what we call in Hebrew, tikkun olam, to repair the world. In the words of Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” We still have a long way to go on the road to where we should be, but the fact that a book like this is finding a warm welcome — a book that lauds and connects a person of color with someone who is Jewish — shows we are in a much better place than we were in their lifetimes, when being a person of color or being Jewish put people at risk. I hope with all my heart that kids and all adults will extend this thinking beyond color and religion to see how wrong it is to persecute people for any accident of birth, from sexual orientation to gender identification to their country of origin.

The biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne necessarily include some terrible events.  How did you think about presenting the violent aspects of these stories in ways that are okay for kids?

That was a challenging question to address. I wanted to acknowledge the gravity of the hate and danger they faced, but not overwhelm kids with fears too big to process. I kept the wording simple, but clear. At the start, I talked about the rejections they faced through a child’s perspective. When Martin’s friend stops playing with him after they start going to segregated schools, Martin thinks: “That made no sense!” When Jewish people are not allowed to go school with non-Jewish children, I write about Anne, “Suddenly, her friends didn’t want to play with her anymore.” Later, as their lives are cut short, I am, I hope, clear, but I don’t elaborate with details that will put terrifying images in children’s minds: “The Nazis stormed Anne’s hiding place.” There were arrests. The pages of the diary are strewn on the floor. Later, she dies, along with her older sister. And then we move quickly to the survival of her father and the immortality of the words she writes in her diary. Similarly, the line about Dr. King being killed is immediately followed by “…no one could kill the way Martin inspired others.” I learned from J.K. Rowling and others you don’t serve kids by pretending that death and terrible things don’t exist. But I also learned that you need to share this information in a way that won’t overwhelm children but help them better navigate their world. I hope I have achieved that.

 

 

Sometimes authors and illustrators work closely together in the development of a project; sometimes they work relatively separately.  What can you tell us about working on Martin & Anne with illustrator Yevgenia Nayberg? What do her pictures evoke for you?

Editors are responsible for choosing the illustrator. I have been lucky to work with two amazing editors, Wendy McClure at Albert Whitman and Marissa Moss at Creston Books, which is distributed by Lerner Books. Marissa acquired and edited Martin & Anne and chose Yevgenia Nayberg to illustrate. Marissa made a brilliant choice. You have asked about the challenge of presenting violent aspects of the stories in ways that are okay for kids. It is challenging for the writer, but perhaps even more so for the illustrator. Yevgenia’s style has a magical surrealism to it, with hints of Marc Chagall, that captures emotions while leaving much to the imagination. I wondered how she was going to handle the spread where the Nazis storm the attic where Anne hid. Her approach stunned me with its perfection. Instead of giving us terrified faces that might haunt young readers, she created a double spread of storm clouds in somber browns, with scattered diary pages and a house askew in a corner. She said everything she needed to say with her art. She did not soften the horror, but she took away the specificity that might have made it overwhelm.

I was thrilled when you agreed to work with me on a panel last fall for the National Council of Teachers of English convention in Houston.  You and the other distinguished panelists discussed “Building Persistence with Picture Book Biographies.”  Each of your books focuses on an individual who accomplishes amazing things after overcoming obstacles.  What can you tell educators and parents about helping young people develop persistence?

Nancy Churnin (right) interacts with teachers at the National Council of Teachers of English convention in Houston, Texas in November, 2018.

I was honored that you invited me to be on that panel with you and the other writers that I admire so much! I believe with my whole heart that every new life is a gift that comes with a dream, unique to that person, that the world needs to get us to where we need to go. The question I always ask the kids is if a particular character is the biggest and strongest. Together, we shake our heads no. Then I ask where that person was strong. We press our fists to our chests and together we say in his or her heart. And I ask, “Where can we all be strong?” And together we say, in our hearts. What I tell the kids and what I truly believe is that we can all be strong in our hearts. We need to listen to the dreams that are deep inside. We need to be strong and withstand outer voices that may laugh or tell us we can’t do this or that because it has never been done and we are too this or too that or not enough this or not enough that to succeed. We need to remember if we hold fast to our dreams and persevere we will get where we need to go. It may not happen in a day or a week or a month or a year or ten years. But as long as we don’t give up, we don’t fail. I remind them of the journeys of William Hoy, of Manjhi, Charlie Sifford, Irving Berlin, Martin & Anne and even Queen Charlotte, who was mocked in the English court for devoting herself to charitable causes rather than dressing up and going to fancy balls. I hope these stories will give them courage as they persevere. I am reminded of the final walk that Harry Potter takes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and I think how it encourages and strengthens Harry to know that he has the ghostly apparitions of people who believe in him and love him by his side on his final walk to his greatest and most difficult quest. I like to think that books can do that for kids — be comforting companions that give them the strength to persevere by filling them with nourishing examples of courage. I believe that books and the characters that live inside their pages can send the message that they believe in them and love them and that their dreams, too, can come true. I believe that because all my life that’s what books have done for me.

What else do you want to do as a writer?

I left my full-time job at The Dallas Morning News in January and will be able to work full-time as a children’s book writer going forward. I have many more picture book biographies I want to write, but I would also like to plunge into middle grade and, perhaps, young adult books. I have ideas in mind and plots I’ve hammered out that I look forward to writing. I’m always encouraging kids to believe in themselves and to take chances. This is my year to see how well I can practice what I preach by believing in my ability to tackle and take chances with different kinds of stories that require different storytelling styles. I also look forward to doing more presentations and sharing books with children in person. There’s nothing like sharing books with kids to remind you why you do what you do and why it matters.

Several of your books have real-world projects that are inspired by the life story of the book’s subject.  Will Martin & Anne have an initiative like that, and how can we can find out more about it?

All of my books come with free Teacher Guides and projects and I am very excited about the project for Martin & Anne. It’s called Kindred Spirits. I’m asking kids and schools to reach out to kids and schools in different neighborhoods, cities, states, maybe even countries. I want them to explore their differences and celebrate all they have in common on the inside. I hope they will share what they learn about each other and, I hope, their new, growing friendships, on my Kindred Spirits page on http://www.nancychurnin.com/kindredspirits/

Martin and Anne would have both turned ninety in 2019.  Are there other reasons why their stories are important for this moment in history?

It is stunning and sad to me that we don’t get to see Dr. King and Anne Frank alive at 90. Just consider for a moment how much more each could have contributed to the world, how their wisdom, insight and love for humanity could have made us all, collectively, better people. Sadly, we still wrestle with racism, religious intolerance, xenophobia and other forms of hatred. Their story is a reminder of so many lives cut short by intolerance and fear. As we mourn the fact that we don’t have them living with us today, celebrating their 90th birthdays, we should be paying respect to all the people over generations whose lives were cut short by violence. As the reality of what hate has cost us sinks in, I hope that will motivate us to stop hating, start loving and protecting the vulnerable among us.

 

Martin & Anne:  The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank is available on March 5, 2019.  Click here for a free curriculum guide to Martin & Anne.  Visit Nancy Churnin online at nancychurnin.com, on Twitter at @nchurnin, and on Facebook at “Nancy Churnin Children’s Books.” 

Gary Anderson is a literacy educator, professional development mentor, and writer.  He is co-author (with Tony Romano) of Expository Composition:  Discovering Your Voice (EMC School).  Follow Gary on his blog at What’s Not Wrong? and on Twitter at @AndersonGL.  This is Gary’s fifth Nerdy Book Club post.