Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome an award winning author who also happens to be very kind, Nancy Churnin. Check out her latest books, Dear Mr. Dickens and A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah, published by Albert Whitman and Creston Books/Lerner Books. See her journey below…
BUT first- YAY! Nancy is generously giving away a free signed copy of her book (US only). All you have to do is comment on this blog post and tell us why you love nonfiction. Contest ends Sept 3, 2021.
Please describe the journey to publication for Dear Mr. Dickens.
It was a long and winding journey! I wrote the first draft in 2013, three years before my first book would come out, but the spark – or rather, the need — for the book sprang from when I was a child. I had always loved Charles Dickens, but my mom, who had lost a grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins in the Holocaust questioned how I could admire a writer who created Fagin in Oliver Twist, a portrait of a greedy, selfish, criminal Jewish man that inflamed anti-Semitism in Dickens’ readers. I didn’t know how to answer.
It was a hurtful puzzle, really, because Dickens had such a big heart for the poor, for children, for the vulnerable – why had he made his one Jewish character so nasty and referred to him again and again as “the Jew”? Then, one day, when I was doing research on various subjects in my local library, I started reading a page about Dickens (because I love to read about Dickens) and came across a mention of Eliza Davis. It was just a brief sentence or two, but I read it over and over.
Eliza Davis was a Jewish woman who had written to Charles Dickens to confront him over his creation of Fagin and how hurtful it was to her and her people. He responded – at first reproaching her. But then, over the course of their correspondence, she changed his heart. He created his first kindly Jewish character, Mr. Riah, in his last published work, Our Mutual Friend, for her. I couldn’t wait to share this story about the power of speaking up and the possibility of changing for the better with my mother – and the world!
I couldn’t find a publisher at first. While my then new agent, Karen Grencik, loved it from the start, the first few editors she tried didn’t see how a story about exchanged letters could be made active and exciting enough for young readers. We put it away for a long while. In the meantime, I published my first eight books, with a ninth on the way. In 2019, one of my editors, Wendy McClure, who was then at Albert Whitman, wanted to know if I had anything new for her – something a little different than I had done before, something that might be about an action that had impacted history. I felt Dear Mr. Dickens call to me, wanting to be heard.
Like Eliza, I summoned up my courage, sent it to Wendy directly, and was delighted when she and her editorial team fell in love with Eliza and Charles just as I had. Also wonderful, she and illustrator Bethany Stancliffe had no trouble at all making the art thrilling and lyrical. I consulted and worked with three outstanding Dickens scholars to make sure that everything was correct. J. Don Vann, Emeritus Professor at University of North Texas; Professor Murray Baumgarten, Distinguished Emeritus Professor at UC Santa Cruz and Founding director of The Dickens Project; and Professor David Paroissien, Professorial Research Fellow, the University of Buckingham, UK, Emeritus Professor of English, UMass Amherst, and retired longtime editor of Dickens Quarterly, are all acknowledged and thanked in the book.
Ever since the book was underway, my mother has been asking for it. It has been a dream come true to hold the soft-cover F&G in my hands and to share it with my mother. When I finally got to visit her after we were both vaccinated, she held it in her hands and read it every day that I was there. She would read it, put it down, smile, and pat the book as if it were a dear child. It is a book of hope – of courage to challenge those in positions in influence and the nobility of those great enough to admit mistakes and change. It has been healing for my mother and me. I hope it will prove healing and hopeful to young readers, too.
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration?
I drew it from the actual correspondence between Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens – every word they say in the book comes from those letters and also from Dickens’ published works. But more deeply, I drew it from my own belief in the power of words. Eliza, who was no one that anyone reading this interview has probably heard of, had the same three things that Charles Dickens and all of us do – pen, paper, and something to say, plus the courage to say what she thought.
Charles Dickens, whose mastery of words influenced the way people of all walks of life, from chimney sweeps to the Queen herself thought about things, was changed by Eliza’s words. Because of Eliza, in addition to creating the kindly Mr. Riah, he became a champion for the Jewish community, speaking up for them in magazines he published and edited. England had once been a hostile country for the Jewish community, but it changed greatly in the 19th century to become more inclusive and welcoming. As I share in the back matter, many people deserve credit for that change, but among those people, most certainly is Charles Dickens, and there’s no question that Charles Dickens wouldn’t have been one of those champions if he hadn’t at first been moved by the words of Eliza Davis.
Eliza is a reminder that we can all make a difference if we, too, have the courage to speak truth to power.
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project? You are a “writing machine,” so we’re all curious how you manage your time?
I feel very blessed by my lack of talents and hobbies. My idea of a wonderful day is a day I get up and create, revise, and post about stories. Writing is breathing to me – it’s how I talk and listen to the world. It is a key part of my daily conversation with the world, helping me to better understand what’s around me and find my place and purpose in it. Every year my garden is a disaster, save for one peach tree that grows despite me, no doubt because it takes pity on me. The meals I cook – lots of soups and bread with my bread machine — are the height of simplicity which, thankfully, is how my husband and children like them.
I don’t shop, I don’t do “lunch,” I don’t venture out much at all unless it is for a presentation (which I have loved doing virtually). My major outing of the day is walking my dog or taking her to the dog park. One of my favorite poets is Emily Dickinson. I had a magical visit to her house in Amherst. I could feel her presence in her room and the peace she found in the quiet life she created for herself. I, too, am grateful for my quiet life. There’s no greater gift than the time to reflect, to write, to share words with those that value them as you do.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book.
“Eliza stared at the page. The most famous author of her day, a man known to use his powerful pen for good, didn’t like what she had to say! She’d tried and failed. She could cry or… She sat at her desk. She tapped her foot. Dickens’s words moved countless readers to compassion. If only she could find the words to move one particular reader.”
Please tell us about your other book, A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold.
I am drawn to stories of people who inspire me, people that kids might not know about otherwise, people who persevered to make the world a better place. It’s actually a lovely coincidence that these two books are coming out in the same month, because they have more in common than both being Jewish women and overlapping in years where they spoke up at a time most people were not interested in what women had to say.
Henrietta, who lived from 1860-1945 (Eliza lived from 1816-1903), was determined to make the world a better place. She founded the first night school in America to help new immigrants learn the language and customs of their new country. She founded the first charity run by women, Hadassah. In her 70s, she saved 11,000 children from the Holocaust. The book is called A Queen to the Rescue because Henrietta’s role model was the Biblical Queen Esther who spoke up to her king to save her people. Hadassah, by the way, is the Hebrew name for Esther. In a way, both books are Queen Esther stories because both women took great risks to speak up for their people. Funny thing, long before I wrote A Queen to the Rescue, an early version of the Dear Mr. Dickens manuscript refers to Eliza identifying with Queen Esther (that reference is gone now).
Henrietta worked hard all her life to help others, making the services of Hadassah available to all, not just to Jewish people. I am so excited for everyone to see the the moving illustrations by award-winning illustrator Yevgenia Nayberg.
Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
I hope to keep growing as a writer, bringing new stories to light and trying different formats, from board books to chapter books and beyond. I can’t give you details on my next book, but it looks as if it will be my first historical fiction picture book. My editor is trying to secure an illustrator now as I write this. I enjoy experimenting with different ways of making history and societal changes come alive in a way that inspires kids to change the world for the better. All it takes, really, is to see something that is not as it should be and to have the courage to speak up, to take action, to try new and better ways of doing things.
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts.
In one of my writer groups, the Nonfiction Ninjas, we meet and talk about mentor texts, which are contemporary picture books. I learn a lot from all my fellow writers and I am hesitant to name a few because it would leave so many wonderful ones out! But – longtime English major here — my very favorites are classics and poetry, myths and riffs on the hero quest. I have learned so much and been so inspired by Charles Dickens, which is why it has been such an honor to write Dear Mr. Dickens. C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia render spiritual yearnings and insights visible (I often reread The Last Battle in my mind) as does J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is genius in the way it shows why books are so threatening to authoritarians and so necessary to maintain and grow our humanity. Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain is a model as I consider the world of historical fiction. Louis Sachar’s Holes is brilliant in the way it interweaves and shows the interconnection of the past and present. When I need a jolt of courage, I turn to the words of great thinkers – Dr. King, Anne Frank, Maya Angelou— and my many favorite poets, including Alfred Tennyson and, in particular, the final lines of one of my dad’s favorite poems, “Ulysses”:
“Tho much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers?
Never forget that you are a gift to the world with the ability to understand and express things in a way no one has before. It may take a while for you to find a way to express your perspective. It may take a while for others to hear your music. But know you are music. Protect your song like a growing flower. When your stories bloom, it will be a beautiful day with much rejoicing.
And a bonus question! If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?
I am beyond grateful to be a human animal because that gives me the ability to write. If I could be anything else, I would say a cat or dog because they know better than many humans what love is. Plus, cats and dogs inspire writers and get to read stories before they’re published.
Nancy Churnin writes true stories about people who persevered to achieve their dreams and make the world a better place. She provides free teacher guides and a project for each book with a dedicated page on her website, nancychurnin.com, to encourage and celebrate kids to be heroes and heroines, too. She’s the author of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME, on multiple America state reading lists, and available in translation in Japanese and Korean. MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN is a 2021 Sakura Medal finalist, the 2018 winner of the South Asia Book Award, a 2019 Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award winner, among many awards and is available in Braille through the National Braille Press and multiple languages through Room to Read. CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT: HOW CHARLIE SIFFORD BROKE THE COLOR BARRIER IN GOLF is the winner of the Silver Eureka Honor Award. IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING is a 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book and a 2019 Social Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. She has three books on A Mighty Girl list: THE QUEEN AND THE FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE, QUEEN CHARLOTTE’S GIFT TO ENGLAND; BEAUTIFUL SHADES OF BROWN, THE ART OF LAURA WHEELER WARING (also an NCTE Notable, Silver Eureka, and Towner Award finalist); and FOR SPACIOUS SKIES, KATHARINE LEE BATES AND THE INSPIRATION FOR “AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL.” MARTIN & ANNE, THE KINDRED SPIRITS OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND ANNE FRANK is a Notable Books for a Global Society 2020 winner list among other honors. Two more true stories, DEAR MR. DICKENS and A QUEEN TO THE RESCUE, THE STORY OF HENRIETTA SZOLD, FOUNDER OF HADASSAH, will be out in October 2021. A native New Yorker and former theater critic, Nancy is a graduate of Harvard University, with a master’s from Columbia University School of Journalism. She lives in North Texas with her husband, a dog named Dog and two cantankerous cats.
Social media links:
Instagram: @nchurnin, https://www.instagram.com/nchurnin/?hl=en
Books can be purchased at your local independent bookstore, at Barnes & Noble, at Amazon, and at Express Booksellers (for non-profits buying wholesale only). You can request autographed copies from my local independent bookstore, Interabang Books, and from Express Booksellers (again, available to non-profits only):
Interabang Books: https://www.interabangbooks.com/search/site/nancy%20churnin
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/Nancy%20Churnin
Express Booksellers: https://expressbooksellers.com/kids-books/
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