Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of eight picture book biographies: The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game; Manjhi Moves a Mountain; Charlie Takes His Shot: How Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf; Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing; The Queen and the First Christmas Tree: Queen Charlotte’s Gift to England; For Spacious Skies: Katharine Lee Bates and ‘America the Beautiful’ and Beautiful Shades of Brown, How Laura Wheeler Waring Painted Her World. Collectively her books have won a Sydney Taylor Notable, the South Asia Book Award, two Notable Social Studies Books for Young Readers, the Silver Eureka, the ILA-CBC Children’s Choices list, Junior Library Guild and more. A former theater critic for The Dallas Morning News, 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 and a dog named Dog.
Why I Became A Children's Book Author
I always dreamed of writing children's books, but that dream didn't come true until I tried to make someone else's dream come true. I met Steve Sandy, a Deaf man, who wants to see William Hoy, the Deaf baseball player, in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The more I learned about William Hoy and what an honest, kind person he was, and how he taught umpires and teammates the signs we still use today so he could play the game he loved, the more I wanted to help. I got the idea of writing a children's book about Hoy and encouraging kids to write letters to the Hall of Fame on William's behalf. That became my first book, The William Hoy Story, How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game. That book inspired me to look for more stories about people children may not know yet who have made a positive difference in the world. The letter writing project, which continues, also inspired me to create and provide a project and a free Teacher Guide for all my books.
Finding the most meaningful part of the story
I am the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News. I know how important it is to keep the drama going on stage and I try to do the same in my books! I love the journey of digging deep into the life of my subject and trying to find the most meaningful part of that person's journey -- the dream, the struggle and the achievement that made the biggest impact in that person's soul and the world.
I am so lucky to have been born to parents who loved to read and surrounded me with a library of books from floor to ceiling, with as many books as I wanted spilling over into my room. My Dad introduced me to the great poets, including Alfred Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I vividly remember my mother reading me a chapter from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz every night, with an extra chapter on Saturday so that she could take off on Sunday. I always think of my mother when I hear the lines from this poem: "You may have tangible wealth untold; Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be-- I had a Mother who read to me."
I hope they will see themselves in the people I write about and realize that everything is possible when you have a dream and work hard to achieve it. I like to point out that all my heroes and heroines are not the biggest and strongest, but they are strong in their hearts. Even Queen Charlotte, while a queen, knew what it was like to put down. As a German princess who came to England not knowing the language and not used to or liking British royal customs such as the fancy balls, she persevered in pursuing what mattered to her -- being kind to children and expectant mothers, caring for Kew gardens, supporting artists and, you'll find out in the back matter, taking a stand against slavery. Most important, by pursuing their dreams, my heroes and heroines make the world a better place.
My biggest challenge was hubris! When I got the idea to help Steve Sandy get William Hoy in the Hall of Fame by writing William's story, I thought the book would take me an afternoon or a weekend at the most. I'm a journalist and I can write three stories a day and, after all, a children's book is only about 800 words. It took me YEARS to realize how much I didn't know about writing children's books. I took a lot of online classes, joined critique and support groups, revised, revised, revised. I set out to write The William Hoy Story in 2003 and got my agent, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary, 10 YEARS LATER, through 12X12, in 2013. She sold the book in 2014 and my first book came out in 2016, 13 years after I started it. One of the reasons the next book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain, appealed to me so much, is that it is the true story of a man who spent 22 years chiseling a path through a mountain so kids could get to the school in the next village and the sick could reach medical help. Writing about a man who spent 22 years on his dream made me feel as if my 13 year trek was a pretty good deal!
Inspiration is everywhere! Sometimes I find it on a walk or listening to music or just sitting still and letting thoughts gather. Sometimes they come from reading newspaper articles. Other times it comes from turning on my curiosity and looking up answers to questions. I always wondered how the Christmas tree became a tradition. That question led me to discover Queen Charlotte. I started researching Queen Charlotte and the more I found out about her, the more I fell in love with her and felt driven to tell her story.
Reading opens the doors of space and time. I grew up in the Bronx, a very gray borough of New York City where the playground down the block was all concrete -- no grass anywhere. But through books, I was able to go back and forward in time, smell the lilies and listen to the birds singing in 'The Secret Garden,' meet people from different countries, who spoke different languages, who practiced different religions, and break down walls between reality and imagination, playing in the world of Narnia and, later Harry Potter. Reading awakens you to the splendid diversity of creation and the universal soul that beats through it all.
Read what you love and your children will see the joy you take in it and want to explore for themselves. Be mindful that children's interests and styles are different and that is okay. Some children prefer non-fiction, others fantasy, some like humor, others are serious. Some like fiction that seems real, others like to explore other worlds and future time periods. It doesn't matter what your child loves to read, once your child loves to read, the possibilities are endless. That love of reading will build a love of learning. And once your child loves to read and learn, there is no stopping that child's dreams.
I am very excited about my upcoming book, Martin & Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, coming out March 5. It's the true stories of two babies born in the same year, 1929, born on different sides of the world. They were of two different races, religions and genders, spoke different languages, and both met hate with love, leaving us with words that inspire us today. I hope seeing these two great spirits side by side will help us break down walls that divide us so that we can see that people are people and love is love.