Hello again, friends, and welcome to another fantastic FEATURE INTERVIEW. This month I'm talking with visiting guest, Nancy Churnin. Nancy’s Bio: Nancy Churnin is an award-winning children’s book author who writes about people that inspire children to be kind and make the world a better place. Her Dear Mr. Dickens won the 2021 National Jewish Book Award and 2022 Sydney Taylor Honor and is a Junior Library Guild Selection, a National Federation of Press Women 1st Place winner, and on the Bank Street College Best Children’s Books list. Nancy is the author of 10 picture book biographies and will welcome six more books -- a mix of chapter books, a board book, historical fiction, and contemporary fiction in 2023. Additional honors include: two Sydney Taylor Notables, four Social Studies Notable Trade Books for Young People; the South Asia Book Award, two Children and Teen's Choice Book Awards finalists; starred reviews from School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly; and multiple state book lists. Nancy lives in North Texas. Her books come with free teacher guides, resources, and projects on her website, nancychurnin.com.
Beginnings & Inspiration
How did you end up here in the wonderful and magical world of publishing children’s books? I had always dreamed of writing children’s books like the wonderful books my mother read to me – books that could enchant, teach, challenge, books that could make you think and aspire to do better and be better, books that could take you on magical and inspiring journeys. But it was not until I had become a journalist and struck an unexpected friendship with Steve Sandy that I felt the urgency to make that dream happen without any more delay. My friend Steve is a Deaf historian and it is his dream that more people know about the great Deaf baseball player and hero William Hoy. I felt compelled to write the book that my friend needed to have in the world. When did you first begin your journey in publishing, and what was that process like? I promised Steve in 2003 that I would write a children’s book about William Hoy. But The William Hoy Story, which became my picture book debut, didn’t come out until 2016! As a journalist, I thought the journey would be fast and easy. After a mountain of rejections, I began to realize I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I took many online classes, including classes by Susanna Hill and Mira Reisberg, I joined critique groups, Rate Your Story and as soon as I found out about the 12X12 Challenge, I joined that in 2013. It was through 12X12 that I found my agent, Karen Grencik, whom I submitted to when she was the agent of the month in July 2013. After another year of rejections for Hoy – but this time personalized and encouraging – I revised again and we sold the new revision at the first submission in 2014 to Wendy McClure at Albert Whitman & Company. Karen is still my agent and friend and I’m about to sign my 20th contract.
The Beast of Publishing: Steps & Timeframe
I know I have people reading my blog who are in different stages of the publishing/writing process. Some are just starting out. Others are seeking representation. Some are already agented but don’t have any book deals (YET)! And some already have book deals or previously published works. But for our newer writers who are just beginning, they often face similar ones to that we all wonder… “How long will this take?” “What now? What NEXT?” Could you give us a rough idea about what necessary steps you took or would recommend taking, and what the publishing timeframe was like for you; from querying to landing an agent- signing with an agent to landing a first publishing deal - and first publishing deal to first publication date? At first, I approached this as a journalist – seeing a story in terms of a word count and a beginning, middle, and end. It took me a while to realize that there was a complexity and craft to children’s books and that I had to reach deep inside to find and show – not tell – my emotional connection to the story. I had to read many picture books and study how they were put together and how they made me feel. I learned in my classes, the craft books, from my critique partners, and from my writing groups about leaving room for the illustrator, changing scenes, and creating page turns. I learned to have patience with the process. Even when I finally landed that first acceptance in 2014, it took two years before The William Hoy Story debuted in March 2016. But what I had also learned was not to sit around and wait for the next thing to happen. Once I was on this journey, I was on the journey for good, knowing that I can’t control the pace of publishing, but I can control the time and passion I devote to creating new stories. So even before The William Hoy Story came out, I had sold my second book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain, to Marissa Moss at Creston Books. That came out in 2017, followed by three more books in 2018. Is there anything or anyone who significantly helped you to get to where you are today? Too many to name! I will say that Susanna Hill’s and Mira Reisberg’s classes were game-changers in getting me to understand the craft journey I was starting. My early critique partners and still friends, Miranda Paul and Vivian Kirkfield provided amazing support and inspiration when I needed it most. I am grateful to my first editors, Wendy McClure and Albert Whitman, and Marissa Moss at Creston Books, for giving a debut author a chance. My husband and family never stopped believing in and encouraging me when I needed that extra reassurance that I wasn’t crazy for pursuing this path; my husband still embarrasses me in the most endearing way by handing out my book cards wherever we go. I’m thankful for the generosity of kidlit groups like Kidlit411 that offer a bounty of support and advice every day. I adore the wonderful educators and librarians and the children who sustain and propel me every day. I am grateful for the individuals and organizations that continue to encourage my writing and keep me learning, like PJ Library, which provides free books for children and just sent me on the most amazing author journey to Israel. But also – and this is key – I couldn’t do it without the people I write about and the people who turn to me to write about them. I would never have written The William Hoy Story without the support and help of Steve Sandy, who never lost faith in me on the 13-year journey between promise and publication, and the kind and generous Hoy family. Years after I wrote Charlie Takes His Shot, How Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf, I am grateful for my continued friendship with and support of Dr. Sifford’s family and friends. I only write about people I love and admire. When I commit to writing their stories, they are on the journey with me, and it is their spirit that guides me and strengthens me on the path to bringing their life into the light.
Writing Tips, Shared Wisdom, and Writing Across Genres
Throughout the publishing process, has there been anything that really surprised you? Or have there been any obstacles you’ve had to overcome? If so, what were they, and how did you do so? I was surprised by how long the journey to publication can be and how tricky it can be to determine if a story is not finding a home because it isn’t where it needs to be or because you haven’t found the editor who shares your vision. Often it is a combination of both! You need an editor who shares your vision, but you also need to keep working until the story is the best version of itself it can possibly be and then be open and willing to keep working on it with the editor and editorial team. It never bothers me to make changes. In fact, it uplifts and delights me every time I find a way to make the story better, stronger, and truer. We are all working together to create a book that lasts, and the work is about the story always – we are all on the same side, working for a story that is ship-worthy, that children can take out and sail in the sea of their imagination. I love that mental attitude and metaphor of children setting sail in the sea of their imagination! Sometimes in life, when we look back, we think, “I wish I had known this or that sooner… it would have helped so much!” Is there anything that you wish you had known earlier as a writer that you’d be able to share with other writers today? I wish I had known earlier what I share with kids now on my school visits: that you don’t fail until you give up; that as long as you keep going, it’s just a question of how long it takes to succeed. I knew enough of that truth not to give up, but in the beginning, I also struggled with frustration and doubt when I couldn’t seem to deliver what I had promised in getting Hoy’s story published. There are still some stories that take longer than others to get right or to get a publishing home or both, but I now have patience and determination on the journey. I don’t give myself a hard time when something doesn’t click. I just keep working on that story and other stories. I put in the time and know that each journey takes as long as it takes. It was mentioned earlier that you write across genres. You have picture book biographies, board books, historical fiction, etc. Can you tell us more about how you started out and managed to navigate different genres of writing in publishing? I love reading all genres of books and wanted to expand my range of writing. At the same time, I realized that if I wanted to try writing a different format I had to have an idea that fit that format. When I thought about a board book, I thought about the toddlers I know. I thought about the great-grandchildren visiting my now elderly mother and how much joy that brings her. Soon, the idea of a board book emerged that involved an elderly person alone until there are knocks on a door and a family arrives bringing food and cheer. To anchor the book on 10 spreads, I made it a counting book from one to ten and soon I had Counting on Shabbat, a 58-word rhyming board book about counting, Shabbat, and kindness that I hope will inspire kids to reach out to the elders in their lives and communities. On my school visits, many of the upper elementary students had asked if I write chapter books. So it was a longstanding goal of mine to someday be able to say yes! The chapter books that I have coming out in June were a natural evolution from picture book biographies to chapter book biographies. Thomas Edison, How a Boy Who Learned Differently Changed the World, and Elizabeth Freeman, Fighting for Freedom are my first work-for-hire books. They are published by Core Knowledge, a non-profit that shares my mission of writing stories about heroes that inspire kids to be heroes, too. I took on these assignments because I admire Edison and Freeman and also to push myself to write longer. I confess that after I agreed to do them, I panicked. But after being reassured by my editor that I could indeed pull this off, I got to work and enjoyed the opportunity to show more detail about the lives of my subjects. In fact, once I got going, I had to make an effort to cut back! Do you have any tips that you can share for writers who may be interested in breaking into writing across genres themselves? Just do it. I am a great believer in craft courses. I’ve taken them. I’ve given them at conferences, at SCBWI, and at The Writing Barn in Austin. At the same time, it’s important to remember that you can learn things through the actual act of writing that you can’t learn from studying writing. I took a chapter book class that I enjoyed, and I know it helped me, but nothing substitutes for making a plan, following it, sometimes breaking the plan, getting it down on paper, and then revising until I get the story where it needs to be. One more piece of advice: find yourself, someone you trust to be your reader. For my board book, my critique partners were invaluable. For my chapter books, I turned to my good friend Patricia Sarles, the coordinator of library services at the New York City School Library System, as my first reader. Her excellent notes helped me see and write more clearly.
New Books and Extra Resources!
Speaking of writing across genres… this year was a big year for you! In 2023 you had six new books come out. That must be so exciting. We’d love to share in that excitement with you and hear more about them! Thank you for asking about my book babies! Coming up first in June are my two chapter book biographies with Core Knowledge. Thomas Edison, How A Boy Who Learned Differently Changed the World is the story of the great inventor with a focus on how Edison’s differences – his Deafness and how he learned differently – became his strengths. I hope his story helps children see how their differences can be their strengths, too. Elizabeth Freeman, Fighting for Freedom, is the story of an enslaved woman in Massachusetts who used the newly approved state constitution’s words about freedom to sue for her own freedom in court. She won, which led to Massachusetts becoming one of the nation’s first free states. Freeman had a firm inner sense of right and wrong, of her own worth, and of everyone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hope her story inspires kids to reach within for their moral compass, to know their self-worth, and support everyone’s rights. Coming up in September are two picture books. Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern, Halloween Comes to America is my first historical fiction book. I’ve always loved Halloween, and I wanted to share how this favorite holiday was a gift from immigrants. Lila and her family leave Ireland in 1850 because of the Potato Famine. Lila and her little brother and sister worry about leaving favorite traditions behind, like Halloween, where they carved turnips to scare away a spirit named Jack. In America, Lila can’t find turnips. But she finds a new friend, Julia, at a vegetable stand. And in this story about how immigrants have merged their traditions with ours to create new American gifts, she finds a strange gourd – a pumpkin – that she and Julia carve, giving America its own twist on the Irish holiday celebration. Mama’s Year with Cancer is my first co-authored book, co-authored with Shayna Vincent. Shayna, a young mother with breast cancer, couldn’t find the book she wanted to share with her daughters about what to know about living with cancer, so I proposed that we write the book she wanted to have in the world. Mama’s Year with Cancer is told by a child and takes you from January through December, through a messy, loving, challenging journey until Mama rings the bell that shows her chemotherapy is done. Coming in November is a picture book biography and my first board book. Valentines for All, Esther Howland Captures America’s Heart is a picture book biography of Esther Howland, who got the idea of creating and selling Valentine cards that would help people who struggle with words express what they had in their hearts. She created the first American Valentine’s card company in the early 1800s. I shared earlier about my board book, Counting on Shabbat. I hope this 58-word rhyming story about an elderly person surprised and delighted by a visit from a young family encourages families to visit the seniors and those who are alone in our communities. I saw that your website offers educational resources with your books. I’m a huge fan of books that come with extras! There are so many great ways to utilize them. They’re helpful to educators and students and make a terrific asset to schools and classrooms. But they aren’t just wonderful in school settings, they can also be extremely useful to parents/caregivers and librarians too. I know for my STEAM Homeschool Students, whom I host in the library every month, I love sharing newly discovered resources with the parents who visit. Books like these are so helpful to these families. Can you tell us a little about some of the resources that you offer, what they include, and how people can find out more about them? My mother is a retired teacher, and it is very important to me to provide teacher guides, resources, and projects for every one of my books. I have a dedicated page for each book on my website. Because so many of the books are based on real people, my resources include primary sources, photos, and videos of the real people when available. I commission the teacher guides from educators that connect the book with curriculum. There is always a project and an opportunity to share pictures of the children’s work on the project pages. For example, the project for The William Hoy Story is HOY FOR THE ALL. Kids send pictures of persuasive letters they write and send to the National Baseball Baseball Hall of Fame, asking for Hoy to be inducted; he would be the first Deaf player honored there. For Manjhi Moves a Mountain, it is MOVE YOUR OWN MOUNTAIN. Manjhi moved an actual mountain to help his village, but every time we help others, we move mountains. Kids send pictures of kind things they’ve done, and I post them and praise them for moving mountains. The new books will have projects, too. The project for Counting on Shabbat is COUNTING ON KINDNESS. Time for some easy questions. Favorite color? All. I love rainbows! Favorite smell? Lilacs Favorite animal? All. I don’t want to get in trouble picking between my dog and cats, and besides, I just fell in love with a camel on my trip to Israel :) Favorite book(s)? I’ll allow up to five because I know choosing favorite books is very hard… The Wizard of Oz, A Tale of Two Cities, The Last of the Just, The Color Purple, The Chronicles of Narnia… (may have different answers on different days)... Sweet or salty? Both, but my real faves are crispy, chewy, and crunchy! Beach or mountains? Both! Although my magical childhood summers in the Catskill Mountains may give mountains the edge. Thank you so much for all of your wonderful answers today, Nancy. We appreciate your time and wisdom and loved hearing about all your new stories and your publishing journey. Now... it's time for our GIVEAWAY PRIZE(S)! Ooh. Did anyone notice that unsuspicious "s" at the end of that word? Yes, it's true. This month Nancy is offering TWO giveaway prizes.
Prize 1: An "ask me anything" zoom call. Prize 2: A free copy of one of her books- winner's choice! In order to be entered to win this month's giveaway prize, simply LIKE this feature interview, SUBSCRIBE to the blog, AND LEAVE A COMMENT on this month's feature interview post with "PRIZE 1" or "PRIZE 2." And PRESTO! You're entered.
More about nancy and her books
If you’d like to learn more about Nancy, you can connect with her at the links below. Connect with Nancy Website: https://www.nancychurnin.com/ Facebook: Nancy Churnin Facebook: Nancy Churnin Children's Books Twitter: @nchurnin Instagram: @nchurnin Books by Nancy in 2023 Mama's Year with Cancer Written by Nancy Churnin and Shayna Vincent Illustrated by Wazza Pink Published by Albert Whitman, September 7, 2023 Genre: Picture Book, Contemporary Fiction Valentines for All, Esther Howland Captures America's Heart Written by Nancy Churnin Illustrated by Monika Róza Winiewska Published by Albert Whitman, November 7, 2023 Genre: Picture Book, Biography Lila and the Jack-O'-Lantern, Halloween Comes to America Written by Nancy Churnin, Illustrated by Anneli Brey Genre: Picture Book, Historical Fiction Published by Albert Whitman, September 7, 2023 Counting on Shabbat Written by Nancy Churnin, Illustrated by Petronela Dostalova Genre: Board Book Published by Kar-Ben Publishing, November 7, 2023 Thomas Edison, How a Boy Who Learned Differently Changed the World Written by Nancy Churnin, Published by Core Knowledge, June 2023 Elizabeth Freeman, Fighting for Freedom Written by Nancy Churnin Published by Core Knowledge, June 2023 Nancy's books will be available at independent bookstores at https://www.indiebound.org/ on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through their individual publishers.