Above Photo by Kim Leeson ~
From cover to content, it’s evident Nancy Churnin writes from the view that anyone — not just people with money or fame — can take a wish for change and work in their own way to create it.
The local children’s author has an ever-growing reach as her book, Dear Mr. Dickens, is recognized nationally and internationally. It was honored with the National Jewish Book Award 2021 and a 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award Silver Medal.
Sydney Taylor Book Award chair Martha Simpson referred to Churnin’s characters as “upstanders,” people who stand up for what is right.
“I only write about people I love,” Churnin said. Her characters “have done different things, be it art or music, or simple labor. [They] speak to people in different ways in how they process the world.”
Her books introduce young readers to unique characters who use their gifts to stretch beyond discrimination, prejudice, or a limiting convention. They include Manjhi, an Indian civil engineer of sorts; Laura Wheeler Waring, an African-American painter whose work hangs in the National Portrait Gallery; and Katharine Lee Bates, who composed “America the Beautiful.”
Churnin, a Plano resident, started writing her first children’s book in 2003: The William Hoy Story, the biography of a 19th century deaf baseball player.
She was the theatre critic for The Dallas Morning News and met William Hoy while covering a school play. A man from Ohio then contacted her — he was also deaf. He shared his passion for Hoy’s story, and Churnin committed to writing a children’s book. It published in 2016.
To an onlooker, it seems the pivot to children’s author was seamless. However, Churnin said she had to learn a new way of writing.
“I said, ‘I’m a newspaper writer; I’ll write 800 words and send it off, and that’s it,’” Churnin said. “After multiple form rejections, someone included the feedback that it sounded like a newspaper article. A [children’s] writer needs to create scenes and page turns, and the scenery needs to change like a movie. I needed to learn the craft, and I finally learned to write a picture book.”
Then comes the wait — sometimes long, sometimes longer.
“You must realize once you sell the book you have to wait for the illustrator,” Churnin said. “It depends on when a publisher wants to publish it, and you don’t have control over that.”
She continued: “I always hope [the books] they find good homes, but the key thing that doesn’t change is you keep writing.”
Dear Mr. Dickens is one of two titles Churnin published last year. It is the true story of a Victorian woman who writes letters to Charles Dickens regarding his portrayal of Fagin, the antagonist in Oliver Twist.
Main character Eliza finds the descriptions of Fagin antisemitic; she — herself Jewish — writes to Dickens about how his constant use of “the Jew” to describe Fagin encouraged “a vile prejudice.” She tells Dickens he can influence people to see the Jewish community in a positive light during a time of continued prejudice and exclusion.
Eliza wrote to Dickens twice before he published Our Mutual Friend. That work includes a Jewish protagonist, and the two continued to correspond thereafter. Here, Eliza is seen using her gifts to influence change.
Inclusion, kindness, and perseverance are common threads in Churnin’s writing.
She is enthusiastic about outreach and finds pleasure working with children and the community. She wants to “break down walls” and encourage children to do small acts that can make a difference. Her website is full of calls to action, project ideas, and teacher resources.
“My books are all about taking action, and maybe that is not something others have picked up on or emphasized,” Churnin said. “But that is important to me.”
“People are discriminated against in different ways, but it is always wrong,” she continued. “It starts with segregation and dehumanization. And kids can stand up against those.”