Saturday, December 9, 2017

Q&A with Nancy Churnin

Nancy Churnin is the author of the new children's picture book Manjhi Moves a Mountain, which focuses on the accomplishments of a man named Dashrath Manjhi who lived in India. She also has written another picture book for kids, The William Hoy Story, which is about a deaf major league baseball player in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News.

Q: How did you learn about the story of Dashrath Manjhi, and what type of research did you do to write Manjhi Moves a Mountain?

A: I came across a newspaper article about Dashrath Manjhi and I was astonished and moved by the task he set himself and how nothing could deter him until he accomplished it.

I related to it, in a way, after having spent 10 years learning how to write children's books while working on my first book, The William Hoy Story. There were many times that I knew people thought I was crazy to keep working on that book and there were times when I thought I was a little crazy.

But I believed in William Hoy and I felt kids would be better off for knowing his story and I felt the same way about Manjhi. I looked up more stories about Manjhi and found YouTube interviews with him.

It also struck me that while he had become famous in India, there were no picture books about him in America and kids might not know about what he had done if I didn't write this book.

While it took a matter of months rather than years to write Manjhi Moves a Mountain, it involved many rewrites and revisions over those months as I chipped away at that mountain, trying to figure out the best way to tell his story.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope readers identify with Manjhi and realize that you don't have to be the biggest or the strongest to accomplish your goals. You have to have a vision, you have to be willing to work hard, you have to keep going no matter how long it takes.

Also, don't be deterred if others don't see what you see at first. Don't give up because others laugh or say something can't be done. Many people will tell you things can't change -- that a mountain is there before you're born and after you die.

But you can change things. All of us can change things. All of us can find ways to be Manjhis to make things better for others.

That's why I started a Move Your Own Mountain project, to encourage kids to move mountains in their schools and communities by doing something kind for others.

We celebrate "wins" all the time. Every act of kindness is a "win." I want to celebrate kids who do acts of kindness and through sharing their good deeds, encourage kindness to spread.

Q: What do you think Danny Popovici's illustrations add to the book?

A: Danny Poppovici's illustrations show kids that illustrators are storytellers, too. I love to stop and point out all the extra things that Danny slipped into his watercolors.

Was there anything in the text that said there should be a constellation about a man hitting a mountain with a hammer and chisel or a constellation of a mountain? They shake their heads. But do you love it? And they nod happily.

These are Danny's ideas, I tell them. An illustrator tells his or her own version of the story -- reminding us that we all have our own unique takes on any story there is to tell.

Plus, I love to point out how often Danny takes two separate pages and merges them so seamlessly they look like one large page -- something very difficult to do. And how the watercolors bleed subtly into each other, the complex variations of the colors reminding us of the complex variations of life. 

Q: You've also written The William Hoy Story, about a deaf baseball player. How did you find out about him, and what did your research involve for that project?

A: A Deaf man named Steve Sandy, who is a friend of William Hoy's family, told me he was sad that more Deaf and hearing kids didn't know the story of this Deaf hero and how he had introduced signals to baseball, the ones we still use today, so he could play the game he loved.

He also told me about his dream that one day William Hoy would be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which didn't have any Deaf players honored there.

I knew he was right and I promised, then and there, that if he would help me with the research, I would write a book for kids so the kids would know about him and would help by writing letters to the Hall of Fame.

I am a longtime journalist -- I write for The Dallas Morning News -- and I thought how hard could it be to write a children's book? It took me a while to realize it was a completely different art from journalism.

It took YEARS of classes and study and critique groups and trial and error before I finally came up with the manuscript that got me my agent, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary, and my editor, Wendy McClure of Albert Whitman & Company.

But I couldn't give up, because I had made a promise. And kids have been sending letters to the Hall. Last time I checked it was close to 1,000.

Also gratifying is that Steve and the Hoy family are proud of the book and it has received strong support from the Deaf community. I am so grateful for that! 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have three books coming out in 2018! While writing The William Hoy Story, I fell in love with the art of writing children's books and seeing what they could mean to kids.

Charlie Takes His Shot, How Charlie Sifford Broke the ColorBarrier in Golf, comes out Jan. 1 from Albert Whitman. It's the true story of Charlie Sifford, a friend of Jackie Robinson's, who fought long and hard to become the first African American player on the PGA Tour.

Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing comes out June 1 from Creston Books. It's the true story of Irving Berlin, who came to America as a five-year-old refugee, mixed the sounds of his heritage with what he heard on the street to make a uniquely American sound, and gave back to the country that gave him a home.

The Queen and the First Christmas Tree comes out Sept. 1 from Albert Whitman. It's the true story of Queen Charlotte, a queen with a heart for children, who introduced the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in a party she threw for 100 kids. The tradition continues today.

All my  books come with free Teachers Guides and projects. For The William Hoy Story, the project is writing letters to the Hall of Fame. For Manjhi, it is Move Your Own Mountain.

For Charlie, it's We Helped Them Take Their Shots, encouraging kids to share stories of how they included someone new in a group or activity.

For Irving Berlin, it's Make America Sing. I'm asking kids to share about their own immigrant experience or the favorite things they've learned about a friend's immigrant heritage.

For The Queen, I'll be asking kids to share stories of what they've done to brighten the celebrations of kids in need at the holidays.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love sharing and telling stories and I love hearing from kids, teachers and parents. Please feel free to contact me on my website. I am happy to answer questions, to set up in-person or Skype visits to schools as I can.

I am thankful for the opportunity to be a conduit between these heroes and heroines who inspire me and the children that I hope will be inspired to believe in themselves and do good for others after reading these stories. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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