Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Q&A with Nancy Churnin

Nancy Churnin is the author of the new children's picture books Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring and For Spacious Skies. Her other books include Martin & Anne and The Queen and the First Christmas Tree. She is based in Dallas.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the artist Laura Wheeler Waring, and how did you research her life and her art?

A: I love fine art. It bothered me how most of the artists we learn about are male and the handful of female artists that get recognition are written about again and again.

In looking for more work by female artists, I found Laura Wheeler Waring's portrait of Marian Anderson and went: WOW. Remember how Emily Dickinson described poetry as making her feel the top of her head was taken off? That's how I felt when I saw that painting.

I was determined to find out everything I could about Ms. Waring, which proved a challenge because not much had been written about her.

Still, every breadcrumb I found on the path was delicious and ultimately they led me to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., which has a half dozen of her paintings in their collection.

The curators and staff, Erin Beasley, Dr. Tuliza Fleming, and Riche Sorenson, were enormously helpful in providing deep background on her, on the Harmon Foundation that had commissioned her portraits of distinguished African Americans.

They also kindly put me in touch with Ms. Waring's heir, Madeline Murphy Rabb, who filled in more details and gave us permission to reproduce Ms. Waring's paintings for the book. I am extremely grateful to them all for their support and encouragement.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: It has multiple meanings that continue to blossom the more you examine them.

Laura Wheeler Waring was an extraordinary colorist, who could break down and convey shades within colors with incredible subtlety. So she was literally, in her work, creating beautiful shades of brown.

Another meaning, however, alludes to her mission as an artist. Her grandparents were abolitionists; her parents fought for civil rights. Ms. Waring was extremely private and quiet -- one of the reasons not as much has been written about her as she deserved -- but she spoke with her paintbrush in a mighty way, ultimately integrating museum walls with portraits of African American faces.

She succeeded in showing not only how beautiful the color brown and the people she painted were, she showed how varied, unique and wonderful each person is within what we think of as a racial group.

She even took the extra step of creating paintings where a subject with brown skin was wearing a brown suit and sitting behind a brown table in a room with brown walls and each shade was a vivid, vibrant, distinctive, beautiful shade of brown.

I used the metaphor of her seeing the rainbow within brown for a reason, too. People sometimes take brown for granted and forget its majesty because it's not in the rainbow. They don't realize that brown IS a rainbow -- that it's made up of many colors blended exquisitely together.

Part of Ms. Waring's genius was understanding each hue on an almost chemical level the way a great cook can taste a dish and figure out the ingredients and the method of how they were combined. She teased apart the rainbow of colors in the proportions of their blend, so she could rebuild those shades on canvas.

Q: You've also written a picture book biography of Katharine Lee Bates, author of "America the Beautiful." What do you think her legacy is today?

A: Katharine Lee Bates, who was a little girl during the Civil War, knew what it was to grow up in a divided nation -- one that had been torn apart, with siblings turning on each other.

She spent most of her life, as a writer, a professor, an activist, trying to find ways to heal old wounds, to find ways to stitch her beloved country together and help America live up to her promise of equality and justice for all.

We are facing many of those same issues today. While America may not be in the midst of an actual Civil War fought on physical battlefields, we have seen our nation ripped apart in the virtual world of social media, erupting into violence that has cost many their lives, lives of those they love, and in some cases livelihoods.

I believe her answer -- her reminder that it is up to us to make America beautiful by making our country kinder, more equitable, more just and to remember that we are all one American family from sea to shining sea -- would serve us well now.

Even within a nuclear family, we may not agree or see things the same way as our parents or siblings, but we love and support each other as we follow our own paths to the pursuit of happiness. We need to extend that loyalty we feel to those in our own families to those in our larger human family.

We don't have to agree with every other American, but we can love and support all that love and support others and encourage that love, support and inclusion to become our new normal.

Q: What do you think the illustrations, by Felicia Marshall and Olga Baumert respectively, add to the books?

A: I am grateful to both of these incredible illustrators for the vision and passion they bring to their work.

Felicia Marshall's illustrations for Beautiful Shades of Brown are absolutely brilliant and, like Ms. Waring's paintings, work on multiple levels.

She channels the spirit of Ms. Waring in the detail and delicacy she brings to each of her pages and brings us into the bubbling cauldron of Ms. Waring's artistic process, showing the artist in the process of painting the paintings that she ultimately paints -- that we will see at the back of the book.

Not only that -- and this, to me, is an M.C. Escher touch-- she shows the painter painting the painting in a room that is filled with beautiful shades of brown, reinforcing a vision of the world that Ms. Waring saw, a world in which the color brown was a brilliant, multi-hued rainbow.

I also feel fortunate that the marvelous Olga Baumert illustrated For Spacious Skies. Katharine Lee Bates was a woman intensely in love with the magnificence of nature. You see all of that in Olga Baumert's glorious splashes of color and her use of scope to help us see the big picture of the country, much as Ms. Bates did.

Ms. Bates also saw, with a poet's eyes, the universality in the particular. One of my favorite illustrations by Olga Baumert is the one of the fields of grain that Ms. Bates sees from the train.

Ms. Bates, who grew up in the sea village of Falmouth, Massachusetts, grew up with the sight, slap and briny smell of ocean waves. When she used the metaphor amber waves of grain in "America the Beautiful," she was sharing the epiphany that farmers who tend waves of grain were not so very different from fishermen that labor at sea.

Olga Baumert's waves of grain parallel her sea waves in a similarly poetic way that brings home our common humanity.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My ninth picture book biography, due out in the fall of 2021, is A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, illustrated by the award-winning Yevgenia Nayberg, who illustrated my Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank.

It's the story of Henrietta Szold, who, like Katharine Lee Bates, was a little girl during the Civil War, and whose response to every injustice or need she saw was to create or organize a program to address it.

Ms. Szold opened the first night school in America to teach newly arrived immigrants English so they could succeed in their new home, founded Hadassah, the first charitable organization run by women to address health needs in what was then Palestine and, in her 70s, organized a program that saved 11,000 children during the Holocaust.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: All my books come with free teacher guides, resources, photos of the real people, trailers and a project with a dedicated page on my website so kids can share the great things they do.

For Beautiful Shades of Brown, the project is Paint Your World. Kids are sharing art of themselves, their families and their communities so we can celebrate how beautiful they are.

The project for For Spacious Skies is For Spacious Lines.

Just as Katharine Lee Bates wanted all of us to do our part to make America more beautiful by making it more kind and more just, I'm asking kids to share their thoughts in whatever form -- poetry, prose, song, art -- about why America is beautiful and how together we can make it more beautiful by actions they are taking now or actions they plan to take.

You can find all this on my website on I love opportunities to support librarians, educators and families. I am also excited to return to classroom visits when it is safe to do so! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Nancy Churnin.


  1. Wonderful interview! I learned so much. I love the back story to books. Thank you Nancy and Deborah!