Friday, October 27, 2023

Q&A with Nancy Churnin




Nancy Churnin is the author of several new children's picture books, including Valentines for All and Lila and the Jack-o-Lantern. The author of many other books, she lives in North Texas.


Q: Your new picture book Valentines for All focuses on Esther Howland. How did you learn about her, and what was her impact on the celebration of Valentine's Day?


A: I have always loved Valentine's Day and was always curious about how the traditions like exchanging cards developed. I did some research and while the history of the origins of the holiday goes back centuries, I discovered that the practice of exchanging cards is much more recent.


I was delighted to learn how Esther Howland pioneered the creation and sale of Valentine cards in America back in the 1800s, working out of the third floor of her family's home, at a time when most women were discouraged from working.


The more I learned about her, the more excited I got about telling her story.


When Esther was growing up, Valentine's Day was frowned upon as a waste of time, especially in America. Kids and youth were especially discouraged from exchanging handwritten notes of friendship and love at school on that day.


But Esther believed she could help people use the cards to express feelings that they might not be comfortable saying.


The most apparent effect she had on the celebration of Valentine's Day was to popularize buying and exchanging cards. But the more subtle effect she had was to give people who were not as comfortable expressing their feelings a way to show how they felt.


She created cards for Valentine's Day but later created cards for other occasions, too, helping people to express sympathy for loss, propose to loved ones, and celebrate friendship.


Today, because of Esther, people know they can reach out to help from card writers to say what they want to say and tell people they care about how they feel.


Q: Another new book, Lila and the Jack-o-Lantern, looks at Halloween--what inspired this story?


A: Halloween is another favorite holiday of mine! I was curious about how the traditions that my kids and I love so much began. When I discovered that they were brought to America by Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine of the mid-19th century, I had to know more.


I was drawn to the story of Jack, the trickster, for whom the jack-o'-lantern is named. I was intrigued by how in Ireland, the tradition was to carve turnips to turn them into lanterns to keep Jack away -- making him think the light inside was a spirit.


I learned that carving a pumpkin was an innovation that began when Irish immigrants settled in America; I wondered, at first, if I could find out who started the change. But there's no one person to credit for this.


That's when I realized my book needed to be historical fiction. While the history of the period is meticulously researched, Lila is a fictional girl like so many that made their homes in a new country, missing old traditions and seeking ways to keep them going for herself and others.


I knew from the start that she would make a friend in America -- in the story, that's Julia -- that she'd share her story and learn about this new gourd, a pumpkin, that would help start a new tradition.


For me, that is so much the immigrant story, particularly in America. Immigrants bring their traditions, meld them with what they learn in America, and create something new and wonderful for us all to enjoy. 

Q: You've also written a picture book with Shayna Vincent called Mama's Year with Cancer--can you say more about this book?


A: My dear friend Shayna Vincent couldn't find a book that explained to her young daughters what to expect as she went through a year of treatments for her breast cancer and waited to ring the bell signifying her chemotherapy was over.


So I suggested that we put the book she wanted to have into the world. Mama's Year with Cancer is told through the voice of one of Shayna's daughters.


It takes you through the year, from January to December, as the young narrator learns what cancer is, that it's not catching, that mom will be tired, that her hair will fall out, but there will still be love and laughter, that people will help with meals and that she can also get help from family, friends, school counselor and more.


Sadly, in real life, Shayna's cancer returned and metastasized. She passed on Sept. 12, leaving her beloved husband, Devon, and daughters Mila, 8, and Avivah, 5. But she was deeply involved in this book, doing interviews in August, hoping that this book would help other children and families on the cancer journey.


This book is Shayna's legacy and her family, friends, and I will continue to work hard to make sure that this book gets out into the world, keeping Shayna's caring spirit alive. 


Q: I’m so sorry for this huge loss…she sounds like a wonderful person.


I did want to ask you about your board book that's coming out, Counting on Shabbat. Why did you decide to write a Shabbat counting book?


A: Counting on Shabbat was inspired by seeing my mother's joy when her little great-grandchildren come to visit. In the beginning and middle of our lives we are often surrounded by people, our family and our co-workers. But all too often our seniors are forgotten.


Counting on Shabbat is a 48-word rhyming board book that starts with an elderly man getting ready for Shabbat alone -- along with his four cats. When we get to the number five, there are five knocks on the door, and a family arrives bringing food and cheer.


The structure of the book is counting from one to 10, but what I hope the kids will take away on some level is that this is a book about counting on kindness.


I hope like the kids in the book, kids will create pictures of cheer for our seniors. I hope that parents who read the book to their kids, will bring their families to visit seniors and bring food and cheer on Shabbat -- a weekly celebration of rest and joy -- but also every and any day.

Q: You're incredibly prolific--what's next?


A: I have three books scheduled for 2024 with more on the way. 


Rainbow Allies, the True Story of Kids Who Stood Against Hate, illustrated by Izzy Evans (Beaming Books) is the true story of children who were troubled to find a couple in their neighborhood, Cari and Lauri Ryding, hurt on finding their house egged and their rainbow flag torn from its mount.


The kids thought and thought about how they could show Cari and Lauri they were loved and valued. I hope the true story of their solution will inspire young readers to be allies, too.


A Teddy Bear for Emily and President Roosevelt, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe (Albert Whitman) is historical fiction about a real girl named Emily, who was 9 when her parents, both Jewish immigrants living in Brooklyn, created "Teddy's Bear" to thank the kind president who saved a bear while on a hunting trip.


I have written about immigrants before -- in Lila and the Jack-o'-Lantern and Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing. I love finding stories that show the love and talents that immigrants bring to their new homes so that children will feel good about America being a refuge for those in need and be grateful for the gifts that these immigrants bring us. 


The Festival of Lights, edited by Henry L. Herz (Albert Whitman) is a middle grade anthology of short stories with a Hanukkah theme. It is thrilling for me to see my first middle grade story published.


My story is about a child, Samara, from an interfaith family, where her father was in charge of the Hanukkah celebrations and her mother focused on Christmas.


Now, with her father in the hospital, Samara struggles to remember what he taught her about Hanukkah and figure out how to create a special Festival of Lights for herself and her parents amid challenges and worries about her father's health. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: All my books come with resources, free teacher guides and projects on my website. You'll find pages for this year's books on You can be sure I will be adding pages with resources, guides, and projects for my 2024 books as we get closer!


The projects are designed for kids to be heroes and heroines like the people in the stories. I hope that the young readers who participate will send me photos of their kind deeds so I can share them on my project pages where they will inspire others to do good things, too.


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

No comments:

Post a Comment