#20Questions with Author Nancy Churnin
Updated: Feb 4
Author Nancy Churnin shares about hunting for facts and a certain groups of words in this inspiring #20questions post!
Throughout 2020, we posted #20questions interviews with the authors and illustrators of #DiverseKidlitNF books. We thought it would be fun and fascinating to hear the diverse answers from our diverse creators, about our books’ diverse topics, using the same #20questions for each author and illustrator.
By the end of 2020, our blog will host a fabulous resource for educators, librarians, and conference organizers about creating high-quality, diverse nonfiction picture books, and what makes our #DiverseKidlitNF books and creators special.
Now, enjoy learning more about BEAUTIFUL SHADES OF BROWN and Nancy Churnin!
1. Nancy, what inspired you to write this book?
It troubled me that I didn’t know more or see more works of art by women and by artists of color. I kept thinking that these works of art existed, but kids and others didn’t know about them because people are left out of our historical narrative. I came across a magnificent portrait of the singer Marian Anderson that had been painted by Laura Wheeler Waring. I felt compelled to learn everything I could about her. I was moved by the power of her personal story and felt I had to share it. Here she was, a woman growing up in a time of segregation and she was using her paintbrush to make a case for equality – for portraits of people of color to travel the country and then later to be hung in museums.
It says a lot about the power of her work that the traveling exhibition that featured her work ended after the Brown v. Board of Ed. decision that integrated schools, because the presenters felt her goals of encouraging integration had been accomplished. Of course we know that much more needed and needs to be done and part of continuing that work involves more visibility and inclusion of people of color in our history, our present and our future. I am proud to have written the first picture book about Laura Wheeler Waring and to have had the benefit of the incredible illustrator, Felicia Marshall, to bring Ms. Waring’s realistic style and brilliant use of shades of brown to life.
2. How did you approach the research for this book?
Because there had been no previous book about Laura Wheeler Waring, I had to do a lot of research beyond what I could cobble together from a paragraph here and a paragraph there. Curators at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, where her paintings hang today, were incredibly helpful in chasing down facts for me. Also, when the curators were at a loss, Ms. Waring’s great-niece, Madeline Murphy Rabb, who gave us permission to reproduce Ms. Waring’s portraits in the book, and her family members, filled in gaps. I couldn’t have done this without their help and support.
3. What’s something that surprised you while researching this book?
I am still shocked that Laura Wheeler Waring is not better known. Her work is gorgeous and passionate and profound. One thing I focus on in the book is what a remarkable colorist she was. But what is astounding is not just the variations she created on what we think of as one color – brown – but the statement she made with those hues. In her own quiet way – and she was a quiet person, who spoke through her paintbrush – her beautiful shades of brown said, loud and clear, that we are all unique. That just as no two people have exactly the same color of skin, no two people are exactly alike and should be appreciated and respected as the individuals they are.
4. What was your favorite part about writing this book?
My editor, Marissa Moss, challenged me to come up with many variations of ways to describe the different shades of brown, to reflect Ms. Waring’s variations in painting the shades. It was a lot of fun exploring all those different shades of brown!
5. What was the hardest part about writing this book?
Tracking down details that couldn’t be found in other books or accounts. I am so grateful to the curators at the Smithsonian and to Madeline Murphy Rabb for helping me figure out what was happening in Ms. Waring’s life in specific years.
6. Who is this book’s ideal reader, in your eyes?
This book is aimed at any child who would be inspired by a story of someone with an unlikely dream, who persevered and made it come true – someone who in making her dream come true made the world a better and more inclusive place. I hope it will also be of special interest to girls and children of color looking for role models in the art world.
7. What do you want kids to know about this book?
That if you don’t see people who look like you or your family and community represented in any field that it’s up to you to help put them there – whether you are creating the work or opportunity or helping others to do so.
8. What do you want educators and librarians to know about this book?
All my books are designed to take what inspires you and bring it into the world so that kids can be the heroes of their own stories. To that end, not only do I provide free teacher guides and resources, but I create a project for each book with a dedicated page where kids can share the great things they do. For Beautiful Shades of Brown, the project is Paint Your World. I’m asking kids to share artwork of people in their family and community so we can celebrate the beauty of those we love, the beauty that is all around us.
9. Who is the publisher for this book?
Creston Books is the publisher and Lerner Books is the distributor.
10. When is the official release date for this book?
Feb. 4, 2020
11. What do you like most about writing children’s nonfiction books?
I love that moment of wonder when kids finish the book and are amazed that there was a real person, not so different from them, who accomplished great things against the odds. I love the encouragement it gives them that they can do great things, too.
12. What’s the biggest challenge in writing children’s nonfiction books?
The biggest challenge is getting inside your character’s heart and mind. While all the facts have to be correct – and that can be its own challenge to track those down – it’s not a story until you can feel what the person felt and express those feelings the way he or she might have expressed them. So you have to bring someone to life who was alive and be true to that person’s spirit, which is something you have to divine from a mix of facts, intuition and grace.
13. How did you get into writing children’s nonfiction books?
I became friends with Steve Sandy, who is Deaf, and shared with me his dream that more kids would know the story of the great Deaf baseball player, William Hoy, who introduced signs to baseball so he could play the game he loved. My dream was to make his dream come true. It took many years to learn the craft and it took a lot of stubbornness to not give up, but finally The William Hoy Story became my debut book in 2016. While I had taken on the book for Steve, I discovered my own passion for writing books on the journey and soon I was creating other books about people who deserved to be better known for making a positive difference in the world.
14. Which other children’s nonfiction books inspire you?
I am inspired by all books that are written from the heart with the goal of empowering kids to believe in themselves and make the world a better place. I am so proud to be part of #20truePBs and to support each and every one of the great books on our list.
15. Do you have other jobs besides writing children’s books? (If so, what?)
I was a longtime journalist and theater critic until January 2019 when I became a full-time children’s book author. Now I write, present and teach.
16. What’s something that surprised you about being a children’s book author?
While it’s important to learn your craft, there is nothing cookie-cutter about the journey. Each book has its own challenges, perils, pitfalls, joys. You learn with each book. As Theodore Roethke wrote in “The Waking”: “…take the lively air,/And, lovely, learn by going where to go.”
17. What’s something about you that would surprise kids to know?
I love to sing, I find wisdom in musicals and a Jerry Herman tune can always lift me up.
18. What do you think makes a great nonfiction writer?
Curiosity, perseverance and love.
19. Do you have any advice for kids who want to write children’s books?
Find what you are passionate about, dig in and don’t be deterred. Read and learn as much as you can, but don’t try to be like anyone else. Each of us is different and the world needs all our different voices. Be true to your voice and what is in your heart to say. Not only will you will find your way, but you may provide the wisdom for the world has been waiting.
20. Where can people find you online?
My website, nancychurnin.com, has resources, free teacher guides, readers theater, trailers and a project, Paint Your World. You can also find me on Facebook at Nancy Churnin Children’s Books, on Twitter @nchurnin, on Instagram @nchurnin and Pinterest @nchurnin. I love to do school visits and presentations for all ages and can be booked through Authors and More at authorsandmore.com.