Nancy Churnin Talks New Books & Jewish Women's Kidlit Representation
Updated: Feb 4, 2022
An author interview with deep connections between two writers, friends, and solutionaries!
Meeg Pincus here, founder of Solutionary Stories. I'm so excited to share with you the following interview with the wonderful author Nancy Churnin!
I met Nancy when I was just moving into kidlit nonfiction, after years working in the adult nonfiction world. Nancy was so generous with her time and encouragement as I reached out to her and followed in her footsteps writing nonfiction picture books—and we just clicked. I’m delighted and honored to now call her a colleague and friend.
More importantly, Nancy’s books are among my all-time favorite Solutionary Stories—and her two latest ones about fascinating Jewish women are no exception! Nancy has the most compassionate storyteller’s heart, combined with a reporter’s nose to dig up the best research. Read on to learn more about Nancy’s books, and her broader mission.
MP: Nancy, I’m going to jump right in and talk about your latest Solutionary Stories. First, I have to say that I love all of your books, but Dear Mr. Dickens may just be my all-time favorite! It just speaks to my own heart in so many ways. Can you share the story of this story with us? How did you come to it and what do you hope for it?
NC: There’s a long answer and a short answer to this question and I will try to give you the best of both! The long answer is that I’ve loved Charles Dickens since I was a child, but was hurt and perplexed by how a man with such a big heart for those in need could create the ugly Jewish stereotype of Fagin in Oliver Twist. I always wished I could write a letter to him, telling him how it made me feel and how much damage portrayals like this can do.
Skip ahead decades to 2013, before my first book is published, when I am sitting in my local public library, researching a subject I cannot now remember on the computer, and my attention drifts to Dickens again. I read an essay about him and was stopped by a few lines about how a Jewish woman, Eliza Davis, did the very thing I had dreamed of doing! Eliza had written to Dickens, challenging his portrayal of Fagin and pointing out how this portrayal, created by a man of as much influence as Dickens, exacerbated the antisemitism in England at that time. Not only that, she persisted in her correspondence until she changed his heart. There was only a sentence or two about Eliza Davis in this essay, but I had to know more, I had to find those letters, I had to tell her story.
It had an almost fairy tale like quality to me, finding that what I had dreamed of – writing a letter to Dickens – was a true story that showed Dickens did have a great heart after all. Because it takes a great heart to acknowledge wrong and to make amends. My hope for Dear Mr. Dickens is that it will encourage kids to speak up when they see anyone say or do something that is not right, including someone they otherwise admire, and that it will remind us all that there is greatness in acknowledging our mistakes and doing better.
Finally, I hope readers will see the greatness in forgiveness, too. When Dickens does better, Eliza not only forgives, she admires him all the more. In the back matter, you’ll see how she refers to the “nobility” of his character in a letter to Dickens’ daughter, Mamie, after Dickens’ death.
MP: Wow, that's amazing, Nancy, and I say that book was meant to be for you!
Then there’s your other wonderful new book, A Queen To The Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah. This is such a powerful story about a little-known, independent and hugely impactful woman. Please share with us about this story—what does it mean to you and what do you hope young readers take from it?
NC: I have always been drawn to people who seem ordinary and relatable, whose key to greatness is, simply, a dream and persistence to achieve that dream and make the world a better place. Nobody expected Henrietta Szold to change the world. She was born Dec. 21, 1860, a few months before the Civil War to a rabbi and his wife in Baltimore. She was a woman at a time when women had few rights and were not expected to get an education or be independent.
But Henrietta had a passion to heal the world. She would see a problem and come up with a solution that involved organizing a group to carry out her idea. When immigrants arrived in America, frightened and not knowing the country’s customs or language, she created the first night school in America so they could get better jobs and feel more at comfort in their new home. When she saw poverty and a lack of medical care in Palestine, she created the first charity founded and run by women, Hadassah, to raise money to help.
Then, when she was ready to retire, she learned about children at risk during the Holocaust. In her seventies, she took a boat to the heart of Nazi Germany to plead with authorities for visas for children and with parents to trust her with their children’s wellbeing. She saved 11,000. I had always wondered why no one had ever written a picture book about Henrietta Szold.
It wasn’t until I started my research, I realized the problem. The woman had done so much, it was going to be a challenge to fit it into a picture book and make it kid-friendly, too. It all came together when I realized how Queen Esther, the queen who spoke up to save her people, was a role model for her. Not only is Hadassah the Hebrew name for Esther, she founded Hadassah on Purim, the Jewish holiday where we celebrate Queen Esther.
Her story is an opportunity to remind all of us, boys and girls, that we can all stand up, be brave and help others – and also that we are stronger together. Henrietta empowered others by working with them to make a difference. I hope her story inspires kids to team up with others to do good and also, in Henrietta’s words, to “Dare to dream, and when you dream, dream big.”
MP: She really was an amazing woman and I'm so glad you've told her story for kids! Now, not all of your books are about Jewish women, but I imagine these two books are particularly personal for you. Can you share some of your thoughts about why stories of Jewish women—and other Jewish solutionaries—are important to you? And why are they important for kids?
NC: It goes back to the concept of windows and mirrors in children’s books. As a Jewish child and voracious reader growing up, I keenly felt the lack of windows, where others can see you, and mirrors, where you see yourself, with regard to Jewish girls and women. The boys, it seemed, had more Jewish role models – athletes and scientists and judges and entrepreneurs. But for girls, there was Anne Frank and Golda Meir and…was there anyone else?
The funny thing is that Henrietta Szold was around, but I didn’t know about her, although Ruth Bader Ginsburg did. In fact, I have a letter that RBG wrote to a bat mitzvah girl, telling her that the two women she admires most are Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, and Anne Frank! RBG credits Henrietta for showing her what women can do, which is a reminder of how powerful mirrors can be for helping us to be all we can be.
MP: So true, and I loved that mention of RBG's letter in the book's back matter. To follow up on that question, what have been your observations about Jewish representation in children’s publishing, especially in our nonfiction genre? Is there anything else you’d like to see in that vein?
NC: I think Jewish representation has been improving greatly from when I was a child. I give a lot of credit for that to PJ Library, which has provided a great market for Jewish publishers as well as a powerful incentive for mainstream publishers to publish books with Jewish content. In fact, I credit PJ Library for the genesis of A Queen to the Rescue because I workshopped it in PJ Library’s wonderful Tent program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The problem, though, is that because PJ Library books are sent out to thousands of families with young children, there are restrictions on the content and that limits nonfiction offerings. PJ Library is careful not to include any books that include death or the Holocaust, judging that these difficult subjects are for parents to introduce to kids as they see fit. That makes sense, but it also leaves out many—not all—biographies that mention either one, including A Queen to the Rescue and your wonderful Miep and the Most Famous Diary. So those books require publishers to believe in the books, knowing that they won’t get that same boost that their fictional or holiday-themed Jewish books will. In a way, I like this though because it means that Jewish-themed subjects take their place among the larger group of biographies and nonfiction.
I was also thrilled when Little Free Libraries started a Jewish category for their #ReadInColor program and selected Dear Mr. Dickens to be part of it. It would be wonderful to see Jewish-themed books to be more generally considered an essential part of diverse reading.
MP: Yes, Nancy, I cherished PJ Library as a parent (my kids grew up in their free Jewish book program and I was so grateful for it!) and I also share your mixed feelings about our own nonfiction books and the tough topics in Jewish history. (And fabulous news about LFL!)
One other thing we have in common, you and I have talked over the years about how we share a passion for telling what I like to call Solutionary Stories. How do you relate to this idea, and how does it fit with your overall mission as a children’s nonfiction author?
NC: It is my hope that Solutionary Stories inspire solutionary lives – because that is our hope for a better future for us all and for the generations to come. I write Solutionary Stories because it is my dream, always, that a reader’s experience doesn’t end on the last page of my book, but that a new page begins—one that the reader writes. I’m trying to create books that are doors that children walk through to become heroes and heroines of their own lives.
That’s why I create a complementary project for each of my books. For Dear Mr. Dickens, the project is Dear… I hope that kids, like Eliza, will write to someone in a position of influence to ask them to make a change for the better. With permission I hope to share copies of those letters on a dedicate Dear… page on my website, nancychurnin.com.
For A Queen to the Rescue, the project is Heal the World. I hope that like Henrietta, kids will be inspired to find ways to help people in their communities because that is how we heal the world. I would love to work with Hadassah chapters to support and encourage some of those good deeds, so kids can know the value of working together to help others. With permission from parents and teachers, I hope to share and celebrate photos of those good deeds on the Heal the World page on my website.
MP: Great projects, and I'm so with you—my goal with Solutionary Stories and presentations is also to get kids thinking about their own unique passions, talents, and traits to find where they want to make a difference in the world. We are definitely kindred spirits in this way!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? And please let them know where they can find and follow you!
NC: I am so grateful to have met you, Meeg, and to join you on this mission to get more solutionary stories out into the world. I would also like readers to think deeply about their own personal voice and the unique ways they may have to have to help our world. Too often, children especially are encouraged to think of life as a game with winners and losers. It is too easy to lose sight of how we are all running different races in different ways.
The important thing is not who gets where first but if we’re all helping each other move towards light and hope and love. There are so many different ways to contribute and even within the writing world, there are so many different stories to tell in so many different ways. I often think of this lyric from the musical, Hamilton: “The world was wide enough.” The world is indeed wide—and wiser than we are.
I hope readers will find the light they need in these stories I’ve written to take them where they need to go. I’m excited to anticipate the journeys to come.
Please visit me on my website for free resources, teacher guides, projects and more:
On Facebook: Nancy Churnin
On Facebook: Nancy Churnin Children’s Books
On Twitter: @nchurnin
On Instagram: @nchurnin
MP: Beautiful, Nancy (oh, that Hamilton quote and your sentiments!). I'm so grateful to know you, too, and that kids get to enjoy your beautiful books—thank you so much!