Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
Nancy Churnin is the theater critic for the Dallas Morning News and author of The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game (Albert Whitman & Company), on the 2016 New York Public Library Best Books for Kids list, the 2017 Texas Library Association's 2X2 and Topaz lists, and the 2018 Illinois School Library Media Association's Monarch Award Master List. Her Manjhi Moves a Mountain (Creston Books), a 2017 Junior Library Guild fall selection, will be out in September 2017. A native New Yorker, Churnin is a graduate of Harvard University, with a master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism.
A journalist-turned-author, Nancy Churnin brought back a baseball hero for the ages in her debut book The William Hoy Story, launching a career telling true stories of inspiration for young readers. By day Churnin is the theater critic for the Dallas Morning News. She spoke with us via email for Lone Star Listens.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: From a native Texan to a native New Yorker, welcome to the Lone Star State, Nancy. What brought you to our fair state?
NANCY CHURNIN: My husband, Michael Granberry, and I met while working for the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times, where I was the theater critic. He got an opportunity to move back to his native Dallas when he was offered a job writing “High Profile” for the Dallas Morning News. We moved as a family with our boys, and soon I started writing for the DMN too. It's been great to bring the boys up in such a family-friendly place. Also, I’ve loved working at the DMN. While I’ve covered many things over the years, filling in as needed, it’s been a special joy to be given the opportunity to cover theater again. Theater is one of the most important ways we build empathy and discover our common humanity. And Dallas–Fort Worth has amazing theater. It’s bustling with artists passionate about their mission.
You’re a graduate of Harvard with a master’s from the Columbia University School of Journalism — not exactly the usual path one takes to writing children’s books. What attracted you to authoring books for younger readers?
I’ve always loved books, reading and writing for as long as I can remember. My great joys were the “library” my parents built in our home — one room with floor to ceiling books on every wall — and the New York Public Library where it was a thrill to move up from the kid library card (where you were limited to two books) to the grown-up card (which led to me walking home several blocks, lugging twelve books from the library at each visit). I actually remember selecting my freshman English class based on which ones required the most books (the more the better)! As a mom, I loved to read to my boys as my mom had read to me, sometimes reading old favorites and other times discovering wonderful new books through the library’s recommended book lists. And as for how I ended up authoring books for younger readers, that leads me to the answer for your next question.
Your first book, The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game, was selected for numerous prestigious reading lists. Will you tell our readers about this book?
I was writing about children’s entertainment at the time for the Dallas Morning News and I was fascinated by a play called “The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy” that Garland High School was presenting. It was the first I’d ever heard of the deaf player who taught umpires signals (that we still use today) so he could play the game he loved. I interviewed one of the co-playwrights, Allen Meyer, for an advance that ran in the Guide section of the paper. I received an email thanking me for the story from one Steve Sandy in Ohio. I emailed him back that he was welcome, but why was someone in Ohio interested in a play in a high school in Garland, Texas? Steve explained to me that he is deaf and is a friend and trusted spokesman for the Hoy family. He has William Hoy on Google Alerts! We got to be email friends.
I learned that Steve’s dream was for Hoy, his fellow Ohio native, to be inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where he would be the first deaf player honored there. I was determined to help make his dream come true. I wondered: Who are the most powerful people I know? And I knew...kids! With Steve’s extensive research and help in understanding what it was like for Hoy in particular and a deaf person in general to grow up in that era, I would write a book for kids and the kids would write letters that would help William Hoy get into the Hall of Fame. It took a long time for me to learn the craft of children’s book writing and to get it right. But inspired by William, I persisted, and ultimately William Hoy helped me get my wonderful agent, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary, and my fabulous editor, Wendy McClure, at Albert Whitman & Company. I could not be more grateful and happy that so many kids and adults have taken William’s story to their hearts. I’m so grateful to all the librarians for putting the book on their wonderful lists, the very lists I used to look at when I was picking books for my kids. That has done so much to spread the word and get William’s story in more hands.
In The William Hoy Story I loved the pictures by Jez Tuya. How did you and he collaborate on the book together?
One of the many fascinating things about the world of picture books is that the writer and the illustrator don’t talk directly throughout the creation of the book. However, my editor shared Jez Tuya’s early drawings with me and I ran them by Steve Sandy for historical accuracy. I was blown away by Tuya’s artistry from the start and his ability to give a historical look a fun, contemporary feel, while conveying William’s emotions. When William sits on that bench after being humiliated at bat, my cheeks get red and my eyes sting. And when he cries at the end, I cry, too. That’s Jez.
Steve was enormously helpful with original photographs and drawings of William and of the period. That helped Jez get the hair styles, clothes and uniforms right, and details such as reminding us that William didn’t wear a baseball glove — that gloves only got introduced to the game at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, just around the time William retired in 1902. If I may give another shout-out to Jez, his illustration from the final page of the book is on display at the Mazza Museum of International Art from Picture Books in Findlay, Ohio, and was recently made part of a Mazza Museum traveling exhibition called “Ohio: The Start of It All” at the Riffe Gallery in Columbus, Ohio.
Your newest book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain, launches this week and has already been picked as Junior Library Guild selection for 2017. Can you tell our readers what this book is about and why were you inspired to write it?
Writing The William Hoy Story and sharing it with kids has been a wonderful, eye-opening experience. It made me wonder how many more stories there are of hidden heroes and heroines — people kids don’t yet know, that aren't discussed in most of their history books, but they would feel better, inspired and empowered by knowing.
The first school at which I presented The William Hoy Story was the Stonewall Jackson Elementary School for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired (which I designated as the fundraising recipient for both the William Hoy launch and now the Manjhi launch). I was shocked and moved when a teacher there told me this would be one of the very few books they had about deaf heroes. I started looking for other stories that hadn’t been told. When I found an article about Manjhi, and how he worked selflessly for twenty-two years to chisel a path through a mountain to make things better for people in his village, he seized my heart and wouldn’t let go. I knew this would be a tougher go than William. After all, William loved baseball — an easy thing for kids to understand! Could I write a book about a man who chiseled a mountain for twenty-two years? But I lead with my heart; it’s the only way I know how to go. I had to tell Manjhi's story.
I was lucky again, that my agent, Karen Grencik, loved Manjhi, too. She found Manjhi a wonderful home with Marissa Moss of Creston Books, and we went back and forth on the narrative and each and every word choice, until we made it through the mountain. Marissa chose Danny Popovici to illustrate and his watercolors have been magical and full of soul. What I was hoping from the beginning was that Manjhi would show kids and adults that the most ordinary among us can be extraordinary if we have a vision and don't give up, even if others make fun or can’t see what we see. I want us all to be Manjhis and that's why I created a program, Move Your Own Mountain, on my website, where kids can share photos and stories of what they’ve done to move mountains in their schools and communities. That way, I hope we can make kindness spread.
Many readers may not realize that you have a day job as the theater critic of the Dallas Morning News. How are you able to juggle being a journalist and an author?
I love both my jobs! I love theater. As with books, it’s been a passion of mine since I was little. Growing up in New York, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful cousin, Bill Bickel, who took me to all the Broadway shows. That’s right, we were two little kids traveling the subway or bus together to catch Wednesday and Saturday matinees and I am thankful that it was always a wonderful experience with none of the problems I would have worried about now as a mother sending my own kids out on their own at that age! My editors and colleagues at the DMN have been very supportive. Many have written books themselves, including my editor, Michael Merschel, author of Revenge of the Star Survivors, whom you profiled recently, too! As to how I have time, well, some people have hobbies; they cook, or garden or shop or decorate. My talents are pretty much limited to one thing — writing. So when I finish my stories for the DMN and want to relax, the first thing I turn to is a manuscript. It’s been great.
As an author for young readers, which books did you read growing up? Which ones were memorable, and which ones do you still find inspiring today?
The first book my mother read to me was The Wizard of Oz. I loved it so much I made her read it to me again and again. The one compromise I made was that she could read two chapters on Saturday so she could skip Sunday. You’re welcome, Mom.
But I loved everything. I loved The Chronicles of Narnia and The Little House in the Big Woods books and I was obsessed with everything Louisa May Alcott had ever written. I also read Charles Dickens from a young age, and Leo Tolstoy, and I loved the romantic poets that my father loved, particularly Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and both Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and my mother’s favorite, Emily Dickinson. I love A Wrinkle in Time, everything by Roald Dahl and Bernard Malamud, Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. (Sorry, I am forever mixing up “adult” and “children’s book” authors.) J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (and Jenny Nimmo’s Charlie Bone) came along at a wonderful time for me. These were books I could enjoy and talk and think about endlessly with my kids. They inspired me to write children’s books that are for everyone, that break down the age barriers. My goal is to write books that take us on journeys that resonate with everyone. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to share The William Hoy Story with all ages, from preschool to senior citizens. I hope it’s the same for Manjhi, too.
For five years running you’ve uncovered fascinating true stories for young people to discover. But, I understand you ran into a fair amount of rejection before you broke through to publishing success. What was your first big break, and how would you describe it?
My first big break was The William Hoy Story, and my first attempts at the book led to a lot of rejection! When I promised Steve Sandy I would write a children’s book about Hoy, I thought, how hard can it be? A picture book is less than 1,000 words. I write longer stories than that every day. I write multiple stories longer than that every day!
It took me a while to process that a picture book is very different from a newspaper article. You can’t write it from outside the character. You have to get inside. You have create opportunities for page turns and illustrations in a story that takes kids on an emotional journey. You have to chuck the safety of distance and feel the humiliation of your character, but here’s the thing — you also get to experience the joy. Breaking down the walls between me and my characters has been the absolutely hardest thing I’ve ever done — and the best.
As to how I got my break, I joined lots of online children’s book writing support groups and took lots of online children’s book writing classes. One group I subscribed to in 2013 was called 12X12. Julie Hedlund (who will be at this year’s North Texas SCBWI conference in September) started it with a mission of writing twelve books in twelve months. It also offered the perk of submitting to an agent each month. In July of 2013, I submitted William Hoy to Karen Grencik. She got back to me within the hour and wanted to send it out! We got a bunch of nice, regretful rejections with a continuing theme — no one wants a birth-to-death biography anymore; they want a biography with a focus. I thought and thought and realized that the focus had to be sign language, and how the very thing that made William different, his deafness, was not an obstacle, but a gift. If he wasn’t deaf, he wouldn’t know the signs, and the signs made the game better for everyone. I rewrote it. It sold soon afterwards in 2014 and came out in March 2016. It’s been selling well ever since. It's been translated into Japanese and they love it there, too!
A major children’s book a year. How do you do it? What’s your creative process like?
I am like the cartoon character that runs past the cliff. As long as you don’t look down, you don’t fall! I just keep going, doing what I love to do, have faith it will get done and it gets done. I am a morning person. Often I will work on my manuscripts in the morning before my Dallas Morning News workday begins. Sometimes I devote weekend days to my manuscripts. My brain is able to compartmentalize. Mentally I feel like I have a cursor that can go to the file I need when I need it. And again, what compels me is passion. I never have a shortage of ideas. That cup overflows.
But I’ve learned over time to tell the difference between ideas that intrigue me and ideas that possess me. I write the ones in the order of the passion I feel for them. And, just so you know, I have three books coming out in 2018: Charlie Takes His Shot: How Charlie Broke the Color Barrier in Golf (Jan. 1, Albert Whitman); Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing (spring, Creston Books); The Princess and the First Christmas Tree (fall, Albert Whitman). All are written and the first two are illustrated; the third one is in the process of being illustrated.
Overcoming the odds, and being comfortable with being different, are recurring themes in your books. In fact, you’ve gone a step further with creating Move Your Own Mountain. Would you tell our readers about that?
I wrote The William Hoy Story with the goal of getting William into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, so there was a natural project for kids — writing letters to the Hall. I could see when I presented the book that kids welcomed the opportunity to help. That made me think of how each of the books I wrote could include interaction and give kids a chance to put their new understanding and insights to work. I created the Move Your Own Mountain so children inspired by Manjhi can share photos and stories of ways in which they move mountains in their schools and communities.
With Charlie Takes His Shot, the story of Charlie Sifford’s long, lonely journey to become the first black golfer in the PGA, I’m working on a program called We Helped Them Take Their Shots, where kids can share how they helped give someone a chance. We’ll celebrate what kids do to encourage or be a buddy to others and give others a shot at achieving their dreams. I love spending time with kids, sharing these stories and hearing their questions and ideas. Their hearts and minds are so open and caring; they give me hope for the future.
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The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game
“This picture book offers a smoothly written text and simplified digital illustrations. A rewarding read-aloud choice for baseball fans.” —Booklist
“Tuya‘s bright cartoons give a solid sense of the period, as well as Hoy‘s pride, satisfaction and some hurtful moments on his way to becoming ‘king of center field.’” —Publishers Weekly
“[Churnin] tells William’s story patiently and clearly, with a wonderfully matter-of-fact tone about the ways a deaf person navigates life.” —New York Times Book Review
“Churnin tells Hoy’s story in sprightly, descriptive language that reaches to the heart of his courage and ingenuity. Tuya’s bright, flat, cartoon-simple illustrations complement the text perfectly, deftly capturing the era, Hoy’s emotional ups and downs, and his determination and spirit. A moving tribute to a hero.”
“The book is well told and charmingly illustrated in a semirealistic style that conveys Hoy's emotions. Those who enjoyed Audrey Vernick’s Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team will want to read this engaging biography.” —School Library Journal
Manjhi Moves a Mountain
“This true life story of an Indian sage who became revered and known as the Mountain Man is inspiring and moving to young readers age five and up. Beautiful earth-toned illustrations depict the mighty work of Manjhi and the awe and respect of his village friends. Manjhi Moves a Mountain is a true modern treasure and wisdom life story.” —Midwest Book Review
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