THE BOOK OF LIFE - The Biography Queen
12:53AM Sep 16, 2019
god bless america
COLD OPEN One of the places I went back to for wisdom was Rodgers and Hammerstein. Remember that song they wrote, "you've got to be carefully taught"? And that was a song, by the way, that the producers wanted to cut. "Why do we have this song? It just slows everything down." And they said, "this is the whole point of the show. This is why we wrote it. "And you've got to be taught before it's too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people, your relatives hate. You've got to be carefully taught. Well, if that's when you've got to be taught to hate. I think we need to step in there with a picture book that teaches them how to love.
MUSIC INTRO This is The Book of Life. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. We are in a golden age of picture book biographies, and one prolific biographer is Nancy Churnin. She's got half a dozen bios out and more on the way, and each one is inspiring in its own way. Nancy attended the 2019 Association of Jewish libraries conference to take part in the authors' luncheon, where she represented her Jewish-interest books Irving Berlin, The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, and Martin and Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank. I was happy to snag this live interview with her during the conference.
Nancy Churnin, it's so nice to have you here. We're meeting at the Association of Jewish libraries conference in Los Angeles.
It's lovely to be here. Thank you for inviting me on the podcast, Heidi.
Sure. Thank you for coming. Nancy, what got you started on writing biographies?
I started writing biographies because of a friendship I developed with a deaf man named Steve Sandy. I had written an article in the Dallas Morning News about William Hoy, the deaf baseball player who introduced signs to baseball in the 1800s so he could play the game he loved. He couldn't hear the umpire, so he taught them signs. I thought this was so amazing. I didn't know that's where the signs for "safe" and "out" came from. Well, after this ran in the morning news, I got a thank you note from Steve and I wrote back and we started a friendship. And he shared with me his dream that more people would know about this great deaf hero. And I said, "Well, what if I write a children's book about him?" And he said, "Great. "And I said, "Would you help me?" and he had all the research was a friend of the Hoy family and had articles going way back when, articles back when they used to draw pictures, instead of running photographs, and it was incredible. And the only problem with my promise was that I'd never written a children's book before. And so my first attempts, editors would say, "Well, this is very nice, but it reads like a newspaper article." Well, I was a journalist, of course it read like a newspaper article. So I knew I had to go back to the drawing board. I took classes, I joined critique groups, I wrote, I wrote, I wrote, I wrote. I made the promise in 2003; the William Hoy Story came out in 2016. I am so glad I didn't give up because I found on that journey, that I loved writing children's book biographies, that I love this opportunity to shine a light on people who deserved a light. And it just sent me out looking for more people. I have now had biographies come out every year since 2016. And as of January, I became a full time children's book writer.
Oh, mazel tov!
How do you select the subjects for your biographies?
It is a mixture of elements. A part of it is that I'm looking for people who, for me, have not only made their own dreams come true against the odds, but have made the world a better place. That's very important to me, I've got to be able to see that that dream made the world better. And I'm out there looking for people who don't have a million books about them, who the kids might not know about otherwise. Before I wrote Irving Berlin, I would sing God Bless America to the kids where I was presenting books and I said, "Do you know who wrote this song?" and ...silence. Sometimes one hand would go up, and I would call on that child, and the child would say, "Did you write it?" And of course, I would say "that song was written 100 years ago. And while I am older than all of you in this classroom, I am not that old yet." And so that's why I realized there was a need for an Irving Berlin book. So adults know about him. Certainly the Jewish community knows about him. But I wanted all kids to know that an immigrant, that a Jewish immigrant, had written this patriotic song. And I wanted them to know why he wrote it, and I also wanted them to know what he did with it, how he used it as a way of giving back to the country he loved.
Is there anything that would make you reject someone as a subject for a biography?
I have to be in love with the person. People say, "Oh, you know, most writers are kind of shy, they don't even want to talk about their works." I never feel like I'm talking about my books, because I feel like I'm advocating for the people I've written about. I only write about people I am in love with. I want you to know about Irving Berlin. And I want you to know about William Hoy. And, and we'll talk soon about Dr. King and Anne Frank who of course, are more famous, but there's a special reason I wrote that book. But I will not write about someone that I don't love or admire or I don't feel made a positive difference in the world. I'll leave that for someone else.
Okay, so you just brought up something I wanted to talk about. You like to bring attention to lesser known historical figures. But you wrote about people as famous as Irving Berlin, Anne Frank, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why did you choose them as subjects?
With Martin and Anne ... I would not normally have written a book about Martin, or a book about Anne, but when I realized they born in the same year in 1929, and that was the year of the Great Depression, and I could see these connections between the two, how they had grown up, the parallels between the hate that they faced and how they met it with love, and how they found words to express their vision of a better world, I thought, these are kindred spirits. And I have to say, especially because this is The Book of Life podcast, I remember that in the Yom Kippur and the Rosh Hashanah services, I remember seeing somebody had written something about contrasting a child who had experienced a bar mitzvah during the Holocaust and in modern days, and it went back and forth and back and forth. I remember how terribly moved I was, and I thought, I am interested in this contrast between these two. And this is an opportunity also, in a world that is very fragmented, very polarized, I can show kids, that two people of different genders, different races, different religions, different countries, different languages, how their hearts could beat with the same hope. And that I hoped in this way, it would bring different communities together. And I have had that experience because I got to share this at the National Civil Rights Museum, as part of the Ruby Bridges Reading Festival, and in front of communities that didn't really know much about Anne Frank. And I've got to share this now, I'm about to share this with the Pasadena Jewish Temple, and I'm sure they know Dr. King, but still with Jewish communities who don't think about that connection. And that I hope will bring the communities together and even larger communities together. So we will think beyond our differences, and will think to what we have in common. That's why I wrote about the two, very much because of the connection. There are other books you can read that are going to tell you more about Martin, there are other books are going to read it and tell you more about Anne, but this book is going to tell you what connected these two people, their hope and their love for a better world. I chose Irving Berlin because I had already written The William Hoy Story, Manji Moves a Mountain, Charlie Takes His Shot. And so I was experienced going in and doing school visits. And I live in North Texas. I'm a native New Yorker but I've lived now for many years in North Texas. And nobody knew who wrote the song, I am telling you, all these kids, the teachers, they did not know who wrote God Bless America. And they did not know also that it was an immigrant. And I felt that not only did they not know about Irving Berlin, but I also had a special thing to share about how he wrote it, and how he used three notes from the Shema in God Bless America. And so that underscores, not only how this song was like a prayer to him, but how he brought his Jewish heritage and being an immigrant to America. To mix.... it's almost like a compound. You have two elements. They're not just a mixture. They are a compound because something changes when these two come together. And with Irving Berlin, that was his music, the music of the synagogue, the music of his heritage, the music that he came here with, mixed with the music of the streets and made something special. And I wanted kids to know that about him and that had not been written about him before.
What's your favorite Irving Berlin song?
Oh, that is the hardest question you could possibly ask me! I mean, God Bless America... my mother used to wake up in the morning singing that song, it meant so much to her. But I tell you, you know, Blue Skies always gets to me. And I know that he wrote "blue skies shining on me, nothing but blue skies do I see." And he wrote that at the birth of his first child. And as a mom, I don't know. It's just his optimism. Irving Berlin went through so much. I mean, coming here as an immigrant at five years old, everything he knew behind losing his father when he's just 13, losing his first wife to illness. And yet he always still believed that the world was a good place. And he still found a way to celebrate good things that happened, that "blue skies, shining on me..." I mean, sometimes I just go back to it, because it's all about joy and new life. I don't know... that's just personal. But I love all of his songs. I mean, I can sit and just... one of my most wonderful presentations I do with Mark Reditor, who was a music educator in Dallas, who was the one who taught me about how Irving Berlin and other Jewish composers use the prayers in their music. He taught me that and sometimes we present together and he plays the piano. I mean, I just get lost in the music when he plays and he could just go on and we always end in a sing along. And I have to say, there was one little girl, who she was only three, her name is Mila. She into my Irving Berlin. And I couldn't believe that she sat through it. My books tend to skew a little older, maybe more third through fifth grade. She's three. She followed along and we end of course singing Irving Berlin songs, which she loved and she sang with us. And so she comes back for Martin and Anne which, if anything skews even older, right, right? I can't believe she's sitting through this whole thing. But she does, so attentive, this incredible child. And she raises her hand to ask a question. And I'm going, "she has a question! After my Martin and Anne, the whole long thing, and she has a question." I call on Mila, and she said, "Can we sing Irving Berlin songs?" And I said, "Yes. And we all sang Irving Berlin songs after the presentation. And she was so happy.
That's adorable. You have a really rich website at NancyChurnin.com. Can you talk about some of the resources that you share on there for each of your books?
Thank you, I have a separate page for each book. And I also have a separate page for a project for each book. Now, as I said, I'm a trained journalist and I do a lot of research for my books. And I like the parents, the educators, and the kids who are old enough, to see all those resources. So for instance, when I find a resource that shows you original pictures of Irving Berlin that are in the public domain, that's going to be on my Irving Berlin site. I wrote an article for Religion News Service, on the connection between Martin and Anne that's going to be on my Martin and Anne page, anything that I find that is going to be relevant. I even have some audio of Dr. King speaking at a synagogue that's on the Martin and Anne page. Plus, I always have a Teacher's Guide for each book. And the Teacher's Guide not only will be for use in the classroom, but it'll also have the projects on it. And the projects: I am hoping that the educators, the parents, will send photos of the kids participating in the projects, just a brief description. My early books are quite full. So for instance, with William Hoy, kids wrote letters to the Hall of Fame and you'll find that on the Hoy for the Hall page. Manjhi Moves a Mountain, which is a true story of a man who spent 22 years chiseling a path through a 300 foot mountain in India, so kids in his poor village could get to school on the other side, the sick could get to a doctor: I am flooded with kids sharing how they are moving mountains in their communities by caring for others, picking up trash, collecting food for the hungry, going to animal shelters to pet kittens, whatever the way they move mountains. The Irving Berlin project is Make America Sing. I'm wanting kids to share their favorite things that immigrants have brought to this country so we can celebrate the gifts that immigrants have brought us. Immigrants have brought so many things; Irving brought music, but food, expressions, language, ideas, discoveries, so many things from immigrants, of course, I want to celebrate that on the Make America Sing page. For Martin and Anne, the project is Kindred Spirits. Here is where I'm hoping that in the spirit of seeing that Martin and Anne were kindred spirits, even though they never met, that kids will reach out to other kids with the help of parents, with educators. Maybe it will be two schools that will meet up, maybe of different religions, maybe different neighborhoods, maybe schools in different cities, different states, different countries. So kids can enjoy the differences, because the differences are fine to enjoy and explore, but celebrate how their hearts may be with the same hopes for happiness for a better life. And that they can maybe ultimately help each other achieve those dreams.
Wonderful. I was impressed with your website. Most author websites don't go into as much depth as that.
Well, one of my goals for all my books is not to stop with the book, but to take what you get from the book into the world. And that goes back to Tikkun Olam, wanting the books to take you to that next place and to bring it into the world and be inspired by these people who inspired me, for the kids to go out and make the world a better place too.
Excellent. Who else are you planning to biographize? if that's a word?
Well, I have two books coming out next year I can share with you. Okay, here's another song that maybe... do you know the song "Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain" and Heidi, do you know who wrote it?
Katherine Lee Bates.
You! Ding ding ding! Because you are one of the very few who gets the right answer to that question.
Well, I know it because in my library, I've got an illustrated version of it. So that's how I knew it.
Wonderful. But that's another one, like Irving Berlin when I would sing God Bless America. When I sing America the Beautiful, the kids go blank. They do not know who wrote it. Katherine Lee Bates was very young during the Civil War, she saw the country torn apart. And it was her dream one day to write a poem that would have people see this as one country from sea to shining sea. She was also a woman ahead of her time who wanted an education when women weren't expected to get that; she was a suffragette who fought for women's rights. And at a time when women weren't educated, she gets accepted to the then-new Wellesley College, is in the second graduating class, keeps on with her studies, becomes a poet, a novelist. And she becomes a professor, chairman of the department at Wellesley College. Yes, mentors, people like then-young Robert Frost; she really thought that young man had talent! But she's amazing! Kids don't know about this strong woman. Because I mean, it's funny, they all know Francis Scott Key. But I wanted them to know about Irving Berlin, the Jewish immigrant, and I want them to know, to Katherine Lee Bates, this strong female suffragette and great thinker and writer. And then the other book that's coming out is called Beautiful Shades of Brown, the Art of Laura Wheeler Wearing from Marissa Moss of Creston Books, who was my publisher on Irving Berlin, and Martin and Anne, and this is the true story of Laura Wheeler Waring who grew up in the 1930s, African American, segregated country. She paints and it's her dream to see faces of African Americans on museum walls. In the 1930s this is a crazy idea. But she persists. She goes to college, she studies in Paris, and six of her paintings are now owned by the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institute, including a gorgeous one of Marian Anderson, and we have received permission from the heir and from the Smithsonian, to reproduce those paintings. Felicia Marshall is doing the illustrations, they're magnificent, and she's going to include those paintings in the book. And she has never had a picture book about her before.
Do you want to just list off for us all the biographies that you've done?
I would be so happy to, I'd be honored. The very first: The William Hoy Story, How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game, the true story of William Hoy, who introduced signs to baseball. The second one is Manjhi Moves a Mountain, the true story of Manjhi, who spent 22 years chiseling a path through a 300 foot mountain so the kids in his poor village could get to school on the other side and sick could get to a doctor. The third one is Charlie Takes His Shot: How Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf. The first African American golfer on the PGA Tour. Tiger Woods has said he would never have picked up a golf club if it wasn't for Charlie Sifford, so he opened the door that others walked through. And as a matter of fact, Tiger Woods named his child Charlie after Charlie Sifford. And then comes Irving Berlin, The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing. Then comes The Queen and the First Christmas Tree: Queen Charlotte's Gift to England. I know this is not probably for your audience, but it's not a religious book. It's a secular book. It's but it's a true story of Queen Charlotte, who was married to King George the Third, the one that gets made fun of in Hamilton, the king during the American Revolution. And I always like to say to kids, do you know the name of his wife? And nobody knows. And it's Queen Charlotte. And turns out she was a very kind person. And many people think that she was actually the first royal member of the family with African ancestry. But she was very much against slavery. And she and King George refused to take sugar in their tea, because the sugar was raised on plantations by slaves. And she didn't want to do anything to support the slave trade. So here you have the queen and king of England not taking sugar in their tea, and you also have England abolishing slavery before America did and without a war.
Hmm. All due to her?
Well, not necessarily, but I think she changed hearts and minds. Because when your queen is against slavery, it makes slavery not such a cool thing, right? They got rid of it after she passed, but she was part of it. And there will always be those rumors because she was of Moorish ancestry. The other interesting thing was that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle got married on her birthday, on Queen Charlotte's birthday, and took a picture by her portrait. So we don't know. We don't know. It could just be coincidence. They may just like her, who knows. But when people watch that, and they thought that was very interesting. Because Meghan Markle is obviously and openly biracial. So, so this was just very interesting that they would connect with her. The thrust of my book is more about how she funded orphanages, she supported maternity hospitals; she was the first royal to make charitable giving part of royal duties. And of course, now it's Martin and Anne, The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank. And that came out in March. Then next year in 2020. will be For Spacious Skies, Katherine Lee Bates and the Inspiration for America the Beautiful and Beautiful Shades of Brown, The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring, both coming out in 2020.
Thank you so much.
Do you want to address some of the criticisms of Martin and Anne? Do you want to talk about that?
I'm happy to do that.
Okay. So in Tablet Magazine, Marjorie Ingall asserts that the Martin and Anne book joins many other books about these two historical figures in offering a sort of safe view of Martin and of Anne, who have both come to represent dreams of peace and brotherhood, more than being the disruptors of the status quo that they both kind of wanted to be. And she points out that the world found both of these people threatening enough to murder them. So what is your response to that?
I admire Marjorie Ingall , and I enjoy reading her column and it's always very thoughtful. One thing that I think that article was concerned about was, you do not want to romanticize in any way people who were victims. You want people to fight, I agree with that. You want people to fight, and you want them to disrupt. But if you dig a little deeper, what do people fight for? Why do people disrupt? They have to care about something. They don't fight and disrupt in a vacuum. It came from a place of love, because they loved other people, they wanted the world to be remade in a better way. So again, yes, to fight, to disrupt is important. And they did that; Dr. King in particular was like a soldier on the lines, he was out there and always in the line of fire, even though he did it through peaceful means he put himself out in the line of fire, much as Gandhi did. He learned a lot from Gandhi as well. But again, I would say why do people fight? What gives them the motivation to fight: it's for love. In a world that is very fractured, and polarized, and people are all in their separate places, I feel the way to heal and bring people together is for them to see their commonality. Until we see that all children are all of our children, until we see that people who seem to be different on the outside, until we see that commonality, then we're not going to fully fight for those other children, we have to see them. In the words of Arthur Miller, they are all my sons, they are all my children. And I'm trying to reach the younger children. I am trying to get to that place where they see the love, what they have in common. And that will give them the strength to then fight. And if you do read the words of Dr. King and Anne Frank, love is all through that. I myself was motivated because of this, to examine my thoughts. And I've started my own blog now, which is called The Kids Are All Write W R I T E, because I examine why I wrote this, because this did make me reflect. And one of the other places I went back to for wisdom, since I have been a theater critic for many years, was Rodgers and Hammerstein. Remember that song they wrote, "you've got to be carefully taught," and they won the Pulitzer Prize for that. And again, they come out of the Jewish tradition. And that was a song by the way that the producers wanted to cut. "Why do we have this song? it just slows everything down." And they said, "this is the whole point of the show. This is why we wrote it."
Right, and just to jog people's memories, that's the song about you've got to be carefully taught to hate the people your family hates, right, you've got to be taught prejudice.
"And you've got to be taught before it's too late, before you or six or seven or eight, to hate all the people, your relatives hate. You've got to be carefully taught." Well, if that's when you've got to be taught to hate, I think we need to step in there with a picture book that teaches them how to love, that teaches them whether they identify with Anne that they'll now identify with Dr. King, where they identified with Dr. King now they'll identify with Anne. I grew up in New York City in a Jewish American community a 98% Jewish American community where I grew up thinking everyone was Jewish. And certainly everyone knew Anne Frank, and I have spent the bulk of my adult life now in Texas, and I have been to a lot of places where they all know Dr. King, and they don't know Anne Frank it all. I am bringing this now to kids who are now going to look at Jewish people differently because of this book. The same way, I hope that there'll be Jewish people who will look at the African American community differently because of this book. That's why I wrote this book, to break down barriers, not to sanitize, to sentimentalize. I wrote this to bring people together. And it is bringing people together. And every time somebody is moved by this, it makes it all worthwhile. And from an academic perspective, because you know, I have strong academic roots, I read this book, Hitler's American Model by a professor at Princeton, James Q. Whitman, he makes the point that Hitler sent his lawyers to the deep south to check out their segregation laws and use that as a model to build the Nuremberg Laws, the laws against Jews in Germany and then in Europe. And so I think it's important to see these connections. When we see hate, prejudice, rear its head anywhere, it is hate against all of us, hate against any child is hate against all children. And love will strengthen us for the fights ahead.
Okay, excellent. So I found this list of creative interview questions on the Book Fox website, which is a site for writers. And so we're going to randomly pick one of these questions. So pick a number between one and 50.
Okay. Question 18: What did you do with your first advance?
What did I do with my first advance? I, I created a little book fund, I keep that separate. And so I've been able to use that to do a lot of travel that I do on my own to bring the books to places, or sometimes there will be people who will ask me for books. Because I have that fund, I pull from that fund to be able to do that.
Okay, cool. So the books feed back into the books.
The books feed back into the books, so I try and keep that as my little separate world.
Okay, very good. So it's Tikkun Olam time. And I'd like to ask you, what action would you like to invite our listeners to take to help repair the world?
There are so many things we could do. And I would like to preface it by saying that any kindness that you bring into the world from the heart is going to help repair the world. And in that spirit, my Move Your Own Mountain project on my website gives an opportunity to share the things you do. But to be even more specific. There is a program that I have been part of that I support called Room to Read. Room to Read is this wonderful organization that brings translated copies of books to kids in their own languages, because nobody is translating it into those languages, because there isn't money to be made for doing that. And Room to Read came to my publisher, Marissa Moss at Creston Books, came to ask us if we would give translation rights for Manjhi Moves a Mountain in languages on the Asian continent, and the African continent. And we said yes. Translation rights are usually big source of income for book writers. But we knew that these kids would not have these books in their language if we didn't say yes. And I am so honored. I think those books are rolling out any day now, I've already seen the cover in Hindi. And I'm so happy because: literacy, that's another way of repairing the world. Because what a book can do, Emily Dickinson said there's nothing like a book to take us miles away. It not only cuts through time and space. But a book more than anything allows us to travel into another person's heart and walk in that person's shoes. Books build empathy. So when I think of this book, or any books are getting into the hands of kids, who otherwise don't have these books, who don't have these ways of identifying... they may never see people of a different race, of a different religion, different upbringing, different experience, these books will bring them into other people's hearts, their hearts will expand. Room to Read does a wonderful job doing that across the world, that is particularly close to my heart. Because I do think we need more empathy, understanding in the world and books can do that; they open hearts and they enlarge minds.
Okay, that's a great recommendation. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
I am just so thankful to you, Heidi, for having this wonderful podcast. And to be able to share things from my Jewish heritage is so deeply meaningful to me. As I said, I grew up in New York, in a largely Jewish community. And then when I went away to college, and then graduate school, I suddenly started to realize what a minority I was, really I can't believe I didn't figure that out until then! But even though I was pretty well read I, I always thought everyone else was the minority. And so I sort of realized that and, and then spending a lot of my life in Texas, which has a strong Jewish community, but you're definitely a minority. And my son, Sam, I remember when he was in first or second grade, I remember being called in by a teacher who was kind of annoyed that he had turned in this excuse for missing school. And she said "he wrote down these words, and I can't even pronounce them." And I looked at the words and the words were "Yom Kippur." And I laughed, because I just thought she was joking with me. I thought she just brought me in to have like a little laugh. She looked at me like daggers were coming out of her eyes, like I was laughing at her. And I realized I have to explain to her what Yom Kippur is, that this is the High Holy Days, of course, I'm going to keep my child out from school. And it made me realize how important it was to educate, to open doors for people to know each other. Because then after I explained it all then we all got along better, and we even became friendly. And books can do this. They can open doors, they can educate. Irving Berlin is my first book that really plumbs my own feelings of being Jewish. I think also with the last name like Churnin, a lot of people didn't even know I was Jewish. And being a journalist, I'd like to be very anonymous. I don't like people to know anything about me or my religion, or my heritage or anything. And this has allowed me to kind of reclaim my joy and my pride in my heritage. Having Irving Berlin honored as a Sydney Taylor Notable, it makes me cry in a very deep place, being invited on your podcast Book of Life, to talk aboutTikkun Olam, to talk about these things that I kept to myself and was doing, but invisibly, and now to be visible... It's very beautiful. It's very nourishing. So just thank you. I'm just grateful to be here talking with you.
Well, thank you so much. It's been wonderful to meet you in person instead of just online and to get to have this fascinating conversation with you. Thank you.
Thank you, Heidi.
TEASER Hi, I'm Anna Caplan, and I'm the creator of Honeycake Magazine, the Jewish magazine for two to six year olds. I'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life podcast. I would like to dedicate my episode to Ladybug Magazine, a wonderful literary magazine for three to six year olds. It's not a Jewish magazine, but it's one of my very favorite pieces of literature that we have encountered in my journey as a parent and it has really inspired my work on Honeycake Magazine.
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