By Leslie Barker | Photos by Kim Leeson ~
Children’s author Nancy Churnin has some truths she wants to share — with her readers mostly, but the takeaway is for us all:
- We can be as different as we can be on the outside — race, religion, country, everything we can imagine — but our hearts can be the same way.
- We are not in complete control of our lives. We have to trust that we are being put in the situations we are supposed to be in and can do the
best with them.
- The key to life is to bring the whole to whatever you do. If you’re walking the dog, be fully present.
She began gleaning these truths as a little girl in New York devouring floor-to-ceiling books in the room she didn’t realize until she left home was meant to be a dining room. As the editor of her school newspaper. As a student at Harvard University, choosing classes based on which required the most reading. As a journalist, most recently covering theater at The Dallas Morning News until newspaper-wide layoffs in January took that away.
But this mother of four sons has never been derailed from connecting with children, introducing them to ordinary people whose lives made an extraordinary difference. The first of her six award-winning books — with two more coming out next year — was The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game.
“William Hoy is too small to play baseball, and he’s deaf,” Nancy says. Yet he perseveres, introducing hand signals to baseball — which are still used today — so as a deaf player, he could understand what was going on and could play the game he loved.
Her latest book is Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank.
“I’m hoping after reading it that kids and schools will take the opportunity to pair up with a kid in another neighborhood, state, country,” says Nancy. “In this day of email and Skype, they can get to know each other. Talk about differences; share things you have in common.”
At the end of each book, she makes similar challenges. “I want them to take what they get out of it into the world. Do something to be proud of,” she says.
In Manjhi Moves A Mountain, the unlikely hero cuts a path through a mountain connecting a poor town with a wealthy one. “He was just a simple laborer who wanted to make things better for others,” she says.
Her challenge to kids? “Move your own mountain.” And kids have, flooding her with letters telling how they’re making a difference in their community or school.
And as if in appreciation to her for featuring them in books, each character has, in turn, proffered a gift to Nancy. From William Hoy, she learned to follow her dreams. From Manjhi, she accepted perseverance.
Irving Berlin bestowed upon her a renewed appreciation for what immigrants contribute to America. After a group of El Paso schoolchildren read about the man who authored such songs as God Bless America and White Christmas, they wrote Nancy heartfelt letters. Thank you, they said, over and over. Thank you.
“That’s the beauty of books,” Nancy says. “These children could see what they have in common. Their parents came from Mexico and his from Russia, but it’s the same feeling. All they want to do is play and live and love and do good things. With a book, they can see someone in their situation and persevere and dreams come true.
“Maybe I’m helping them. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m getting to do that every morning, and it’s a joy and a privilege.”
As a journalist, objectivity is paramount. But as an author, she’ delves deep into her characters’ souls, losing track of time as she breathes the air they breathe, feels the same wind that initially knocks them over and subsequently lifts them up. And then, knowing she has found the treasure she’s diving for; she triumphantly holds it high.
“I have to find the heart,” she says. “At the end, tears have to be coming down my face, too. It’s like Ali Baba’s magic word to go into the cave. You say that word and go into that cave, and you can’t leave until you finish the adventure. That’s a privilege, and I’m so thankful — when that cave door opens, and I’m let inside.”
As the Morning News theater critic and from her lifetime love of the arts, she cherished the actors she wrote about.
“People do theater because they’re trying to make the world a better place,” she says. “They connect with you at that level. That’s what I’m trying to do for children: connecting person to person, heart to heart, mind to mind.”
Losing her job at the newspaper was devastating, no question. “I’m going to be honest,” she says. “This has been scary, but also freeing.”
She opted not to wallow, instead choosing to turn 2019 into her year of saying yes. Yes to spending weeks on end with her 93-year-old mother in California. Yes to visiting schools. Yes to participating in conferences such as Tent: Children’s Literature 2019, sponsored by the Yiddish Book Center for people writing children’s books with Jewish themes. Only 20 authors were accepted.
“The part that’s scary now is that I am 100 percent responsible for my own structure, for choosing what I’m going to write about,” Nancy says. “It’s at once liberating and scary because I don’t know if there will always be a home for what’s in my heart. That’s where trust has to come in: That if I write in my heart what I feel needs to be written, it will find a home.”
There’s a pattern here, isn’t there? A comforting mantra of two words that both lull and invigorate: Trust. Heart. Trust. Heart. And you find yourself nodding along, maybe beginning to believe a little bit in yourself, too.
“I see things in terms of passion and what needs to be done,” Nancy says.
Which is, of course, curating those truths that began in her own childhood and continue to course through her veins and her spirit.
“I’m trusting the universe, trusting myself,” she says. “And it seems to be working.”