I'm so excited to have Nancy Churnin visit gilagreenwrites. Her new children's book is an absolute delight to read! After all of these years with Charles Dickens, this book explores a refreshing, new (well, new to me), Jewish angle that is so well done. Nancy doesn't hit the reader over the head with a hammer, yet gets her message across about "speaking truth to power" in a really relatable way. Welcome, Nancy!
For me, Eliza's story is, at its heart, a Queen Esther story in the way she took a risk to speak truth to power.by Author Nancy Churnin
NC: When I started, editors had begun moving away from "birth to death" picture book biographies and looking for more of a focus on a specific, defining theme or moment in the main character's life. Now, they've moved even more in that direction. My newest book, DEAR MR. DICKENS, revolves around Eliza Davis' feelings about Charles Dickens' creation of an ugly Jewish stereotype, Fagin, in OLIVER TWIST and the letters she writes him trying to change his mind and his heart about Jewish people and how he writes about him. You'll find more about her life in the back matter.
NC: I've developed more confidence in the kinds of stories I want to tell and the way I want to tell them. I actually wrote the first draft of DEAR MR. DICKENS in 2013. When a couple of editors expressed interest but then passed, saying that they didn't feel a story about a correspondence could become a picture book, I put the manuscript aside for years. After publishing eight books, I couldn't stop thinking about this one. I began to wonder if maybe the problem wasn't with the book but with not being persistent enough to find the editor who connected with the story. When Wendy McClure, the editor who had bought and edited four of my books for Albert Whitman, asked me for something new in 2020, I showed her this. She and her team connected with it immediately. I'm so glad that I didn't give up on telling Eliza Davis' story and didn't let early rejection stop me from putting this manuscript out in the world again.GG: What about in your own work? How do you feel you've changed as an author over the years?
NC: I would like to write for all age groups of children. I currently have a board book out on submission and I'm working on a couple of middle grade books. A lot of my picture books skew to older elementary and middle grade. A lot of those kids in older elementary and middle grade are also reading chapter books and are always asking me for them. I have lots of ideas I'm working on!GG: Have you ever considered writing for a different age group? Why or why not?
NC: I have to say I was a little surprised when Wendy, my editor, immediately loved and wanted to acquire a manuscript on which others had passed. It was a reminder of how subjective publishing is. But it's really the kids who surprise me the most. The kids understand so much more than you might imagine -- sometimes more than the adults do. When I mentored a school in El Paso, Texas, near America's border with Mexico, I asked the kids, most of them first or second generation Spanish-speaking immigrants, which one of my books they wanted me to read to them. They picked IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING. On the surface, you wouldn't think they would relate to a Russian Jewish immigrant who came here speaking Yiddish in the early 20th century. But they connected, immigrant to immigrant, sharing his dream of wanting to find work they loved and finding a way to give back to their home sweet home.GG: Have you ever received feedback that surprised you? If so, from whom?
NC: All my books so far have been nonfiction, so I can't slip in anything that doesn't come from the character that I'm writing about. I can't say the same about the illustrator of course. I love looking through the illustrations to see what the artists have come up with. In IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING, illustrator James Rey Sanchez has Irving wear a long red scarf throughout the book. We have a lot of fun at presentations, discussing what the kids think that red scarf means. Is it his heart? Music? Life? Heritage? A way to find Irving on each page? Their answers surprise and delight me. I once asked James, the illustrator, what the right answer is and he responded: What do you think? James is not Jewish, but that's a very Jewish answer, don't you think?GG: Did you ever put something in one of your books that only people who know you would catch on to?
NC: I started Dear Mr. Dickens in 2013 and revised it a number of times before putting it aside in 2014, thinking there was no market for it. Then, when Wendy McClure of Albert Whitman acquired it in 2020, it was back to work with revisions that I also ran by three Dickens scholars for accuracy: Professor Don Vann of the University of North Texas, Professor Murray Baumgarten of UC Santa Cruz and Professor David Paroissien of the University of Buckingham in England. Wendy is a wonderful editor, who kept me focused on making sure I had a page-turning kid pleaser with something to say. I'm thrilled with the result.GG: How long did it take you to write Dear Mr. Dickens?
NC: There is a 2012 one-woman play called DICKENS' WOMEN, co-written by Miriam Margolyes and Sonia Fraser, and performed by Margolyes, about all the women in Dickens' books. I would love to see it! Regarding his real-life relationships with women, I think that was very complicated. He resented his mother for not rescuing him from a factory where he was forced to work as a child to help pay off his family's debts. He fell out of love with his wife and idealized young, innocent women like his wife's sister, who died as a teen, devastating him with grief. I think Eliza Davis was a big surprise to him as a mature woman who wasn't intimidated by him or covetous of his fame or stature. She spoke up to him and appealed to his heart, asking him to do the right thing and write about Jewish people with fairness, compassion and dignity.GG: Have you ever wondered about Mrs. Dickens or Mr. Dickens' mother or other women in his life and their/her effect on his work?
NC: We have a photograph of the real Eliza Davis as an older woman in the back matter, courtesy of the Hartley Library at the University of Southampton in Southampton, England. Regarding the illustrations for the young Eliza Davis, the illustrator, Bethany Stancliffe, studied how middle class women in England at that time might have dressed and worn their hair and tried to make it as true to her time as possible.GG: Did you try to have Eliza Davis illustrated as she looked in real life? Do you think she has a stereotypical Jewish look in some way?
NC: Eliza Davis' husband, James Phineas Davis, was a lawyer who was well off enough to purchase Charles Dickens' former house, Tavistock, from him in 1860. That's Eliza Davis' first connection with Dickens -- as the person who bought his house. A side note: Charles Dickens wrote in a letter to a friend that he expected the sale to be unpleasant because he was selling to Jewish people and was surprised when it all went very smoothly and fairly, leaving him very impressed with the Davis family. After studying what Jewish life in this time period was like, we learned that a middle class Jewish family like the Davis family would have been assimilated in their dress and how they wore their hair. If you look closely on the last page, you will see Shabbat candlesticks on the mantle over the fire, with what may be a spice box between them.GG: I did not notice any Jewish symbols or crafts in the background of Eliza's home (menorahs and so on) was this done deliberately? (I may have missed something, too).
NC: I do think Charles Dickens' work is timeless and connects with young readers. Many of his protagonists are kids: David Copperfied and Oliver Twist. In the United States, A CHRISTMAS CAROL is performed annually at many theaters, with productions aimed at all ages. I had that reference in mind when I compared Dickens to Scrooge in Eliza's eyes and had her summon up ghosts of Dickens' past, present and future, just as Dickens does in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I think kids will get the connection, although maybe not consciously, that she is trying to wake up his conscience and compassion, just as Jacob Marley does for Scrooge in Dickens' book.GG: Do you think children today can relate to Charles Dickens' work? i.e., do you believe it is timeless and still attracts young readers?
NC: I hope DEAR MR. DICKENS will serve as a reminder of the importance of speaking up when you see wrong as Eliza Davis did and the nobility of making amends when you realize you have done wrong as Charles Dickens did. For me, Eliza's story is, at its heart, a Queen Esther story in the way she took a risk to speak truth to power. Then, when Charles Dickens rebuffed her in his first response, Eliza persevered. So I hope they will take away that we all need to speak up and not be deterred! I would also like parents, educators and kids to know that all my books come with free teacher guides, resources and projects. The project for DEAR MR. DICKENS is DEAR... and I hope it will inspire kids to write persuasive letters to someone in a position of influence, asking them to help right a wrong. I have created a dedicated DEAR... page on my website, where kids can share photos of the letters they write and inspire others to do the same. Finally, I have another book also coming out in October, A QUEEN TO THE RESCUE, THE STORY OF HENRIETTA SZOLD, FOUNDER OF HADASSAH. I hope your readers will enjoy checking out that one, too.
Thank you so much for stopping by Nancy. I am sure your new works will inspire writers and readers alike.
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Looking forward to reading this book! I love stories about lesser-known players and glossed-over events within more widely known history.