Today it is my distinct pleasure to feature one of my favorite non-fiction picture book authors, NANCY CHURNIN, who is here to talk about her recently released book BEAUTIFUL SHADES OF BROWN: THE ART OF LAURA WHEELER WARING. (Creston Books) Here is the interview:
How did you discover the art of Laura Wheeler Waring?
I am always looking for heroes and heroines that have been overlooked, that kids — and often adults — don’t know enough about. I love fine art and I was thinking about how we mostly hear about male painters with just a handful of female painters, such as Mary Cassatt and Frida Kahlo, getting multiple books from different angles. Surely there were more female painters! I started researching paintings by female artists. I found a painting of Marian Anderson (reproduced in the book) and I stopped. Magnificent! I had to know more about the woman who painted her. It was hard to find information. Nobody had written a book about Laura Wheeler Waring. But the more I found out, the more I wanted to find out. Her parents, Amos Noe Freeman, a Presbyterian minister, and Christiana Williams Freeman, were activists in the African American community, standing up against slavery, helping in the Underground Railroad. Laura shared their passion for equality, but she spoke through her paintbrush. She wanted representation of African Americans on museum walls. But even more than that, she wanted people to see the beauty, the dignity, the accomplishments of people in her community. When she got the opportunity to paint Marian Anderson, that gave her the opportunity to break down walls with her brush the way Marian did with her voice. It’s a reminder that we can all break down walls using our own unique gifts.
The story is told in such a beautiful, poetic way. Was this how you envisioned telling the story from the beginning?
I was struck by her passion for showing the beauty of brown skin, but even beyond that how she would set her subjects in settings with brown walls, desks, clothing. Was she trying to make a point by showing the variations in this color? I became increasingly convinced she did. In a segregated world, where white people made generalizations about African Americans, the individuality of each shade of brown she used made a statement about each person’s individuality. I studied the color brown to try to figure out how she created all those variations of hue and it all began to make sense once I realized how many colors mix to make brown. Usually, when we think of something being colorful, we compare it to a rainbow. But it struck me that there was a rainbow in the color brown. That’s when I had the epiphany that brown is a rainbow, “with orange and blue, red and green tucked inside, playing hide and seek.” And I was off and running.
What were the challenges in telling Laura Wheeler Waring’s story?
The biggest challenge was finding information about Laura Wheeler Waring. I went to curators at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Erin Beasley, Digital Image Rights and reproduction Specialist; Dr. Tuliza Fleming, Curator of AmericanArt at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Riche Sorensen, Rights & Reproduction Coordinator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, were a tremendous help. Erin Beasley put me in touch with Laura Wheeler Waring’s great-niece and heir, Madeline Murphy Rabb, who not only gave me permission to reproduced Waring’s paintings at the Smithsonian Institution, she answered questions about her life I couldn’t find answers to elsewhere. She also affirmed how proud her great-aunt was of her skills at blending colors, which went to the heart of my book. Still, even with all that support, I could never have pulled this off without the brilliance of illustrator Felicia Marshall, who channelled Waring’s style, seamlessly incorporating Waring painting her actual portraits in the spreads, with incredible detail and attention to shades of brown. I am so grateful to my editor Marissa Moss, who believed in this story from the start, guided me as only Marissa Moss can, and knew that Felicia Marshall was the artist who could do justice to Waring.
Your books seem to champion creative, and sometimes unsung heroes. Why are you particularly drawn to these kinds of people?
It all began with the journey of my first book, THE WILLIAM HOY STORY. I was a full-time staff writer with The Dallas Morning News when I got to know Steve Sandy, a Deaf man who shared his dream that more people would know the story of the great Deaf baseball player, William Hoy, who taught umpires signs so he could play the game he loved — signs we still use today — and that someday Hoy would be honored in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I wrote that book, with the help of Steve’s research, guidance and friendship with the Hoy family, with the goal of sharing Hoy’s story with kids. I created a project, Hoy for the Hall, that encouraged kids to write letters to the National Baseball Hall of Fame asking for Hoy to be inducted. They’ve sent thousands! Here’s the sweet surprise. I wrote that first book to make Steve’s dream come true, but I found that I was also making an old dream of mine come true — a longtime dream of creating books and sharing them with kids. It felt so good to share the story of this hero that the kids didn’t know about, to break down walls between the Deaf and the hearing, to inspire kids to persevere and find ways to make the world better. I immediately started to look for and think about other people whose stories hadn’t been told, who had persevered against great odds to make their dreams come true and whose dreams, realized, made the world a better place. My next book was MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN, the first picture book about Dashrath Manjhi, who spent 22 years chiseling a path through a 300-foot mountain so kids in his poor village could get to school on the other side. Those have been the kind of heroes I’ve looked for straight through to Laura Wheeler Waring and beyond.
What would you like readers to remember about this story?
I would like them to remember that each and every one of us is beautiful, unique and a complex mix of many characteristics as surprising and wonderful as the varied pigments that make up our skin. I would like them to remember that representation is important and to make sure that you and your community can be seen and appreciated. I would like them to remember that when you have a dream to do something that’s never been done before, you may hit a lot of obstacles, you may hear that what hasn’t been done can’t be done, but if you persevere you will get there, maybe not in a day or a week or a month, but you will get there. I would like them to remember that that you don’t fail unless you give up. Every rejection, every setback is just another step on the journey to achieving your goal.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I hope folks will check out the free teacher guides, readers theater, resources and projects on my website, nancychurnin.com. The project for Beautiful Shades of Brown is PAINT YOUR WORLD. With the permission of parents and educators, kids are invited to sent photos of their artwork of themselves, their families and their communities with a short caption describing who they’re portraying. I will post those pictures on the PAINT YOUR WORLD page so we can celebrate how beautiful everyone is.
Nancy has agreed to give away one signed copy of her book to one randomly chosen person who leaves a comment on this post. Winner will be drawn from all those entered. If you share the post on social media, let me know and I will give you a second chance to win.
Here is my review for this amazing book:
“This book is like a painting whose rich, bold, and lyrical text conveys the depth of feeling and care Laura put into each of her portraits. I love how Churnin conveyed the idea of a “rainbow of shades of brown” that Laura spent hours on, mixing blues, greens, reds, and yellows to get just the right and perfect shade. I love how Laura felt and heard the color whenever she began to paint. This is a stunning book that reminds us of the beautiful variety found in just one color, and how important it is for each of us to see ourselves reflected in the art we choose to celebrate.”
Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of eight picture book biographies on multiple state reading lists with a ninth due in 2021. Beautiful Shades of Brown, The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring is A Mighty Girl pick selected for the 2020 Ruby Bridges Reading Festival at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. The William Hoy Story, a Bank Street Book Awards selection, has been a Texas 2X2 pick and Armadillo Readers Choice selection, on Illinois’ Monarch Award master list, the Louisiana Young Readers Choice Award and Connecticut’s Charter Oak Book Award list. Manjhi Moves a Mountain is the winner of the 2018 South Asia Book Award, a Junior Library Guild selection, an Anne Izard Storytellers Choice Award and Silver Eureka honoree. Martin & Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank is on the 2020 Notable Book for a Global Society list from the International Literacy Association, the Wisconsin Picture This list, the Brave Book list and was featured at the Ruby Bridges Reading Festival in Memphis and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing is a 2019 Sydney Taylor and National Council for the Social Studies Notable. Nancy is a founding member of the Nonfiction Ninjas and the NF Chicks. She graduated cum laude from Harvard, has a master’s from Columbia, and lives in Plano, Texas, with her husband, their dog named Dog, and two cantankerous cats.
You can find Nancy Churnin on social media.
On her website: nancychurnin.com
On Facebook: Nancy Churnin Children’s Books
On Twitter: @nchurnin
On Instagram: @nchurnin