Today it is my pleasure to feature one of my favorite non-fiction picture book authors Nancy Churnin, who has two new books out. I asked Nancy to tell us about these stories and the connecting themes between them. Here’s Nancy:
Thank you so much, Darlene, for the opportunity to share my journey with A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg (Creston Books) and Dear Mr. Dickens, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe (Albert Whitman & Company)
As a lifetime member of Hadassah, the Jewish women’s charitable organization, I was familiar with the name, Henrietta Szold, as the founder, but my knowledge didn’t go much beyond that. When I was accepted to the PJ Library’s TENT program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts in 2019, I looked forward to fulfilling a commitment to working on a book about a Jewish subject. I researched Henrietta Szold and the more I learned about her, the more amazed I was and the more determined I was to tell her story in the book that became A QUEEN TO THE RESCUE.
Here Henrietta was, a woman growing up in Baltimore in the 1800s, a child during the Civil War, a young woman without the right to vote, limited in opportunities, and yet, when she saw a need, nothing could stop her from pouring her formidable energy and organizational skills into solving that problem. Immigrants having trouble finding jobs or supporting their families because they didn’t how to speak English or what the customs of their new country? She created the first night school in America so they can work during the day and learn what they need to know to succeed at night. People in need of medical care in Palestine? She founded Hadassah, the first charitable organization established run by women. Children at risk in Nazi Germany? She expanded an existing program, Youth Aliyah, and raised money with the help of the women of Hadassah, to save, relocate and educate 11,000 children.
When asked the secret to her success, she said, in an interview cited by the Jewish Women’s Archive, “a strong constitution, a devotion to duty and a big conscience,” together with “a flair for organization” and “a pretty big capacity for righteous indignation.”
I hope her story shows and inspires a new generation that you don’t have to be rich or famous to make a difference. If you care about doing the right thing, if you’re willing to work hard and team up with others who share your goals, you can help heal the world. That’s why I created a project to do with this book, Heal the World, in the hope that it would encourage kids to team up to help others.
I discovered Eliza Davis, the heroine of DEAR MR. DICKENS by accident, but the minute I found her, I became obsessed with telling her story.
I have been a fan of Charles Dickens as long as I remember. But, I also had been troubled and hurt by the way he wrote about Jewish people – my people – particularly in Oliver Twist when he referred to the wicked Fagin over and over again as “the Jew.” How could someone as noble and great-hearted as Charles Dickens have no heart for the Jewish people, I wondered. I had gone to the library to do research on another topic, when my mind drifted to Dickens and I started browsing articles about him. That’s when I found two lines that leapt out at me – lines about a Jewish woman, Eliza Davis, who had written him a letter about the very thing that had upset me – his portrayal of Fagin!
I read with wonder as the article went on to say that following their correspondence he had created the kindly Mr. Riah, his first sympathetic Jewish character in Our Mutual Friend, because of her letters. What? I had to find those letters! With the help of my wonderful librarians at my local library in Plano, Texas, I was able to locate a book in the rare book collection of the University of North Texas library in Denton, Texas, donated by Professor Don Vann (to whom the book is dedicated along with his late, lovely wife, Dolores Vann), that contained the full correspondence.
I learned from careful reading and rereading how persistent Eliza Davis had been. Charles Dickens’s response to her first letter had been dismissive, but Eliza didn’t give up. She wrote again, trying to explain her feelings in a more persuasive way.
What I learned from my research and journey with this story was that an ordinary person like Eliza Davis – or you and me – can have an impact on people who are powerful and famous – like Charles Dickens – simply by speaking up.
Before I told her story, many people may not have known that this ordinary person whose name few people outside her family and community knew was the reason his heart changed and he became more inclusive in his world view – a change that would affect how England, going forward, would treat her Jewish population. In the same way, we may not know the long term good any of us do by speaking up. But we have to trust, like Eliza Davis, that speaking up matters and may help bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice more than we realize. That’s why I created a project to do with this book, Dear…, in the hope that it will encourage kids to write letters to people in positions of influence, asking them to do better. https://www.nancychurnin.com/dearmrdickens
Nancy has generously agreed to give away a copy of one of these wonderful books…winner gets to choose! To be in the running, leave a comment telling us about a time when speaking up made a difference in your life or someone you know. One winner will be randomly drawn from all entered. If you share this post on social media, I will give you a second chance to win.