When you start writing children’s books, among the most important things you can learn are elements of craft that can power your story.
I’ve learned so much through my membership to Rate Your Story, with judges giving me a sense of what worked and what didn’t. I have learned from my membership in SCBWI and 12X12. I’ve learned from classes I took from Susanna Hill and Mira Reisberg. I have learned from picture book challenges offered by Tara Lazar and Paula Yoo. I have revised and revised and revised with the encouragement of wonderful critique partners.
Those lessons took me a long way. But here’s the thing. As your confidence grows, so should the chances you take.
After five picture book biographies that focus on one person apiece, I felt driven to write MARTIN & ANNE, THE KINDRED SPIRITS OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND ANNE FRANK.
They never met. They are of different races, genders, religions, spoke different languages and lived in different countries. But I grew fixated on the fact that they were both born in 1929, the year of the Great Depression when people who were hungry, scared, out of work were looking for someone to blame and fixated, sadly, on minority groups in their midst. I couldn’t stop going back and forth in my mind between Dr. King and Anne Frank to see how similar their view of the world was. Both faced enormous prejudice but met it with love and left us with words that inspire us today.
There were a million reasons not to do this story. Indeed, it would have been safer to do them each separately. But here’s the thing. Those parallel voices spoke to me like an irresistible harmony, a tune that wouldn’t leave my head until I got it down on paper. In a world where people increasingly seem locked in their own separate bubbles, with their own separate identities, afraid or unwilling or intimidated to break down the wall to feel or identify with another person’s journey, I believed that these parallel stories would bring people together.
When you follow your heart, life has a way of surprising you.
I wrote MARTIN & ANNE because I believed there was something to learn from seeing these two lives side by side. I had no idea that when the book came out, March 5, that a play, LETTERS FROM ANNE & MARTIN, from the Sarasota, Florida-based Embracing Our Differences, aimed at young audiences, would be traveling the country, pointing out the similarities in the words each wrote.
I wasn’t aware of James Q Whitman’s book, HITLER’S AMERICAN MODEL: THE UNITED STATES AND THE MAKING OF NAZI RACE LAW and the thoughtful November 2017 review it received in Atlantic Monthly for the way the book details how Nazi lawyers were inspired and encouraged by America’s Jim Crow laws of segregation as they crafted their segregation and persecution laws for Jewish people living in the Third Reich. The parallels Mr. Whitman drew between what was going on in America and what was going on in Nazi Germany underscored the way I was telling my story, simply as I was in a way designed for kids, and put an academic exclamation point on it.
Now, in the year that Dr. King and Anne Frank should have been celebrating their 90th birthdays, I think it is important for everyone, everywhere, especially and including America, where we live, to acknowledge that prejudice in one place reverberates everywhere. But then again, so does kindness in one place reverberate everywhere.
As writers, we have dreams of being published, of delighting children with our words and illustrations, of making a living doing what we love.
As writers, we also have a responsibility to listen to our heart, to use the gifts we have been given, the platform we have created to share the inspiration that courses through us, to not be afraid to speak our truths, just as Martin & Anne were unafraid to speak theirs.
I wrote MARTIN & ANNE, thinking how much more Dr. King and Anne Frank could have contributed to this world if they had lived until this year, which would have been their 90th year. I hope that will inspire us to protect all of the vulnerable among us, all of the Martins and Annes of tomorrow.
I hope MARTIN & ANNE will remind us that the best way to honor someone we’ve lost is to live their truth and bring what these great souls taught us to the next generation and beyond: that prejudice for any reason is wrong and love is always the answer. I hope this book will bring Martins & Annes together, knowing that what unites us in the human journey is greater than our differences.
And I hope that my decision to follow my heart will inspire you to follow yours as well in telling the stories that only you can tell.
About the author:
Nancy Churnin is the author of eight picture book biographies. Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing is a 2019 Sydney Taylor Notable and a Social Studies Notable for Young Children. Manjhi Moves a Mountain is the winner of the 2018 South Asia Book Award, a 2018 Children and Teen’s Choice Book Awards finalist, a 2017 Junior Library Guild selection, a Social Studies Notable Trade Books for Young People, a Silver Eureka Award-winner and a 2019 Little Free Libraries/Children’s Book Council Pick for the Action Book Club. Manjhi is being translated into Braille by the National Braille Press and several languages on the Asian and African continents as part of the Room to Read program. Her 2016 debut, The William Hoy Story, How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game, has made state reading lists in Texas, Louisiana and Illinois. Charlie Takes His Shot, How Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf is a Silver Eureka Award-winner; The Queen and the First Christmas Tree, Queen Charlotte’s Gift to England made the 2018 Mighty Girls list. Martin & Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank released March 5; Nancy will present it at the Ruby Bridges Reading Festival at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis May 18 and sign at the Texas Library Association, where she will serve on a panel on empowering students with empathy and social responsibility using kid lit. She'll also sign at the American Library Association and the Dallas Festival of Books and Ideas. Two more books are due out in 2020: Beautiful Shades of Brown, How Laurie Wheeler Waring Painted Her World and For Spacious Skies, How Katharine Lee Bates and ‘America the Beautiful’.
Nancy was a longtime journalist and former theater critic for The Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News before becoming a full-time children’s book author this January. She is an active member of SCBWI-North Texas, 12X12, the Nonfiction-Ninjas, the Book Meshuggenahs and this year’s #SeenIn19 and #19PBbios launch groups and will be attending Tent: Children’s Literature workshop, a Yiddish Book Center program, in Amherst, Massachusetts this year. She loves to travel and enjoys media engagements on television, radio, podcasts, newspapers, magazines, blogs and author visits on Skype and in person. She maintains nancychurnin.com where educators, librarians and teachers can find free Teacher Guides and projects for all her books. A cum laude graduate of Harvard University, she has a master’s from Columbia University, has taught journalism at the college level and will be teaching the art of picture book biographies for The Writing Barn in Austin this year.
On Facebook: Nancy Churnin Children’s Books: www.facebook.com/NancyChurninBooks
For more on MARTIN & ANNE: www.nancychurnin.com/martin-anne-the-kindred-spirts-of-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-and-anne-frank
For more on the MARTIN & ANNE KINDRED SPIRITS project: www.nancychurnin.com/kindredspirits