2020 is a big year for Nancy Churnin with two picture book releases! How does she decide what subjects are worth pursuing through months of research and revision? Read on to learn about Nancy’s process when she discovers a fascinating person from the past…
“My Three Musts in Writing Picture Books” by Nancy Churnin
People often want to know how I pick subjects for my picture book biographies. My three main ingredients are curiosity, identification and impact.
I know I’m curious enough if I’m obsessed with knowing more about my subject –if I just can’t let the person go.
I was curious about patriotic songs. Most people know that Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I had just written a book about Irving Berlin, the immigrant who wrote “God Bless America.” But who wrote “America the Beautiful”?
I discovered that the lyrics were written by Katharine Lee Bates. Who? I had to know more. It turns out she was an extraordinary woman who got an education at a time most women didn’t and became a poet, professor and suffragette.
I became so obsessed with knowing more, it became clear that the most difficult part of the book that became FOR SPACIOUS SKIES, KATHARINE LEE BATES AND THE INSPIRATION FOR “AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL,” was narrowing its focus.
Similarly, BEAUTIFUL SHADES OF BROWN, THE ART OF LAURA WHEELER WARING sprang from curiosity: Where are the women artists? Where were the artists of color? I knew they existed, but where were their names? Where was their work? I flipped through an online gallery of portraits created by women and stopped, stunned, at a regal painting of Marian Anderson. Who had created it? Laura Wheeler Waring. I had never heard of her and couldn’t wait to start digging.
While it had been a challenge to assemble information about Katharine Lee Bates, there was an ocean of facts about Katharine compared to what was available about Laura. Happily in both cases, I was able to reach out to experts who put me in touch with family members to answer questions.
Ultimately, I narrowed down the Katharine Lee Bates biography by focusing on the song and how that poem out of the many she had written expressed Katharine’s yearning for equality and the value of all individuals in the human family.
I narrowed the focus of Laura Wheeler Waring’s story to her portrait of Marian Anderson and how it expressed Laura’s yearning for equality and representation. Laura wanted to break down walls with her paintbrush the way Marian Anderson broke down walls with her voice.
Curiosity is my first step. But the story doesn’t come to life until I find identification — the place where my subject and I intersect, where I can feel what the person is feeling, where I can write as if coming from their space.
With Katharine Lee Bates, I identified with the girl who always had a book in her hand, who wasn’t great at sewing, but loved to read and write stories and poems in a journal. But mostly, I identified with her belief that we’re all one family from sea to shining sea.
With Lara Wheeler Waring, I identified with how her obsession with getting each hue right, the way I work hard to get each word right. But mostly, I identified with her passion for breaking down the skin color of her subjects into the rainbow of colors that she could convey on canvas was a testament to her belief that each person is unique, complex and also beautiful. I feel that fervor to the people I write about, as I try to break down their qualities so I can put them together and convey them in their splendor.
Finally, I look for impact – for how they not only made their dreams come true, but made the world a better place. I’m so happy that kids will get to know two incredible women whose names may not have been familiar to them. Katharine Lee Bates not only wrote one of our most patriotic songs, but sent a message we often miss in that song – that it is up to us to make America beautiful by crowning our good with brotherhood. Laura Wheeler Waring helped break the color barrier on museum walls and reminds us of the power of art and representation to open and expand hearts and minds.
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