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Sydney Taylor Book Award 2022 Blog Tour – Dear Mr. Dickens Q+A

WELCOME TO DAY TWO OF THE STBA BLOG TOUR!

 

STBA22 Blog Tour graphic

 

FEATURING INTERVIEWS WITH

AUTHOR NANCY CHURNIN

&

ILLUSTRATOR BETHANY STANCLIFFE  

DISCUSSING THEIR

HONOR-WINNING PICTURE BOOK

DEAR MR. DICKENS

 

 

Dear Mr Dickens cover

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal
2021 National Jewish Book Award Winner – Children’s Picture Book
2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor for Picture Books
Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Younger Readers 2021
The Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2021, Tablet Magazine


BOOK SUMMARY

In Eliza Davis’s day, Charles Dickens was the most celebrated living writer in England. But some of his books reflected a prejudice that was all too common at the time: prejudice against Jewish people. Eliza was Jewish, and her heart hurt to see a Jewish character in Oliver Twist portrayed as ugly and selfish. She wanted to speak out about how unfair that was, even if it meant speaking out against the great man himself. So she wrote a letter to Charles Dickens. What happened next is history. (Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

GREETING

Welcome to the GoodReadsWithRonna blog today, Nancy and Bethany. Congratulations on Dear Mr. Dickens being recognized with a Sydney Taylor Honor in the children’s picture book category! I’m happy to be able to talk to you both about Eliza Davis, Charles Dickens, and his history of negatively portraying Jewish characters in his writing and how that changed because of Eliza’s letters.

INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NANCY CHURNIN

GoodReadsWithRonna: Nancy, you mention in your acknowledgments that Dear Mr. Dickens had a long, joyful journey. Please tell us more about when and why you decided to dig into this not well-known but enlightening correspondence which is the basis for the book

Nancy Churnin: When I was a child, my mother always encouraged me to read whatever I wanted. The only time she questioned me was when I fell in love with the books of Charles Dickens. She couldn’t understand how I could like a writer that had created the ugly Jewish stereotype of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Didn’t I understand, she asked me, how that character fueled antisemitism, leading readers to believe that all Jewish people were liars and thieves like Fagin?

 

Dear Mr Dickens int1
Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

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She was right. Ugly Jewish stereotypes were part of what made people lack compassion for the Jewish people who were tortured and killed in the Holocaust – where we lost so many family members. These were the kind of images that made neighborhood bullies persecute her and other Jewish children growing up in New York City. I wished I could have written Dickens a letter asking him why someone who had so much compassion for children and the poor could treat the Jewish people with such antipathy. Flash forward to 2013, three years before my first book, The William Hoy Story would be published, when I was in the library researching baseball and I flitted around the computer screen, landing on an article about Dickens.

That’s when I found two lines in an article that mentioned Eliza Davis, a Jewish woman who wrote to him – just as I’d dreamed of doing!—and changed his heart, inspiring him to write his first compassionate Jewish character, Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend. I had to know more! But all the article had was snippets from one of the letters. I asked the librarian for help. She found three places that had the letters: the University of Southampton in England, where you had to make a special appointment to view them; and two places in the U.S., one of which was at the University of North Texas rare book collection, less than 40 minutes from my home.

I called the University of North Texas librarian who put me in touch with Professor J. Don Vann, a Dickens scholar that had found Charles Dickens and His Jewish Characters, a 1918 out-of-print book from Chiswick Press in England that contained the letters and donated it to the library. Don and his now late wife Dolores, invited me to tea to discuss Eliza Davis. That’s when I felt compelled to turn this story into a book that I could share with my mother. I had rejections at first from editors that didn’t think a story about letters was exciting enough. It didn’t fit into the usual biography template as it wasn’t the story of either person’s life, but rather an encounter that changed their lives and changed the way English people who read Dickens thought about the Jewish people. I visited The Charles Dickens Museum in London in 2014, deepening my research. But even when my career as a published author began taking off in 2016, Dear Mr. Dickens sat there, waiting, not seeming to fit into any category anyone wanted. It just seemed to be a story that needed to simmer and be revised as I grew more confident in my ability to tell the story the way it needed to be told.

Finally, in 2020, Wendy McClure, my then editor at Albert Whitman, asked if I had something new. She said, for the first time, she wasn’t looking for biographies, but stories about history-changing encounters and events. I pulled Dear Mr. Dickens out of the drawer and gave it to her. She loved it right away. So did her editorial team. It was acquired with dizzying speed for a manuscript that had been waiting years to dance at the ball. But it was worth every moment. Because Wendy and our illustrator, Bethany Stancliffe, really got the story. When it went to print, it said everything I had wanted and hoped to say. I couldn’t wait to share it with my mother. When I did, she held it in her hands and read it over and over. Her face softened. I felt an old pain dissolve as she forgave Dickens – and me. We hugged as she read this true story about how people can, sometimes, change for the better if you speak up, persist and then, when the person who does wrong makes amends, forgive.

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GRWR: We’re often told as children’s book writers to make the main characters kids but Eliza Davis is a woman and mother of 10 children. As an adult and Dickens fan, I found the information you shared about Eliza’s positive influence on Dickens fascinating. What do you think makes her a compelling character for young readers to learn about and what can they take away from the book?

Nancy: The most compelling stories for me are the journeys not of a person, but of a person’s dream. In most cases, those dreams start in childhood, so it’s natural to start the book with the character as a child. That’s not the case for Eliza Davis in Dear Mr. Dickens. She didn’t grow up dreaming of writing Charles Dickens a letter! But I had grown up dreaming that. I could put the urgency I felt as a child into what she did as an adult. I also did something I’ve never done in a picture book before. I appealed to young readers by starting my book in the second person: “Think of someone famous you admire. What would you do if that person said or wrote something unfair? Would you speak up? Would you risk getting that person angry? Eliza Davis did.” I believe these are questions that kids – and all ages – can relate to. I believe these are questions that can lead kids – and all ages – to speak up, stand up, and become upstanders when they see someone do or say something that isn’t right.

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Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

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GRWR: When doing your research for Dear Mr. Dickens, was there one particular piece of information you uncovered (included or not included in the book) that has had an impact on you? 

Nancy: I hope people will read the Author’s Note which gives context to how important Eliza’s action may have been in historical impact. England was once one of the most hostile places for Jewish people. In 1275, centuries before Nazis introduced the yellow star, King Edward I decreed that Jews older than seven had to wear a large yellow badge of felt shaped like the tablet of the Ten Commandments on their outer clothing. Jewish people were segregated and had to live in restricted areas, were forbidden to lend money, and were unwelcome in trade guilds. In 1290, England expelled Jews who refused to convert; this was two centuries before the Spanish expelled their Jewish people during their Inquisition.

After Eliza Davis helped Dickens see the Jewish people with understanding and compassion, he not only created the kindly Mr. Riah, he advocated in his magazine for them to be treated fairly. Dickens wasn’t the only advocate for Jewish people, but his influence was enormous. Everyone from all classes, chimney sweeps to the Queen of England, read and revered him. Attitudes began to change during his lifetime. The Jews Relief Act of 1858 allowed Jews to serve in Parliament for the first time. I credit the change in English attitudes for the welcoming way that Great Britain opened its arms to thousands of Jewish refugee children during the Kindertransport at the start of World War II.

Eliza Davis wasn’t powerful or famous. All she did was write a letter. But speaking up and not backing down when justice is at stake can make a powerful difference. That’s what I learned from Eliza Davis. That’s what I hope young readers – and all readers – take to heart.

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GRWR: Can you speak to your passion for writing nonfiction and also about sharing the stories of notable and in Eliza’s case less notable Jewish individuals?

Nancy: I love and read every genre and I hope, someday – maybe soon – to expand the type of books I write. But I’ll always pay homage to true stories — my mother’s favorite — because, as she’s told me, real people doing great things remind us that we can all do great things, too.

When I look for people to write about, I’m drawn to those who might not be known otherwise – such as Eliza Davis — or who have aspects of themselves that might not otherwise be known – such as Charles Dickens and his evolving view of Jewish people. I feel that every time I shine light on otherwise forgotten people, I’ve helped bring them back into our living, collective heart because it’s only when we have forgotten people or their deeds that they truly disappear.

 

Dear Mr Dickens int3
Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

I’m honored that Dear Mr. Dickens was given a Sydney Taylor Honor because Sydney Taylor provided positive Jewish role models for Jewish children like myself at a time when they were scarce. At first, Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books were like a little island in a sea of books about non-Jewish characters or Jewish characters that were ugly stereotypes. But since the awards were founded in 1968, they’ve done enormous good in encouraging the creation of books with positive Jewish role models for kids that need Jewish windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. I’m grateful for this encouragement from the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee and for the Notable award for A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah (and for my 2019 Notable for Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing). Now, with sons planning marriages and, I hope, with grandchildren around the corner, I feel more passionate than ever about the mission bring more Jewish stories into the world that fill children’s hearts with courage, hope, and determination to heal the world.

 

INTERVIEW WITH ILLUSTRATOR BETHANY STANCLIFFE

GRWR: Bethany, what struck you most after reading Nancy’s manuscript?

Bethany Stancliffe: I was immediately impressed with the wonderful portrayal of Eliza in this story. Nancy’s writing beautifully captured what it must have felt like to be in Eliza’s shoes.

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GRWR: How much research did you have to do to bring 19th century London, and in particular Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens, to life?

Bethany: It was important to gather a lot of visual references to make sure my illustrations were true to the characters and settings. Studying information and images documenting Charles Dickens and Victorian England was a significant step in the design process. There weren’t many photographs of Eliza available so it was a pleasant challenge to design her character in a way that conveyed her personality.

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Dear Mr Dickens Elizaandson int4
Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

GRWR: One of my favorite illustrations is the one where two scenes, Dickens in his home and Eliza in hers, flow together with sheets of correspondence. Do you have a favorite spread and if so, what about it do you love?

Bethany: Thank you! One of my favorite spreads to paint was the scene of Eliza and her son walking together to post a letter to Mr. Dickens. While I was illustrating this book I had a toddler of my own running around which really helped me appreciate that Eliza was speaking up not only for herself but for others who may not be able to do so for themselves.

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Thank you both so very much for taking the time to share your experiences working on Dear Mr. Dickens. I’m also grateful that many misconceptions I and perhaps others had about Charles Dickens have been cleared up and hope everyone will read the book to see how one person’s voice made such a powerful impact.

 

BIOS

Nancy Churnin1
Author Nancy Churin Photo credit: Kim Leeson

 

Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of multiple picture book biographies. The former theater critic for the Dallas Morning News and Los Angeles Times San Diego Edition, she’s now a full-time writer and peace negotiator between her dog and cats. She lives in North Texas.

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See the entire blog tour schedule on the AJL blog: https://jewishlibraries.org/2022-blog-tour/

Find more information about the Sydney Taylor Award here: https://jewishlibraries.org/sydney_taylor_book_award/

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Five New Children’s Books for Independence Day

INDEPENDENCE DAY 2020
RECOMMENDED READS FOR KIDS
-A ROUNDUP-

 

Clip Art Independence Day

 

The selection of books here, while not necessarily being about July 4th or the Revolutionary War, all have to do with our country, and what it means to have gained our independence and become a democracy. I hope the books inspire children to read more on the topics covered, and to think about how they can make a difference, no matter how small, in their own communities.

 

Free for You and Me cvrFREE FOR YOU AND ME:
What Our First Amendment Means
Written by Christy Mihaly
Illustrated by Manu Montoya
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

When at last America declared itself free from British rule, the Constitution was written “with rules for every institution.” However, something more was needed to guarantee five “of the most fundamental American freedoms,” and so the First Amendment, along with nine others (and making up the Bill of Rights) was drafted.

Using verse, occasional speech bubbles, and bright, diverse, kid-centric illustrations, Free for You and Me explains in easily understandable language just what these powerful 45 words represent. Kids will enjoy seeing other kids on the pages debating the meaning of the expression, “It’s a free country” making this picture book ideal for classroom discussion or for any budding historians and legal scholars.

Mihaly explains how our First Amendment means “we the people of the United States have five important freedoms,” many of which we see at work on a daily basis. Americans are guaranteed “freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to gather in a peaceful rally or protest, and the freedom to tell our leaders what we want them to do.” If your child has recently marched with you in a protest, that’s due to our First Amendment rights.

In this book, kids learn the importance of the First Amendment through the example of a mayor who wants to shut down their playground. They organize a rally and get signatures on a petition in an effort to save it. Other good examples are presented as in the case of Freedom of Speech. Readers find out about Congressman Matthew Lyon who was arrested and spent four months in jail in 1798 for criticizing President John Adams. This would never have happened were it not for a law Adams and his Federalist government passed called the Sedition Act. Once Jefferson was elected, the Sedition Act expired. I had never heard about this before, but my 19-year-old son had so a lively conversation ensued.

The timeliness of this educational picture book will not be lost on those who support a free press, the right to free speech and to assemble peacefully, as well as the freedom of religion and freedom to petition the Government for redress of grievances. Mihaly, a former lawyer, understands the principles upon which our democracy was established. With her knowledge of the First Amendment, she succeeds in conveying the freedoms it entails in an engaging and accessible way for young readers. We can never take these hard-fought for liberties for granted. Four pages of back matter go into more detail.  •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

VOTE FOR OUR FUTURE!
Written by Margaret McNamara
Illustrated by Micah Player
(Schwartz & Wade; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Kirkus

The students of Stanton Elementary School aren’t old enough to vote when their school closes every two years on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November. That’s when it turns into a polling station. They are, however, are old enough to spread the word in Vote for Our Future!

The diverse cast of characters, energetically represented in bold and vivid illustrations, introduce a topic that is timely for all ages. McNamara’s sweet and intuitive children first ask “what’s a polling station?” The children’s eyes widen as they learn that “the reason people vote is to choose who makes the laws of the country.” LaToya with her big pink glasses raises her hand and says, “we should all vote to make the future better.” But Lizzy reminds her that they just aren’t old enough.

So what are they old enough to do? Player illustrates boys and girls from all backgrounds looking through books and “searching online to find all kinds of information. They even took a trip to their local election office and picked up forms.” The research shows that “kids have to live with adult choices. The kids of Stanton Elementary School were ready to spread the word.”

McNamara takes the reader through the small town where Cady and her mom make flyers. They pass them out to a busy dad, who didn’t even know there was an election, to Nadiya and her auntie, wearing hijabs on their heads, who go door to door telling neighbors that “voting is a right.” Player’s vibrant and colorful art of people from various ethnic groups shows the reader that all people have the right to vote.

With each excuse from adults that the children are given, an even better comeback is heard in return. “I don’t like standing in lines,” one lady tells Nadiya. Nadiya’s auntie doesn’t like standing in lines either, but Nadiya says if you can stand in line for coffee you can stand in line to vote. I love how fearless the kids are when the adults come up with excuses for why they aren’t voting and how the kids don’t take no for an answer.

Player shows “people voting for the first time, and the fiftieth time, with their sons and daughters, their nieces and nephews, their brothers and sisters, their cousins and friends.” When voting was complete and the ballots were counted, Stanton Elementary went back to being a school and “the future began to change.”

McNamara writes in the back matter titled Get Out The Vote! that when adults vote for people and causes they believe in, they speak for us and make laws that are good for everyone in the country. She lists various Acts that have been signed to prompt further discussions between adults and kids. Player’s drawings of stickers such as Yes, I Voted help to get the message across that voting does matter and that every vote really can make a difference. Have the primaries happened in your state? If not, get out and vote! • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

For Spacious Skies coverFOR SPACIOUS SKIES:
Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration
for “America the Beautiful”
Written by Nancy Churnin
Illustrated by Olga Baumert
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

I loved getting to know the origin story for the beloved song so many people think is our national anthem, but isn’t. I also learned that not only was the poem that was later turned into a song, written by a woman, but a very independent one at that.

Katharine Lee Bates was raised by her widowed mother who “grew and sold vegetables to help Katharine go to school.” Katharine’s smarts led to higher education and her passion for the written word led to her career as an author and professor at a time when young women were encouraged to pursue marriage and homemaking. She was also a reformer. In addition to teaching, Katharine worked hard to improve the lives of those most vulnerable in society, while also using her talents to help the suffrage movement.

A summer teaching job took her across the country by train from Boston to Colorado where she first glimpsed America’s boundless beauty. On July 4, 1893 Katharine’s mind was flooded with “memories of the ocean” as she set eyes on amber stalks of wheat swaying in the Kansas fields. A trip up to Pike’s Peak and its majestic views clearly inspired her to compose the poem we know and love. It was first published on July 4, 1895 and, with each additional publication, underwent several revisions. In 1910 it was paired with the famous melody by composer Samuel A. Ward we still sing today. This terrific and inspiring biography with its glorious Grandma Moses-esque illustrations perfectly blends the story of Katharine Lee Bates’s life and career, and country with the poem that celebrates its expansive splendor. Back matter and a timeline round out this recommended read.
•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

We the People coverWE THE PEOPLE:
The United States Constitution
Explored and Explained
Written by Aura Lewis and Evan Sargent
Illustrated by Aura Lewis
(Wide Eyed Editions; $24.99, Ages 10-14)

Even adults can take advantage of this comprehensive look at our Constitution because of the colorful and inviting picture book format designed with middle grade readers in mind. Plus it’s the kind of book you’ll want to keep on hand to refer to, especially when kids ask questions you may be unable to answer.

This quote from the authors on the intro page speaks volumes about what you can expect when you pick up a copy of We the People: “… we believe that having a deeper understanding of our Constitution can inspire change. Anyone can understand how the government works, and every single person has the power to get involved and make a difference.”

The 128 pages of the book are divided up into brief, digestible chapters, with plenty of white space so that your eye can travel to the most important parts quickly. The authors have included excerpts from the Constitution which have been paraphrased in kid-friendly English so they’re easily understood especially when presented as they relate to our daily lives.

One of my favorite sections was about the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, intended to guarantee that “no one can be denied the right to vote because of their gender.” The chapter features a bottom border illustration of both the suffragettes on the left holding signs and modern day protestors on the right also carrying signs. The spread (like those throughout the book) has interesting factoids such as the one about young conservative Tennessee politician, Harry Burns, whose mother influenced his decision “that tipped the scales in favor of the 19th Amendment.” On the four pages devoted to this amendment there are also thought provoking questions that a teacher or librarian can pose to their students.

There is so much wonderful information to absorb that I recommend readers take in a few chapters at a time to let the facts sink in. One particular chapter that, leading up to this year’s presidential election, might prompt discussion is about the 12th Amendment and the electoral college. Everyone who reads We the People will likely find something covered that will resonate with them whether it’s about the rights of the accused, term limits, or D.C.’s residents (now looking for statehood) being given the right to vote for president. Get this book today and you’ll get the picture!
•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

STAR-SPANGLED:
The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and
the American Anthem
Written by Tim Grove
(Abrams BYR; $19.99, Ages 10-14)

Starred Review – Kirkus

Okay, I’m going to embarrass myself here and admit I did not know the “Star-Spangled Banner,” our national anthem, was about a battle against the British over a fort in Baltimore. I mean I knew it was about a battle based on the lyrics and I knew the battle fought was with the British, and that’s it. I’m not even sure I was taught the anthem’s history in school. Now, thanks to Tim Grove’s well-researched historical nonfiction novel, I’ve been educated and kids can be, too. Oh and by the way, this occurred during the War of 1812 (which incidentally lasted until 1815).

Told from various perspectives, because what better way to convey the complexity of history than from more than one angle, Grove’s book introduces readers to a host of British and American characters. We meet Mary Pickersgill, (a sewing business owner specializing in flags or colors), Thomas Kemp (a Baltimore shipyard owner), Francis Scott Key, (a thirty-five-year-old lawyer with six children), Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn (a top British military officer in the Chesapeake Bay region), and 10 others whose stories are woven together to bring the full picture of the intense battle to light. Star-Spangled also addresses the background of the war and events leading up to battle to help put its significance in context. If America lost Baltimore, our young country’s independence could be at stake. Grove notes that Pickersgill, Kemp, and Key were all slave owners and that Key, was a “tireless opponent of the slave trade” yet in his role as a U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., opposed abolitionists. He was also “a leading proponent” of the colonization movement, something I definitely did not know about.

As we meet each person, we learn the role they played in the the book’s subheading, The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem. In fact, Star-Spangled reads like an Erik Larson novel where all the events are building up to the major one so anticipation is high despite knowing the outcome. And don’t be surprised if you become so engrossed that you finish the book in one go!

I had an advance review copy so I was unable to see the full-color photographs from the final edition, but my copy did contain the fascinating archival material interspersed throughout the book. There’s actually a photo of the “flag that Key saw. Over the years, before the flag came to the Smithsonian Institution, people cut various pieces off for souvenirs.” There’s also a photo of Francis Key’s “original draft of his poem.” This contains four verses and is preserved at the Maryland Historical Society.

Back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline, a glossary, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Don’t miss your chance to get a copy of this enlightening book. I hope it finds its way onto bookshelves in classrooms and libraries around the country so our rich history can be better understood and discussed. •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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