Simply 7 interview with Nancy Churnin and Danny Popovici–Manjhi Moves a Mountain

Helpless. We’ve all felt it. Especially lately. Helpless to stop the forces of natural destruction. Helpless to stop political or employment or world-at-large insanity. Helpless to stop hatred and change the world. Helpless.

I’ve been feeling it a lot lately in my own life. Helpless at work to battle all the changes I see on a daily basis affecting my job (and thus my quality of life). Helpless to fight against the cancer invading my dad’s body and about to take his life. Helpless as I watch others around me struggle in a number of ways that I can’t help with. Helpless.

And children feel it most of all. They can’t drive themselves places. They can’t even tie their own shoes! They can’t do a lot of things because they’re TOO young. They get it. They live it every day. We adults forget just how helpless they might feel all the time.

Why talk about all of this before a Simply 7 interview? Because today’s book talks about that feeling and tells the true story of one man who decided NOT to dwell in helplessness. He took action and did one little thing. And that little thing added up over time to a big thing. “Manjhi Moves a Mountain” is the true story of how one man literally moved a mountain.

NancyChurninAuthor Nancy Churnin is the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News and author of “The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game” (a nonfiction picture book which came out last year to much acclaim). Her newest book “Manjhi Moves a Mountain” is out TODAY and she has 3 more books coming out next year. She’s a native New Yorker, a graduate of Harvard University, with a master’s from Columbia University School of Journalism, who makes her home in Dallas with her husband, sons and two cats. You can learn more about her at her website.

Manjhi Cover01Manjhi was a man who desperately needed a change. I think many of us can relate to that. He saw an obstacle and he had the foresight to see that one little action over time would add up to a big change for the better in his life and in the lives of those around him. So he picked up a shovel and he started digging. One shovel at a time, every night for a few hours, for 22 years he dug a hole that got bigger and bigger. It took time, effort and even some personal cost, but he kept at it.

That’s what he did! HE DUG A HOLE! One rock at a time, one shovel full at a time. THIS is a phenomenal story that has to be shared!

Me: Nancy, thank you so much for visiting our blog today. Your book is SO timely for SO many reasons.

Nancy: Thank you for this opportunity and your support, Jena.

Me: Absolutely! Let’s talk about this incredible story. You are a journalist, a theater critic! What is it then that draws you to picture books?

Nancy: Picture books, like theater, are about those magical moments when you feel your spirit move through other people’s lives, feeling what they feel and hoping what they hope. To quote two of my favorite folks, William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: “All the world’s a stage” and “There is no frigate like a book.” It’s my dream to bring the drama to the page so that these stories will take children to new places far away and deep within where they recognize the universality of the human spirit.

Me: This is your second picture book nonfiction biography, with three more coming out next year! What is the secret to your success? How do you find such amazing nuggets of real life to turn into a picture book?

Nancy: “THE WILLIAM HOY STORY” came to me as a gift from Steve Sandy, a Deaf man and friend of the Hoy family, who told me about Hoy’s amazing accomplishments, introducing signals to baseball, the signals we still use today, so he could play the game he loved. When Steve told me how much he wanted Deaf and hearing children to know the story of this Deaf hero, I promised him I would write Hoy’s story if he would help me with the research. Steve did and it was such a transformative journey, it made me want to tell more stories about hidden heroes and heroines that inspire kids as much as they inspire me. I’ve been on the lookout for them ever since.

Me: What was it about Manjhi’s amazing story that first grabbed you and drew you to write about it?

Nancy: I came across the story of how Manjhi took 22 years to chisel a path through a 300-foot mountain so children in his village could get to school and the sick could get to a doctor. As I read about how he persevered even when people told him how he was crazy, he grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go. I had worked so long on William Hoy, studying and struggling with the nuts and bolts of how to write a picture book while I was writing draft after draft, I knew how it felt to be “crazy,” taking on a seemingly insurmountable task. I also knew the joy of what can happen when you persevere and what a difference that can make for yourself and others.


Me: Did you have to do a lot of research for this story? Can you tell us a bit about that process for this story?

Nancy: I read every story I could find on Manjhi. I also found YouTube videos so I could observe interviews with him and about him in his village. I was very fortunate to get help from Rachel Ball-Phillips, a lecturer in South Asian studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, whom I thank in the acknowledgements. Rachel read over the text to make sure that everything was correct. With every story, I think it’s so important to find and rely upon an expert who can help and guide you.

Me: Danny Popovici’s illustrations in this book are pitch perfect. Did you communicate with him at all during the creation of them? Were there any illustration surprises for you?

Nancy: I am so grateful that my editor, Marissa Moss, whom I cannot praise enough for her patience with me through the writing and revision process, allowed me to see Danny’s exquisite illustrations as they were in progress. Rachel Ball-Phillips gave me wonderful notes about hairstyles, clothes and how Manjhi’s favorite bread, roti, would be flat, which I shared with Marissa. She passed Rachel’s notes to Danny, who made sure that everything was true to the period and place.

Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?

Nancy: Write what you love and don’t give up. In many ways, Manjhi may have seemed like an odd choice for a picture book hero. He starts out as a man, not a boy. He’s not an athlete or artist or scientist or political leader. He’s a simple laborer and he takes 22 years to chisel a path through a mountain. How was I going to make that interesting? But it was interesting to me. No, it was fascinating to me. And I knew if I could find the right way to tell the story, kids would be as moved as I was.


Me: If you could move a mountain and change one thing about the world, ANY thing (NO constraints on this flight of fancy), that might help others, what would it be and why?

Nancy: I wish that fear, particularly fear of “the other,” would become something that we could pluck out like a tumor and replace with curiosity and love. There’s no reason for barriers between people. And there’s so much we can learn from each other. It’s been such a joy to see how children hearing THE WILLIAM HOY STORY get excited about learning sign language. Now I’m looking forward to seeing kids who read MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN learn about Indian culture and how everyone can make a difference. I hope kids will participate in my Move Your Own Mountain program, where we’ll be celebrating kids who make a difference in their schools and communities on my Move Your Own Mountain page on I’m excited about sharing their good deeds so that they’ll spread.

This story won’t let go of me either. It’s a story that moves me personally right now because of some of the circumstances I’m facing that feel as impassable as mountains. It’s a story that I think can speak to all of us right now as we face our own mountains of many shapes and sizes. And I believe it’s a story that every child should hear. There’s even an educational guide that goes with the story for teachers to use.

Because I couldn’t stop with just one interview with Nancy, I went a step further and talked with illustrator Danny Popovici as well.

DannyPopoviciDanny Popovici is a multi-talented go-getter. He has illustrated picture books, water color paintings, urban sketching, and worked on the visual development for some animation and games. He has won awards and worked with a variety of clients from Creston Books to Nickelodeon to Cap’n Crunch. You can find out more about him at his website.

Welcome Danny!

Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing?

Danny: I started drawing at a very young age, almost as early as I can remember. My folks told me a story that when I was about 1 to 2 years of age, they set aside three items on the floor; crayons, a car magazine, and some tools. The item I would go up to and play with would eventually be my career choice. I chose the crayons. To give credit where credit is due, the crayons were colorful and appealing. This all took place in a small city in Romania? Superstitions like these are very common.

When I was old enough to realize I could pursue a career in the arts, I enlisted in art school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but just as long as I could draw my way through life I knew I’d be happy. I was very naïve in thinking it might be easy.

Me: You have quite a diverse portfolio and a variety of styles. What made you choose the style you did for “Manjhi Moves a Mountain”? Can you talk a little bit about how you created the art for the story?

Danny: I initially approached this book with digital designs and sketches. It made for quick concepts that I could edit on the fly, mix-match elements, and play around with color. The project was moving forward and I began doing some watercolor tests, mainly for character and village designs. But I started to love the look and feel of watercolors for this project. The texture and “controlled” washes felt like it really worked to communicate Manjhi’s story with a colorful, earthy and vibrant aesthetic.

DP hutsMe: One of my favorite illustrations is the scene where Manjhi stands on the top of the mountain which spans the gutter of the book. It not only divides the two villages, but it divides the two pages! That is genius! Was that intentional? Can you talk about that choice?

DP mtn divide

Danny: This was one of the most challenging illustrations. There were so many revisions of this piece. I wanted to showcase the disparity of the two villages in one spread. Manjhi here clearly sees a lively, abundant market, while his village behind him is struggling with crops and hungry livestock. I used cooler color tones, leafless trees and exhausting farm chores in order to sell the desperation in Manjhi’s village. The rhythm of Manjhi moving forward towards the right into a prosperous village was intentional, subconsciously driving the audience to his destination. Manjhi sees this while unbeknownst to him, standing on his 22 year long obstacle.

DP sketches

Me: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this story?

Danny: Manjhi’s story was the biggest surprise. Sadly, I have never heard of Manjhi until I first read Nancy Churnin’s manuscript. Nancy did such a wonderful job telling a true story without delving into specifics and facts. She allowed the story to unfold as if it was a legendary tale told for centuries. I kept picturing Manjhi as this monumental figure you would only read about in mythology or folklore. Not only is it an amazing story of persistence and humanity, but a story that lives in recent memory. Dashrath Manjhi was born in 1934 and died Aug. 17, 2007 at the age of 73. I hope Manjhi’s inspirational story is told throughout our schools systems for generations to come.

Me: What does your illustration process for a picture book look like? Does it differ from your other work (game design, animation, etc.)?

Danny: My process when illustrating a picture book is very different from any other creative project. I work in animation design and the workflow varies from project to project. Usually there is a bigger team working in various departments in animation. When illustrating picture books, the team is small. The artist works alone, in what sometimes feels like a little dungeon lit by candlelight.

Editors and art directors are very important. They are there to help guide you through rough patches and give you feedback to make sure you’re still on the right path. They see thousands of books, making them a great resource to have on hand. They usually know what is working and what is not.

It’s very easy for an artist to get lost on one illustration and forget to think about the overall picture. A picture book is like a song and should have a cohesive rhythm throughout the page turns. I had a great editor and art director that gave me honest feedback and pushed me in the right direction.

Nancy Churnin was also a great help. She had a friend very familiar with the Indian culture look over the illustrations and make sure I included buildings and clothing that were actually used in Bihar, India. Research was very important in making this project come to life.

Me: Any advice for other picture book illustrators?

Danny: Keep drawing. It gets said a lot in the illustration community, but it can’t be preached enough. Draw for fun, but don’t always draw mindlessly. Think about your actions, decisions, the way you’re communicating your work. Be patient with yourself. It takes a lot of time, but if you stick with it and are persistent, like Manjhi, you’ll chip away little by little and move towards honing the work you want to make. Most importantly, have fun!

Me: If you could illustrate any picture book (past, present, or future), what would it be and why?

Danny: I’m kind of a big fan of horror and the macabre. I know this might be more of an unusual taste for a picture book artist, but it’s not uncommon. The picture book industry has a history with “creepy” children’s books, intentionally or not, and I think it’s a beautiful teaching tool. Tony Diterlizzi’s “Spider and the Fly” is a stunning example along with Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown’s “Creepy Carrots.” But my all-time favorite might have to be Edward Gorey. I love his use chiaroscuro, how he cross hatches his lines to convey texture, and his designs are wildly entertaining. If I could re-illustrate one of his books, I would love to take a shot at “The Gashlycrumb Tinies.” It’s too much fun. An honorable mention would be something by Wolf Erlbruch; not so much scary, but he has this style that is lost in contemporary picture book illustrations.

Thank you Danny for sharing your process with us and talking about the mountains you conquered both in your illustrations with Manjhi and in the process itself. Thank you Nancy for bringing this amazing story to us. Manjhi is the inspiration I really need right now.

You see guys, I’ve been thinking a LOT about mountains lately (figuratively speaking), ever since I read this book. And I ran across this quote that spoke volumes to me: “Let her sleep for when she wakes, she will move mountains.”

Because I feel like that’s what I’m doing these days with work, with health, with creativity, with hope, with supporting others. I’m moving mountains. But don’t we all feel that way? Are we all facing battles that seem insurmountable and we want to enact change? So I illustrated this quote:

move mountains1

I wanted to do so much more (I had a couple more images in mind I wanted to create), but while facing all of my own mountains lately, I haven’t had time to create. That’s why I’m asking you for help. I want to see your creations and be inspired to keep moving these impossibly huge mountains. Let’s inspire each other. Use the twitter hashtag #movemountains.

If you too are facing mountains, if you too would like to make a change in the world, I encourage you to make your own image (however you might do that—you don’t have to be an illustrator or artist) and post it on twitter with the hashtag #movemountains. Won’t you join me? We too can make a change in the world with one little step at a time, one little rock, one little hole dug in the side of a mountain.

I’ve since run across an even better quote to describe how I’ve been feeling (and perhaps an even better quote to go with Manjhi): “You have been assigned this mountain to show others it can be moved.” WE are the mountain movers. We ARE the world changers. It begins with us, one step at a time.

mtn moved

3 thoughts on “Simply 7 interview with Nancy Churnin and Danny Popovici–Manjhi Moves a Mountain

  1. I am so glad to see this book I will loon for it in my library. Recently there was a bollywood Hindi movie on him which is where we first heard of him. Goosebumps to realize kids all over the world can now read your book and be inspired! !

  2. Pingback: Simply 7 with Danny Popovici–The Fox and the Forest Fire” | Jena Benton

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