Today I get to interview an author who has visited my blog only once before. I’ve wanted to get her back for a few years now, but the timing hasn’t worked out until now.
Nancy Churnin is a native New Yorker and a graduate of Harvard University, with a master’s from Columbia University. She lives in North Texas with her husband, a dog named Dog and two cantankerous cats. You can learn more about her at her website.
DEAR MR. DICKENS is somewhere around her ninth picture book biography. It tells the story of Eliza Davis who dares to speak up to the famous and popular writer in a letter. She criticizes his anti-semitic writing of Jewish characters and asks for a change. I won’t spoil the ending, but the book blew me away. This was a story I had never heard about Dickens and was stunned to read. But Nancy excels at finding those fascinating tidbits in history that I can’t believe I’ve never heard of before. This is a story you won’t want to miss.
Welcome back Nancy!
Me: By this point in your career, you have written many amazing nonfiction picture book biographies. You have quite a knack for finding stories I’ve never heard of before. How did you first stumble upon this hidden story in Dickens’ life?
Nancy: I’ve loved the work of Charles Dickens since I was a child, which made it all the more hurtful that someone I admired so much would create a character like Fagin, that was such an ugly stereotype of a Jewish person. I often wished I could have written a letter asking Dickens why he had done that. Then, one day, in the library, when I was researching another topic, I drifted to an essay about Charles Dickens and a couple of lines leapt out at me about a Jewish woman named Eliza Davis, who had written to Dickens about his creation of Fagin. I couldn’t believe it!
Eliza Davis had written the very letter I wished I could have written! There were only a couple of lines in the essay about her letter, but it was enough to let me know her letter had changed his heart and because of her, he created the kindly Jewish character of Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend. I knew I had to find all the letters they had exchanged, why she had written to him, and why he responded the way he did. That’s when the detective part of my journey began.
Me: I saw in the Acknowledgements that you thanked your family for their love and patience on this book’s long and joyful journey. How long did it take from your first discovery of this story to its ultimate publication? Were there detours or road blocks along the way?
Nancy: I wrote the first draft of this book in 2013, three years before my first book, The William Hoy Story, was published in 2016. While my agent, Karen Grencik, and I loved it, early reactions from editors, who questioned the idea of a book based on letters, discouraged us from reaching out widely. I put it aside for a while, tinkering over the years, deepening it after a trip to The Charles Dickens Museum in London in 2014.
Then consulting over the years with a mentor who became a friend, Don Vann, Emeritus Professor at the University of North Texas, who introduced me to members of the local Dickens Society and then to two other Dickens scholars: Professor Murray Baumgarten, Distinguished Emeritus Professor at UC Santa Cruz, and Founding Director of The Dickens Project: and Professor David Paroissien, Professorial Research Fellow, the University of Buckingham, UK, Emeritus Professor of English, UMass Amherst, and retired longtime editor of Dickens Quarterly, the official scholarly publication of the Dickens Society.
I kept revising as I never lost my love for this story and passion for sharing this true story about the power of speaking up, of making amends, and forgiveness with kids. I’m grateful that even as years passed, my husband and kids kept believing that I was going to make this dream a reality. In 2020, when my longtime editor at Albert Whitman, Wendy McClure (now at Sourcebooks), asked if I had something new for her, I offered her a few options, including this. She fell in love at first read, secured Bethany Stancliffe to illustrate, and we’ve been speeding to publication ever since. Wendy left for Sourcebooks shortly before we finished, passing the baton to my new editor, Jonathan Westmark, and we’ve just kept flying. The journey feels like wait, wait, wait, whoosh!
Me: Wow! That’s fantastic. Can you tell us a bit about your research process? How long did it take you to research all the different facts and tidbits that went into this story?
Nancy: This took seven years – off and on! First, I had to track down the letters. My local librarian helped me find two copies of Charles Dickens and His Jewish Characters, edited by Cumberland Clark (Chiswick Press, 1918) that had them. One of those copies turned out to be 40 minutes away from me in the rare book collection of the University of North Texas. When I reached out to the university librarian, he put me in touch with Professor Vann who arranged for me to receive photocopies of all the pages of the book. Professor Vann followed up by inviting me to a long tea, talking all things Dickens with him and his now late wife, the wonderful Dolores Vann. I kept researching, studying, talking to experts in between books until Dear Mr. Dickens finally found its home.
Me: Your writing of Eliza’s character really brought her to life for me. I felt what she was feeling. And I love the tension you incorporated into this exchange of letters. How many revisions did this story undergo? Was this a difficult story to write?
Nancy: I’m so thrilled that Eliza came to life for you! I identify with Eliza so much – I think that may have helped. It was magical for me, almost as if I was writing that letter I dreamed of writing through her. I could feel her urgency, her fear, her determination, her need to be heard and understood. A lot of what happened during the revisions was stripping away all the unnecessary bits. The art of writing lies in stripping away everything that doesn’t belong.
My revisions focused on paring down to the essence of why this mattered to Eliza, the courage it took to speak up, her perseverance when he responded so negatively to her first letter, how she used what she learned from him to help him understand, and how, finally, she admired the full heart he brought to his transformation.
Me: Bethany Stancliffe’s illustrations in this book are wonderful! They fit so perfectly. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Nancy: When I look at Bethany’s spreads, I feel as if I’m entering Eliza’s world as surely as the Pevensie children walked through the wardrobe to Narnia. It’s such a magical feeling! My Dickens experts and my friends at The Charles Dickens Museum all agree how perfectly she captured the Victorian era. Beyond that, I am touched by how poignantly she captured Eliza’s feelings – her hopes, her fears, her courage, her joy.
My favorite pages are the final ones where we see Charles Dickens holding the Bible Eliza gives him as a present on one side of the page and Eliza reading his final letter to her on the other side, with her little boy deeply absorbed in reading a book. They seem so different on the outside. Eliza’s world and Dickens’ world seem to have nothing in common. But the words they share create a world bigger than their differences. The words that they share in letters and give to each other in books create bridges of understanding that make us realize that they actually are in one world – as are we all.
Me: I love that. I love the message of our words having power. Eliza could’ve kept silent, but she didn’t. Why is this a message you want to share with young readers?
Nancy: Absolutely! Not only did she show courage in speaking up, but she persevered when he rebuffed her first letter as not being “sensible” or “just.” Eliza realized before her time the power of representation and how destructive it was to only portray Jewish characters in an ugly, stereotyped way.
In the Jewish tradition, we celebrate Queen Esther who spoke up to a mighty king to save her people. For me, Eliza Davis was the Queen Esther of her time, speaking up to a mighty influencer to save her people. I hope this, in turn, will inspire kids to see how they can be like Eliza Davis and speak up to help others. That’s why I created a project, DEAR…, where with parental and teacher permission I will post photos of letters kids write to ask people in a position of influence to right wrongs.
Me: Wow! That sounds amazing! You have written and published numerous nonfiction picture books. What is one think you have learned along the way, that you would share with other new writers of nonfiction picture books?
Nancy: Write the story that speaks to you, the story you wish you yourself would like to read and share. There are many stories that we are better off for having in this world but, at the same time, that doesn’t mean that you have to write all of them. You only need to write the ones that resonate with you. I read and reread Dear Mr. Dickens and I’m happy not just because I’ve written a book, but because I’ve written this book. I wanted so much for so long to share Eliza Davis’s story with the world. That’s how you feel about what you’ve written – that you’ve written stories that you are excited to share – that you need to share.
That is amazing advice Nancy. Thank you for stopping by my blog. Dear readers, if you haven’t tracked down this book yet, I highly recommend it. It’s a stunning portrayal of one woman having the courage to stand up against what some people of her time might have seen as a minor injustice. She was hurt, and had the grace to lovingly ask for change. Trust me when I say, this is a story you have to read.