There are things I will never understand. Why does hatred exist in our world? Why does anti-semitism rear its ugly head over and over throughout centuries? Why are we doomed to constantly repeat the past? My mind boggles at these things, even when I know the history of them. Certain recent local events have made me think about all of this again. So when I read a picture book like the one I highlight today, a story I’ve never heard before and I know I should have heard it before, I feel both stunned and blessed to learn of someone so incredible.
Alaska has been in the news recently with political shenanigans that leave me appalled, embarrassed, and ashamed. I feel I must start off this entry by first addressing it, refuting it, and apologizing. Perhaps you’ve already heard about it. We’ve had nothing but political shenanigans going on around here for a while now.
You see, apparently I live in the Grimm woods. A fairy tale would explain people’s denial of the reality around us. A fairy tale would also explain the bizarre and irrational things I’ve seen happening. But I’m no Snow White. I will tell you right now that COVID is real and people are dying. I don’t want to get into politics (I abhore political conversations personally–it’s just another excuse to divide people), nor do I want to alienate anyone. But I don’t see a problem in wearing a mask. I wear one every day in my classroom to keep the students in my class safe, as well as coworkers with compromised immune systems. I have no problem doing that. Is it comfortable? No. Is it life threatening? No.
This last week in a local assembly meeting, anti-maskers wore yellow Stars of David and said being potentially forced to wear a mask was like being in the Holocaust. Our local mayor praised them for wearing them and called it a privilege or a “credit” to be associated with the Jewish people that had to wear them during WWII. No, no, no, no, NO! If you truly believe wearing a mask is persecution akin to what happened in the Holocaust, you have NO freaking clue! And if you think wearing a yellow Star of David on your clothes is a privilege, you don’t know your history! It was a symbol of segregation, of separating out and “othering” Jews so they could be mistreated and slaughtered. Don’t you DARE compare wearing a mask to that!
I’m so sorry that this was even said and done. I cannot apologize enough. Don’t for one second think I endorse that behavior. I absolutely do not and I will speak up loudly about it. I’m learning to do this more and more these days. It’s not right and it’s not okay.
So when I hear the story of someone like Henrietta Szold, I’m floored I’ve never heard of her before. HOW have I never heard of her before? HOW?! She made such a difference in our world, in so many ways, in so many lives. But I get ahead of myself.
I’m delighted to bring Nancy Churnin back to my blog (and so soon!) to talk about another one of her books. Nancy 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.
Her latest nonfiction picture book biography, A QUEEN TO THE RESCUE: THE STORY OF HENRIETTA SZOLD, FOUNDER OF HADASSAH, will blow you away. You too will be wondering how you’ve never heard of Henrietta before (or maybe not, if you’re more informed than I am!). This is the story of a woman who saw the needs of others from a very early age and kept stepping up to meet them. Jewish immigrants without jobs or education? She opened a night school. Not enough Jewish books in print? She became an editor. In 1912, she created a foundation to help with the sick and hungry in Palestine. She saved thousands of lives and her story doesn’t stop there. I don’t want to tell all of her story. She is a quiet and unsung hero. She was a woman in a time when women couldn’t do much at all, yet she continually found a way repeatedly to help others. This is a book that should be read RIGHT now. What our world needs isn’t more hate, but more help and love.
Welcome back Nancy!
Me: Here we are again, only a week later with another incredible biography. What draws you to write picture book biographies?
Nancy: Starting with my very first picture book biography, The William Hoy Story, I’ve been drawn to shining a light on people that kids might not know otherwise – people who are, in many ways, as ordinary as anyone that the children might know. What makes them extraordinary – and what can make any of us extraordinary — is that they have a dream and they persevere to make that dream come true in a way that makes the world a better place for everybody. I hope that being able to identify with the ordinariness of people like them will encourage kids to become the heroes and heroines of their own lives.
Me: I’m flabbergasted that I’ve never heard of Henrietta Szold before. Her story blew me away. When did you first learn about her?
Nancy: My sister and I are lifetime members of Hadassah, the charitable organization that Henrietta founded in 1912 – years before women had the right to vote in America! I was curious about how the organization got started. I learned about Henrietta and one question led to another. Every time I found out about one of her great contributions, I would then be astonished to learn about an even greater one. The more I learned, the more amazed I was that her story wasn’t widely known and the more determined I was to tell it.
Me: I can see why! I love how you tied her story to the story of Esther. What a brilliant connection! It really resonates with Henrietta’s life. What led you to make that choice in the writing of this book?
Nancy: The toughest part about telling Henrietta’s story was finding a kid-friendly theme that threaded through her good deeds. Once I realized that Hadassah was the Hebrew name for Esther and that Henrietta founded Hadassah on Purim, the holiday where we celebrate Queen Esther’s story, I knew I was onto something.
Purim is a kid-friendly celebration where kids dress up as characters in the story, eat delicious cookies called hamentashen and shake noise makers called groggers. Purim is fun and I knew kids would enjoy hearing about it. But I also wanted them to think about why we celebrate Purim: Queen Esther’s courage in standing up to her powerful king and asking him to save her people. Later in my research when I found out that Henrietta brought home a Purim scroll from her first trip to Palestine, a trip she made before founding Hadassah, I felt as if she was sending me a message that she had indeed modeled herself on the queen who had risked her life to rescue those in need.
Me: Henrietta never let anything stop her from doing what she knew needed to be done OR from helping others. Women might not have been allowed to hold jobs, but she found a way. Her life would be in danger if she helped others in harm’s way, but she found a way. Why do you want young readers to know about her? Why is telling her story important to you?
Nancy: I want them to think of the courage that led Queen Esther and, later Henrietta, to risk their lives to help others. Too often we celebrate long ago figures as if they have no relation to our lives today. But just as Henrietta channelled the spirit of Queen Esther to take risks to help others, we can channel the spirit of Henrietta to take risks, as needed, to help others. The best way to honor people is not just to celebrate them, but to carry on their work and their legacy.
I always create a project to go with my books. The project for A Queen to the Rescue is Heal the World. I hope kids will keep Henrietta’s spirit alive by working with others to find ways to help make the world a better place for all. With parental and teacher permission, I would love to share photos of the good things kids do on that page.
Me: I love that. Henrietta did so many astounding things in her life. I can’t imagine just picking one! Her story would absolutely have to be a whole life biography. Was that an intimidating choice? Did you realize you’d need a bigger page count to accomplish this?
Nancy: I began to realize in working on this that the reason there probably had not been a picture book about her up until now is that it is so hard to tell all of the amazing things she accomplished. So yes, it was a little intimidating at first. But Henrietta never turned away from a challenge and I resolved I wouldn’t either. It helped when I reminded myself that my job is not to tell everything, but to find what made her tick — to identify a DNA template, if you will, of her spirit.
This book does not tell you everything, but you will learn about her signature accomplishments, from the first night school in America, to her creation of Hadassah, to her rescue of 11,000 children from the Holocaust. You will also learn about how Henrietta didn’t see herself as a one-woman show, but rather found her brilliance in crafting organizational solutions to problems.
I love that she never asked what was in it for her. She wasn’t interested in money or fame. She was always focused on healing the world – making life better for everyone. She wanted to expand everyone’s opportunities to reach for their dreams, while supporting their right to basic health care, to food, and to education. She worked hard, but didn’t believe in working alone. Instead, she created organizations that empowered and encouraged other women which, in turn, meant that the confidence and organizational abilities of others would grow and her mission would continue after she was gone.
Me: Yevgenia Nayberg’s illustrations in this book are perfect! There are beautiful textures and fantastic interpretations of fear and hatred. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Nancy: This is my second picture book with Yevgenia Nayberg. She also illustrated Martin & Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank. I have to say, every time I think Yevgenia can’t astonish me anymore, she does! There are so many aspects of her brilliance. I could talk about her use of color that Daniel Yearwood, an actor in the Broadway company of Hamilton, likened in a Hamilton Cast Readalouds interview to the lighting effects in Hamilton. You can see that here on the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History site.
But what gets to me most, and what I discuss with kids when I present the books, is how she captures big, challenging emotions – fear, hatred, but also courage and love – in a way that’s true but just abstract enough for children to be able to process it without being overwhelming. She knows when to show feelings by the way someone is standing, to hide the face in key moments that leaves pain to the imagination, to use metaphors like the birds in A Queen to the Rescue to express threat in some instances and hope in others.
Me: Henrietta was a woman who made an inconceivable impact on the world around her in ways that literally changed thousands of lives. Yet she didn’t brag about herself or even write autobiographies about herself. Perhaps this is why she’s a “little-known, very brave woman.” What impact do you want to make on the world, like Henrietta did?
Nancy: The reason I am always so eager to talk about and share my books is because they’re not about me – they’re about the people I write about. I write about people that are sources of light and it is my honor and privilege to share and spread their light. Like Henrietta, I don’t do work to shine light on me. I do it to try make the world better.
In the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling created the concept of horcruxes, which represent the worst of people – something dark that’s generated after they do something evil that lives on in an object that must be destroyed. I think we also need to think about ways we can leave light – the best part of us behind in a way that continues to bring love and hope after we’re gone. I’m grateful to all the book creators who have done that for me all my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity to try to do that for others. I will continue to work as hard as I can for as long as I can to build books that hold light and help someone when that person may need it the most.
Wow Nancy. That really hits home for me. We need that light in these dark and troubling times more than ever. Thank you again for stopping by my blog.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, I highly recommend it. It’s a biography of a woman who very few have heard of, but her story shouldn’t be skipped. She is an inspiration and her light will shine on for thousands of families who survive because of her. This is most definitely a story you won’t want to miss.