Welcome to our next Picture Book Interview post. I am excited to introduce you to noted author Nancy Churnin, who has kindly offered to discuss her book, “Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring.”
Hi, Nancy! Tell us about yourself!
I am a former theater critic and journalist who now writes children’s picture books full-time. I write about people who inspire me, people that children might not know about otherwise that I hope will inspire the children to become heroes and heroines, too. All my books come with free teacher guides and resources and projects on my website, with dedicated pages where kids can share photos of their projects and encourage others to do great things, too.
Do you have a favorite picture book?
I have a different answer to that question every day. I like all kinds of books — nonfiction, fiction, fantasy, poetry, science fiction, historical fiction, science. If a book makes me think and feel and wonder, if it changes me and I feel a little different after reading it than I did before, I am happy and grateful!
How did you know you wanted to be an author?
I cannot remember a time when I wanted to be anything else. I loved when my mother read to me and was overjoyed when I learned to read to myself. I always kept lots of books and pads of paper with me to jot down ideas for poems and stories. The only bump in my journey was not knowing how to go from being someone who wrote books to someone who got to publish and share them.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read, study, find fellow writers that will critique, encourage and help you. Think about what you must say, what you need your readers to know. Write what is in your heart in the way that is true to you. If you follow your truth, it will lead you where you need to go.
Is there anyone who has been tremendously instrumental in your path to becoming a writer?
My parents who always made sure I had all the books I asked for, who told me that I might lose things through life, but I would never lose what was in my head and my heart, librarians who knew the books I needed at different times in my life, my family and friends who have believed in me and encouraged me when I needed belief and encouragement most.
Tell us about your picture book!
“Beautiful Shades of Brown, the Art of Laura Wheeler Waring” is aimed at elementary school children and older who want to learn about an amazing painter and also how we can make a stand for social justice — which Waring did with her paintbrush. Waring didn’t see portraits of people that looked like her and her family and people in her community that she admired on museum walls. So, she decided to paint them. She studied art and won a scholarship to further her skills in Paris. The paintings that she created are now featured in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery today and, thanks to the support of her family and the museum, we received permission to reproduce those paintings. Waring didn’t have a big voice — she was quite shy — but she used her paintbrush to make a difference. I hope her story will challenge children to think of their own gifts and how they can use them to make a difference.
Who do you hope to reach with this story?
I hope this book will reach boys, girls, art lovers, but really all kids because all kids benefit from mirrors and windows. Some may find Waring a mirror — reflecting their beauty and the beauty of their family and community — and others may find her a window, showing the beauty of others from different communities.
What is the goal of your book?
I hope it will encourage children to persevere in their dreams, even if they’re told as Waring was, that no one would ever put paintings of people who looked like her on museum walls. I hope the book will remind children of how beautiful we all are and that we all must find our own unique gifts This is why I created a project to go with the book, PAINT YOUR WORLD, where kids are encouraged to create and share artwork of themselves and their families. I hope it will get children thinking about their own unique gifts. Waring used a paintbrush to express herself, but other young readers might make their mark in a laboratory or a football field or a stage or a concert hall. There’s no one way to make a difference. The key is to find your own unique way.
Tell us about some of the characters or pictures.
Laura Wheeler Waring was a young girl who refused to accept the limitations or message of segregated America that she was less worthy or beautiful than others. She worked hard trying to get each shade of brown right to show others how unique and beautiful each shade of brown skin is. The illustrator, Felicia Marshall, did an incredible job channeling Waring, even showing the process of Waring painting her own paintings on the pages. Not only that, to make her own point about how beautiful and unique each shade of brown is, Marshall sets up her illustrations in rooms with brown walls, putting a beautiful exclamation point on what Waring was saying with her art.
Illustrator Felicia Marshall
What inspired you to write your picture book?
I felt that women were underrepresented in the books I read about great artists. I was keeping my eyes and heart open for the story of someone whose story had not yet been told. Then, one day, I saw a stunning portrait of the singer Marian Anderson, looking regal, as if she was about to sing, in a red dress. I wondered who had painted this picture. I saw the artist was Laura Wheeler Waring. I had never heard of her before. But I was determined to learn everything I could. I couldn’t find much at first. So I decided to pursue my subject by seeing who had the painting. It was at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. I tracked down a curator who told me about Waring and put me in touch with Waring’s family. It felt like a detective journey, but such a worthwhile one. The more I learned about Waring, the more I loved and admired her. The more I learned, the more I knew I had to share her incredible story with children.
How long have you been working on this book?
I started it in 2016 and found a home for it in 2019. It came out in 2020 from Creston Books, distributed by Lerner Books.
What were some of the things that surprised you about the book creation process?
This was my seventh book, so I was familiar with the book-making process. But even so, I was deeply moved at the magic the illustrator Felicia Marshall made with the text. It’s as if she was Laura Wheeler Waring, using her own incredible skills with finding just the right shades to show how Waring did the same. Also, like Waring, Marshall paints realistically. You almost feel that you are there in that room with her painting, smelling the fumes of the oils that she mixed on her palette.
What other types of professionals helped bring your book to life?
Felicia Marshall, the illustrator, was an incredible collaborator. Simon Stahl was the art designer responsible for the overall look of the book which I believe is stunning. Marissa Moss is the incredible editor and publisher of Creston Books. She knew right away that she wanted this story when I submitted it to her. She also knew right away that she needed Felicia Marshall to illustrate it. Marissa is an author and artist herself and brings those sensibilities to guiding artists and bringing books to life.
What has been the most rewarding part of bringing this book to life and sharing it with young readers?
I love when young readers see themselves in Laura Wheeler Waring or feel encouraged to make themselves seen, to claim their own beauty, if they are not currently as visible as they should be. I love when they share their portraits of themselves or their families and friends on the Paint Your World page on my website.
Photos by Kim Leeson
Connect with Nancy!
Thank you, Nancy, for sharing your time with us today.
Readers, to learn more about Nancy and her wonderful selection of books, please visit:
Facebook: Nancy Churnin
Facebook: Nancy Churnin Children’s Books
Where to buy Nancy’s books!
National Jewish Book Award, Sydney Taylor Honor and Notables, Junior Library Guild, Kids’ Choice Award Finalists, South Asia Book Award, Starred Reviews, Sakura Medal finalist, Towner Award Finalist, Books for a Global Society Notable, National Council for the Social Studies Notables, Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award, Best Picture Book Finalist by World Magazine, Silver Eurekas, Ezra Jack Keats Award Finalist, New York Public Library Best Books for Kids, Bank Street College Best Children’s Books, Northern Lights Book Awards, Mighty Girl Books
Member: SCBWI, Nonfiction Ninjas, NF Fest, Ink Think Tank, NF Minute, KidLit4GrowingMinds