Q & A with Author Nancy Churnin, plus a Giveaway!
By Chana Stiefel
Spring is in the air and the pitches are flying. But you don’t have to be a huge fan of baseball to fall in love with THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, a debut picture book biography about a deaf player in the major leagues who, in the 1880s, changed the game of baseball forever. Author Nancy Churnin shared with Kidlittakeaways (KLT) how this inspiring and multi-layered story hit a home run.
KLT: Congratulations on your debut picture book! What inspired you to write THE WILLIAM HOY STORY?
NC: As the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News, I wrote a brief article about a play called "The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy." (In the 1800s, “dummy” was a common name for people who were deaf and mute. William, who was proud of being deaf, referred to himself as Dummy.) I was fascinated by this story of a deaf man who taught umpires the signals we still use today. When the article ran, I received an email from a man named Steve Sandy in Ohio. I asked him why he was interested in a play at a high school in Garland, Texas. He said he’d been trying for 30 years to get Hoy into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. As we continued our correspondence, I asked him if he would help me write Hoy’s story for children. He was happy to help and he provided me with a wealth of information, from pictures to memorabilia to newspaper articles from the 1800s.
KLT: How did you decide that William Hoy’s story would be best told in a picture book format?
NC: Many adult fans of baseball history know William Hoy’s story, but very few kids do. In a world where so many kids are embarrassed or afraid to try things because they are different, I felt it would encourage and inspire them to learn about a hero who was proud of his differences and used them to make the world a better place for everyone.
KLT: William Hoy’s story was a total revelation to me. Why do you think this story is little known (until now)?
NC: William Hoy is a hero in the deaf community, but as it happens all too often, history is told from the point of view of people in the majority. Most people who were deaf in Hoy’s time faced discrimination. They were either sent to asylums or lived at home with their parents. Sign language was under attack at one time from people who thought all deaf people should learn to talk and lip read. I find it interesting that William and the other deaf players of his time received no official recognition for introducing signals to the game. Instead, William Klem, a hearing umpire, gets credit for that even though Hoy began playing in 1886 and retired in 1902, the year Klem started his baseball career.
KLT: Has being a theater critic helped with your picture book writing? How so?
NC: It’s always helpful to do something you love. Also, I’m very attuned to story, its impact, and the use of leitmotifs. All of this helps with building drama for kids.
KLT: What was the research process like? What were some of the challenges?
NC: I was lucky to have Steve Sandy respond to all of my questions about William Hoy. I treasured all the newspaper articles he sent me. My biggest challenge was not to be overwhelmed by the volume. It was also challenging to stick to a story that I thought would work for kids, even if it meant tossing some of my favorite anecdotes overboard!
KLT: Describe the process of distilling all of your research into a short picture book.
NC: That part was the biggest learning curve for me. There are so many wonderful stories to tell about Hoy. My first approach to telling his story was to try to cram in as much as I could. Editors who read my early drafts encouraged me to focus on one key victory. Finally, after much reflection, I realized the key to the story was sign language. Through sign language, Hoy’s mother expressed her love for him. Through sign language, he found a way to play the game he loved. Through sign language, hearing crowds were able to tell him how much they loved him. A lot of information that didn’t fit into this arc went into the Backmatter.
KLT: Do you have a critique group?
NC: I have a wonderful critique group! We are all very supportive and very honest. We tell each other if something isn’t working and we all are eager to pitch in and help. We each want each other to succeed. In the acknowledgements, I also thank one of my writing friends, Kristen Fulton, who later formed this critique group, because her critiques were so helpful to me.
KLT: How did you find your agent?
NC: I am a 12 X 12 and Rate Your Story success story. I joined 12 X 12 to learn about the craft of writing and to have the opportunity to submit a manuscript to one agent each month. I joined Rate Your Story to get a rating that would tell me if my stories were ready for submission. In July of 2013, I submitted my story about William Hoy to both the July agent, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary, and to 12 X 12. Both Karen and Miranda Paul, the founder of Rate Your Story, got back to me almost immediately to tell me I had something special. After we signed, Karen sent my manuscript out to publishers right away.
KLT: Did you receive rejections? If so, did they influence your writing in any way?
NC: Yes & yes. I most definitely revised the book based on the rejections. What became clear after an initial round of rejections is that I needed to tell the story in a different way. When I came up with the idea of focusing on the importance of sign language in William’s life, the book sold quickly to Albert Whitman & Company. The way I see it, the story is more important than I am. If I’m getting rejections, I haven’t figured out how to make editor see how amazing my subject is. So I study the criticisms and I try to address them.
KLT: Did you have any input in choosing the illustrator?
NC: None at all and I couldn’t be more thrilled with Jez Tuya, who was selected by Wendy McClure, my editor at Albert Whitman and Company. Steve Sandy shared a wealth of historical photos of William Hoy, which we shared with Jez. Wendy did allow me to see early sketches. I didn’t judge them artistically (although they were wonderful). I just pointed out historical inaccuracies that needed to be corrected. For instance, people in the 19th century didn’t wear baseball gloves, which was lucky for William because the absence of baseball gloves made it easier for him to sign with his teammates. I was impressed by how Jez captured the historical details with such accuracy and with such a kid-friendly look.
KLT: How long did the process take from research to publication?
NC: I have lost count of the time, but it has been years. I had to learn how to write a picture book while writing this picture book! In the end, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get where you want to go as long as you get there. Sometimes the longer journeys are sweeter because you see and learn more along the way.
KLT: I read in the Backmatter that you are on a quest to induct William Hoy in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Have you had any success?
NC: People at my readings have asked me how to support his induction in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I am thinking of starting a contest that would involve asking kids to make the case for why they think William Hoy should be in the Hall of Fame and sending all the entries to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I also hope classrooms and schools will be inspired to find creative ways to take up his cause.
KLT: Did you have ties to the deaf community before working on this book?
NC: I have one friend who is deaf, but she lip reads and talks so well, it is easy to forget she is deaf. Steve Sandy introduced me to the controversies about how deaf people have been treated historically. I was shocked by how much deaf history I didn’t know. It made me all the more determined to be successful in telling William’s story.
KLT: Have you had any reaction to the book from the deaf community? How so?
NC: I have felt such great support from the deaf community and I am very grateful for that. I think it is key that I worked so closely with Steve Sandy and took his concerns and advice into account. I have had sign language interpreters at all my signings so far, both to be inclusive of the deaf community and to teach the hearing community a few simple signs. All of my signings so far have also raised money for people in the deaf community. The first was for Stonewall Jackson Elementary, a Dallas Independent School District area day school for the deaf and hearing impaired and the second for the Deaf Action Center in Shreveport. I was very moved when the librarian at Stonewall Jackson told me she often looks for books with a deaf hero for her students and she is so pleased to have THE WILLIAM HOY STORY because stories like this are hard to find.
KLT: What’s next? Are you working on any other picture books?
NC: I am working on lots of other manuscripts, but I don’t have any news to report yet. I continue to work with my critique group. I have also signed up for the WOW retreat for children’s book writers in Georgia in July, where I have promised myself to have three to four submission ready manuscripts to share with the editors there.
KLT: What are some takeaways for other aspiring children’s authors?
NC: Write what is in your heart. Write about something that is bigger than you, so that you’ll learn and not be deterred by rejection and won’t allow yourself to stop until you get it right. I had lots of rejections and lots of people wondering why I was obsessing over telling this story. But I had to tell William Hoy’s story. His story deserves to be known. And every time a child or adult comes up to me at a visit or a reading and thanks me for telling the story, I am beyond happy that I persevered.
Thank you so much, Nancy, for your winning answers! Nancy is generously offering a GIVEAWAY—a signed copy of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY to one lucky reader. Rafflecopter details below Nancy's bio!
About Nancy Churnin
Nancy Churnin is a native New Yorker and a lover of baseball who is happy to call Dallas her home. Go Rangers! She's the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News and a graduate of Harvard University, with a master's from Columbia University School of Journalism. She lives in North Texas with her husband, Dallas Morning News arts writer Michael Granberry. Between shows and deadlines, they're raising four sweet boys and two crazy cats. The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game is her first picture book.
Donna Cangelosi and Chana Stiefel are picture book critique partners & friends who are passionate about kids' books & are eager to share tidbits from their writing journey with other aspiring writers.