By Nancy Churnin
Find your passion. And let one thing lead to another.
I write books about people I fall in love with -- someone I want kids to know about. Sometimes that passion leads me to unlikely places.
I don’t remember who I went the library to research when my mind drifted to Charles Dickens. Now, I had no intention of writing a book about Charles Dickens – there are already excellent picture books about him, including Deborah Hopkinson’s 2012 A Boy Called Dickens.
But then I stumbled on this: a Jewish woman, Eliza Davis, had written to him, reproaching him for creating Fagin in Oliver Twist, telling him this ugly character was hurtful and unfair to the Jewish community. I read that her letters changed his heart toward Jewish people. And I felt time stop.
Growing up as a Jewish girl, it hurt me to read the character of Fagin. Now, as a Jewish woman, it was empowering to learn that a Jewish woman spoke up and changed his heart. Talk about validating the power of words. It felt like the universe telling me to use my words to change the world for good, too.
The research wasn’t easy. I had to track down the correspondence. My librarian at the Plano Public Library discovered there were few copies, but one was in Denton, Texas, of all places – less than an hour drive away, at the University of North Texas. I contacted the university’s librarian and was put in touch with the professor who had donated it. I became friends with Professor Don Vann and his wife, the lovely and now, sadly, late Dolores Vann. The Vanns helped me with my research and put me in touch with two other Dickens scholars, Professor Murray Baumgarten and Professor David Paroissien.
I let one thing lead to another. I followed my passion. And I revised innumerable times. Because it took years to find a home for this unusual story.
But it was worth it. Because on Oct. 1, Dear Mr. Dickens, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, published by Albert Whitman, comes into the world. And when I hold this book in my hands and share it with kids, you’ll see the look of love in my eyes.
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