Nancy Churnin is a dynamo. She is the award-winning author of numerous picture book biographies, with more on the way. One of her most emotionally driven books is Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg (Creston books). Martin and Ann feels like a heartfelt tribute – a beautiful juxtaposition of the lives of two beloved heroes. The illustrations are lovely, adding an ethereal element to the moving text. It is an honor to welcome Nancy Churnin to Jewish Books for Kids.
I love the way you compared Martin Luther King and Anne Frank, in such a beautiful way. What was your inspiration for sharing their journeys as companion stories?
I was as stunned and frightened by the ugly eruptions of divisiveness and hate targeting the vulnerable in our country in 2017. In my search for courage, strength and especially hope because once you lose hope, darkness becomes ever harder to lift, I turned to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank. I was struck by the courage and faith they brought to the ugliness around them. I was moved by the similarities in spirit, almost a harmonic convergence in vision of a better, more equal and loving world, between these two people of different genders, races, religions and countries. When I realized they were born in the same year — the year of the Great Depression, a time of economic insecurity where people were prey to demagogues of hate and fear — I felt compelled to write their parallel stories. I hoped that by showing how much these two had in common, kids would not only feel what it had been like for Dr. King and Anne Frank to grow up in a world that persecuted them and those they loved because of differences of skin color and faith, but would identify with and try to protect everyone everywhere who is the target of discrimination and injustice.
Tell me a bit about the research you did for this book? What were some of the unexpected things you discovered? Any interesting facts that didn’t make it into the book
I had a pile of books about Dr. King and his writings and a pile of books about Anne Frank, including her diary. I had a pad where I made notes about what was happening in their lives at the same time. I discarded many details, reminding myself I was not writing the definitive biography on either one; instead I was writing about the intersection points, all that they had in common. I was astonished by how well many things lined up, particularly being separated from their friends when they went to school, being unable to enjoy simple things like going to the public swimming pool or a movie, things that kids could relate to, which gave me a meant-to-be feeling about this challenging project. I was surprised to learn how influential Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violent protest was on Dr. King. That was a reminder of how we all learn from each other. It strengthened my conviction that what we do in the book community is important because we share the wisdom, the insight, the love we’ve gleaned on our journeys, weave them in our stories, and leave them for readers we may never meet, hoping some will find what they need when they need it to endure and do their part to help repair the world.
What were your thoughts when you first saw the illustrations by Yevgenia Nayberg?
I was and still am in awe by how she moved from the beautiful, happy families that shaped Martin’s and Anne’s vision of a better world to painful scenes and rendered both evocatively and, when necessary, symbolically. There’s a double page spread where the Nazis have raided the attic where Anne and her family and friends were hiding. You don’t see swastikas or guns or terrified faces. But the somber colors, the house askew in the sky, the flash of light — you know something terrible has happened without leaving kids with images that will be too nightmarish for them to process. Then, in later pages, as we return to Martin’s and Anne’s vision for a better world, she brings us back to a world of vibrant, Chagall-like color that infuses the spirit with hope.
What do you hope young readers take-away from MARTIN AND ANNE?
I hope they’ll see themselves and their friends in these two children of different races, faiths, genders, languages and from different countries. I hope it will be a mirror for those who identify with them and a window for others to be more aware of the vulnerable and persecuted among us. All my books come with projects that have, as their goal, kids taking what they’ve gleaned from the heroes and heroines in the books and taking action to become heroes and heroines in they own lives. I hope the kids will take up the Kindred Spirits project where schools are reaching out to other schools so kids can share dreams and support and help each other. The first school to do the Kindred Spirits project is South Georgia Elementary in Amarillo, Texas. They reached out to a school in El Paso, Texas after the shootings in that community. I am so proud of that school and those wonderful kids. I am celebrating their Kindred Spirits project on my Kindred Spirits page and hope to add many more Kindred Spirits projects going forward: https://www.nancychurnin.com/kindredspirits
Is there anything you would like to add?
I recommend that anyone who is able to catch a performance or book the tour of Letters from Anne and Martin by the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in New York City do so. I was not aware of this two-person production by the Anne Frank Center before I wrote my book. But once I learned about it, we connected and found that the play and the book were kindred spirits — united by our shared goal that Anne’s and Martin’s words will break down walls between people and help them envision a world in which everyone gets help and support in reaching for their dreams. I found this play, aimed at teens, transformative. I am honored that the NYC School Librarians Conference paired me with the Anne Frank Center on a panel at their annual conference on Nov. 5. I am still in tears from the play. But I am also full of hope that together and with support, the ugly words and deeds that have been tearing us apart will make way for words of love and acts of kindness.
Thank you so much, Barbara, for your kindness in hosting me on your blog and letting me share about Martin & Anne!
Thank you, Nancy!
Learn more about Nancy’s books here Nancy Churnin