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Nancy Churnin on Writing Stories and Moving Mountains

Nancy Churnin

We spoke to Nancy Churnin recently about her latest book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain.

How did you first learn about Manjhi’s story?

It was such a joy bringing 'The William Hoy Story' to children who didn't know the history of this great deaf hero, I was eager to to find another story about someone the kids didn't know, and who had made a positive difference in the world. I was also thinking about how American children rarely hear about heroes and heroines from other countries. When I came across Manjhi, who was famous in India, but not known in America, I was drawn to his determination to make things better for the people in his village. I also identified with him. I know writing a children's book isn't as hard as what Manjhi did, but I write in the hope that these stories will make a positive difference in children's lives and as I rework draft after draft after draft in search of the heart of the story, sometimes it feels as if I'm trying to move a mountain!

What research did you do when you decided to write about Manjhi?

I read every article I could find about him. I also found YouTube video interviews of him and of people who knew him. I watched them over and over and was struck by his vision and selflessness. He talked about how people in the village told him he was crazy and how that strengthened his resolve. I was moved by learning that when the Indian government thanked him by giving him a gift of land, he turned around and gave that land to his village to build a hospital. I had the help of Rachel Ball-Phillips, who  is a lecturer in East Indian Studies at Southern Methodist University. Rachel was familiar with the story and India. She read the story and studied the beautiful watercolor illustrations by Danny Popovici to make sure that everything was accurate. Rachel is married to an Indian man and she and their daughter, Leora, helped with the Teachers Guide too.

A general theme we see in your books is stories of people overcoming difficulties. Is that intentional or just accidental?

It's absolutely intentional. The march of civilization is made by people who see something that is wrong or could be made better and do something about it so that those who follow can start their journey further along in our path to a more perfect world. We tend to tell the same stories of a handful of famous people. I want to tell the other stories of the many, many others who have found creative ways to advance our journey. I want kids to know that even those who think of ourselves as ordinary, can do extraordinary things, just as these people have done.  

Were there any challenges you faced while trying to write Manjhi’s story?

    There were many challenges. In most children's stories, you start with a child and a simple, concrete goal with which a child can identify, for example William Hoy's desire to play baseball. I had to figure out a way to make children identify with a grown man with a dream of moving a mountain that would take 22 years to accomplish. It seemed kind of crazy, but like Manjhi, I just became more determined to succeed. I am very grateful to my critique group, who brought me partway on my journey, to my agent, Karen Grencik, who believed the journey was worth pursuing and to the wonderful Marissa Moss, who accepted the story on the condition that I would continue to work with her on it. The work continued and, thanks to Marissa, we made it through the mountain!  

Can you share a little more of your journey as an author? How have you honed your craft?

   I am very grateful to the kindness of the children's book community. My #1 piece of advice for writers is don't waste any time getting to know your tribe. You will enjoy trying to help each other succeed. I joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, which hosts regular writing conferences, contest and book promotion opportunities. I learned a lot about writing through programs and classes launched by writers. I studied basic techniques through classes and workshops with Mira Reisberg, Kristen Fulton and Susanna Hill. I found my agent on Julie Hedlund's 12 X12 group. I tested manuscripts on Miranda Paul's Rate Your Story. I received inspiration and support on Tara Lazar's Storystorm, Paula Yoo's Napibowriwee, Carrie Charley Brown's ReFoReMo and benefited from ongoing feedback from terrific critique partners.    

I understand that you’ve created a Move Your Own Mountain challenge along with the book. Can you share a little more about it?

It's my dream that children will be inspired to find a way to "move a mountain" in their communities in the spirit of Manjhi. I've created a Move Your Own Mountain page on my website, I want to celebrate what kids are doing to make a positive difference and for kids to inspire each other with good ideas.

One of my favorites so far is the Friendship Bench. Kids designate a bench at recess as the Friendship Bench. If a child doesn't have someone to play with, the child sits on the friendship bench. The others know to keep an eye on the bench and if they see someone there, they rush to get that person and include him or her in their game. I like to think that Manjhi would have approved!

Anything else you would like to share with our readers?

I so enjoyed learning about the beauty of India and delicious food through Manjhi's journey. I am so excited to share that with the kids through Danny's book illustrations and the recipe for roti, printed with permission of Manjula Jain of, in the free Teachers Guide.

I am also thrilled to have 'Manjhi Moves a Mountain' featured on KitaabWorld. It is so important for as many children as possible to have stories that open their hearts to the rich culture of South Asia. I admire this mission to enlighten, which is, in its own way, chiseling its way through a barrier of ignorance that keeps too many of us apart. I am so proud to have 'Manjhi Moves a Mountain' part of this collection. I want to thank KitaabWorld and to everyone who helps in the work to get all the stories in this catalog in the hands of as many children as possible.   

Thank you Nancy, and may you inspire many children to move their own mountains and write their own stories!

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  • Nancy Churnin on

    Thank you, dear Sherri! And thank, you, dear Sreelatha. I enjoyed meeting your daughter, Umapriya. She is so lovely and so proud of you! I look forward to reading your book, too. I like how you describe the message, which is such an important one for kids and adults, too.

  • Sherri jones rivers on

    Another winner, dear Nancy. So inspiring in a day and time where we need hope.

  • Sreelatha Radhakrishnan on

    IMy daughter,Umapriya Chandran,recommended your book and yourvision. I am truly impressed awith the whole concept and will order the book right away. My book ( CLIMBING RAINBOWS ) also deals with children who show extraordinary courage when emotioanal and physical hurdles throw them out of their comfort zone.

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