Kingsbridge Heights native named 2021 National Jewish Book Award Winner, Children’s Book Category

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In January, the Jewish Book Council named Bronx native Nancy Churnin the 2021 National Jewish Book Award Winner, Children’s Book Category for “Dear Mr. Dickens.”
Photo Kim Leeson

Bronx native Nancy Churnin, an award-winning children’s book writer who educates young readers about historical figures, was recently recognized for her out­stand­ing work in Jew­ish literature.

The Jewish Book Council named Churnin the 2021 National Jewish Book Award Winner, Children’s Book Category for “Dear Mr. Dickens” in January. The Jew­ish Book Coun­cil is a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to edu­cat­ing, enrich­ing and strength­en­ing the com­mu­ni­ty through Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture.

“Dear Mr. Dickens” has also won a 2021 Sydney Taylor Honor Book award from the Association of Jewish Libraries; is a 2022 Junior Library Guild selection; on Tablet Magazine’s Best Jewish Children’s Book list of 2021; Chicago Public Library’s Best Informational Books for Younger Readers for 2021; and received a starred review from School Library Journal.

The non-fiction picture book touches on how famed British author Charles Dickens had antisemitic elements in his writing, specifically in “Oliver Twist.” “Dear Mr. Dickens,” features Eliza Davis, who is Jewish, and how her heart hurt to see a Jewish character in “Oliver Twist” portrayed as ugly and selfish. She wanted to speak out about how unfair that was, even if it meant defying Dickens himself. So, in 1863 she wrote a letter to Dickens. What happened next is history.

After receiving her letter, Dickens was at first defensive, but then halted the printing of the book and soon changed some of the text.

Churnin, 64, a former theater critic for the Dallas Morning News, grew up in Kingsbridge Heights on Webster Avenue and 197th Street. She attended P.S. 86, J.H.S. 143 and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science.

She fell in love with books at a young age and the library became her second home.

“The librarians were so nice they introduced to me things I had never heard of before,” she said.

Churnin edited her high school newspaper and has fond memories of teachers who encouraged her to be a writer. Throughout her childhood, she was always reading and writing, and knew one day that would be a huge part of her life.

Her mom, Flora, who taught at P.S. 86, was also a big influence on her.

“She was my first teacher at home, and she actually became my teacher in the sixth grade,” Churnin said. “I was that weird kid that just loved to read. Education was so important.”

Churnin earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and American Literature from Harvard University in 1978 and a master’s in Journalism from Columbia University School of Journalism in 1981.

From there, she dedicated more than 30 years of her life to journalism. Churnin worked as a theater critic for the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times from 1986 to 1992. In 2000, she joined the staff of The Dallas Morning News, writing about such topics as health, lifestyles, children’s entertainment and parenting. In January 2014, Churnin became the primary theater critic for the Dallas Morning News, a position she left in January 2019.

While on the West Coast she met a writer, Michael Granberry, who soon became her husband. Granberry, a Dallas native, received an offer to work at the Dallas Morning News, and the duo relocated to the Lone Star state in 1997.

After writing several years for the paper, Churnin had an itch to do more. So, in 2016, she published her first children’s book, “The William Hoy Story, How a Deaf Baseball Player changed the Game,” and it landed on the 2016 New York Public Library Best Books for Kids and Bank Street College Best Children’s Books list.

In total she has authored 10 books in six years, including “Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” and “Anne Frank, Beautiful.”

“Dear Mr. Dickens,” written by Bronx native Nancy Churnin.

“I use my journalism skills as most of my books are non-fiction and my ability to stretch and dig deep, that came from my journalism background,” she said.

She was laid off from the Dallas Morning News in 2019 and since then, has focused her energies on writing children’s books. While she loved reporting, that chapter of her life is closed, she said.

“Dear Mr. Dickens,” which came out in October 2021, was her first book involving Jewish content. Churnin told the Bronx Times it was special to write about her religion and be recognized for it.

Through research she discovered Dickens was antisemitic, especially in his writings in “Oliver Twist,” where one character is referred to as the “Jew.” Upon learning this, she felt compelled to write about it.

Churnin loved receiving the award, but said the book had a big impact on her mom who finally understood why her daughter did not like Dickens.

“The book has been so important to her (mom) as a teacher and it hurt that somebody could be such a great writer and antisemitic,” Churnin said.

The win­ners of the 2021 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards will be hon­ored April 6, at a vir­tu­al cer­e­mo­ny.

Reach Jason Cohen at jcohen@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes

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