An Interview with Nancy Churnin, author of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY

A few days ago, I posted my review of Nancy Churnin’s terrific new picture book, The William Hoy Story.  Today, I am excited to share an interview with the author herself!
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.About the Book:

The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game
By Nancy Churnin
Illustrated by Jez Tuya
All William Ellsworth Hoy wanted to do was play baseball. After losing out on a spot on the local deaf team, William practiced even harder—eventually earning a position on a professional team. But his struggle was far from over. In addition to the prejudice Hoy faced, he could not hear the umpires’ calls. One day he asked the umpire to use hand signals: strike, ball, out. That day he not only got on base but also changed the way the game was played forever. William “Dummy” Hoy became one of the greatest and most beloved players of his time! 

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About the Author

Nancy Churnin is the author of five non-fiction picture book biographies. Her debut, The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game, published by Albert Whitman & Company in March 2016, received a glowing review in The New York Times and was featured in People magazine and USA Today Sports Weekly. William Hoy is a 2017 Storytelling World Resource Award Honor Book and a 2017 North Texas Book Festival Best Children’s Books finalist and is on several book lists: the 2016 New York Public Library Best Books for Kids; the 2017 Texas Library Association 2×2 Reading List and Topaz Nonfiction Reading List; the 2017 Best Children’s Books of the Year, Bank Street College and the 2018 Illinois Monarch Award Master List. Her second book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain (Creston Books), will be published Sept. 1, 2017 and is a fall 2017 Junior Library Guild selection. Coming up in 2018: Charlie Takes His Shot, How Charlie Sifford Broke the Color Barrier in Golf (Albert Whitman); Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing (Creston Books); The Princess and the First Christmas Tree (Albert Whitman). When she’s not writing children’s books, Nancy keeps busy as the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News. She lives in Texas with her husband, Michael Granberry, their four sons and two cats.
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The Interview

How did you first become interested in the story of William Hoy?
I am the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News. After I wrote a story about a fascinating play being staged at a local high school in Garland, Texas called The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy by Allen Meyer and Michael Nowak, I received a thank you e-mail from Steve Sandy of Ohio. I thanked him for his email and asked why someone from Ohio would be interested in a story about a play in a high school in Garland, Texas. Steve wrote me that he is deaf and shared his dream that more people, hearing and deaf, would know the story about this great deaf hero. Steve told me of his dream that William Hoy would be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where he would be the first deaf player honored there. The more we discussed this, the more I knew Steve was right. I tried to figure out what I could do to help. That’s when I got the idea that if I wrote a children’s book about William Hoy, the children would help us. And so far, they have. I have personally delivered more than 800 letters from kids to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which have been entered into his official file in the Hall of Fame library.
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What kind of research did you do while writing the story?
Steve Sandy is a friend of the Hoy family and he shared all the precious things they had entrusted with him: copies of original letters, newspaper articles, photos. Also very important: Steve gave me an education on what it was like to grow up deaf in the 19th century as William Hoy had. He sent me papers about the international conference of deaf educators in Milan in 1880, when a declaration was made that oral education was better than signing. William Hoy never spoke. He always signed. This helped me understand and be even more in awe of the enormity of what he accomplished — bringing sign language to baseball and succeeding with pride and even a sense of humor on his own terms. In addition to Steve’s help, I am very indebted to Eric Nadel, the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame announcer, who is incredibly knowledgeable about baseball history. He double-checked my baseball references and was kind enough to write a blurb for the back of the book and to read it to kids at Texas Ranger story time sessions.
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Were there any interesting tidbits about Hoy that didn’t make it into the story?

So many! One of the reasons it took me as long as it did to get to the final draft of this story (13 years, but who’s counting), was to figure out how to focus the story. I was able to add some anecdotes to the back matter, but I find kids enjoy hearing stories that didn’t make it into the book. I’ve got lots of stories, but my favorite one that didn’t make it is about his honesty. William was an amazing outfielder who made incredible catches. One day he was out in centerfield and the ball comes in very low. He catches it. The umpire calls the runner out. William shakes his head. No. The ball hit the ground. The runner was safe. One of the players on his team threw his cap on the ground because he was so mad! Years later, at the end of William’s life, a reporter asked him what his proudest moment in baseball was. William Hoy set a lot of records over the years. He even hit a grand slam to help the Chicago White Sox win the American pennant in 1901. But his proudest moment? The one where he let the umpire know the runner was safe.
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Your book presents a very human, relatable portrait of Hoy. How did you navigate the challenges of creating a story full of moving details while keeping it historically accurate?
I realized I needed to figure out what William’s dream was, how he had achieved that dream and what he and we could learn from his journey. His dream was to play baseball. He achieved his dream through persistence, hard work and realizing that the very thing that made him different from his teammates — his deafness — was his gift. His mother applauding him in sign language in the beginning of the book returns as a memory to help him in the middle of the book when he can’t seem to connect with his teammates, the opposing team or the fans. The signs not only help him succeed in making those connections and being a successful baseball player, they make baseball a better game. Finally, the sign for applause becomes a way for the fans to show their love for him. I followed my instincts in writing the story. I went back and checked with Steve Sandy and Eric Nadel to make sure I hadn’t written anything that wasn’t historically accurate. I am so happy that the book has their blessing and the blessing of the Hoy family.
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In the book’s acknowledgements, you mention that you are on the “Hoy for the Hall” Committee, campaigning to get William Hoy inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY.  Please tell us more about the campaign and how readers can support it!
This book got its start with my determination to help Steve achieve his dream of getting William Hoy in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Everywhere I present the book I ask kids if they think he should be in the Hall of Fame. They do! Then I ask them if they will draw pictures or write letters to the Hall of Fame. Some send me copies so I can post on my Facebook pages at Nancy Churnin Children’s Books and Nancy Churnin and on Twitter @nchurnin.  You can find the address for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the free downloadable teachers guide on the Albert Whitman website.
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Anything else you want readers to know about the book?
This was a labor of love, which kicked off a passion to tell more true stories of people who are not well known, but should be. I have four more children’s books coming out and none of this would have been possible if I had not gotten the opportunity to tell William’s inspiring story. I am so appreciative of Steve and his wife, Bonnie, who have become such good friends to me. I am thankful for the opportunity to get to know wonderful people in the deaf community. It has been my honor and privilege to be interviewed by DPanTV alongside Steve Sandy about William Hoy, which you can see here. I am thrilled about all the people who have taken William Hoy’s story to their hearts and spread the word, through blog posts, reviews, interviews and putting the book on state reading lists because that helps get William’s story in the hands and hearts of more children.
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I recently heard from an 11-year-old boy I met at an airport last summer, waiting to get on a plane. I gave this little boy and his sister a copy of the book, which I autographed. Now, a year later, I received an email from the boy, saying he had been to his native Japan and saw The William Hoy Story in Japanese. He wrote that he found the books “piled up in front of the cashier as selected one of must-read books for 3rd and 4th graders during summer vacation. I was so excited and got one. I love this story!! I just wanted to let you know this great news.Thank you.” A letter like that is everything to me.
 

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Review: The William Hoy Story by Nancy Churnin

 

The William Hoy Story by Nancy Churnin.  Illustrated by Jez Tuya.  (Albert Whitman and Company, 2017)

William Ellsworth Hoy has long been a hero of the Deaf community – a record-setting baseball player who played for multiple National League teams and changed the way that baseball was played. Churnin’s approachable text and Tuya’s expressive illustrations take readers along with William’s struggles to be taken seriously by the hearing world – which, in the 1880s, didn’t believe a deaf player could amount to much. William proves the critics wrong through determination, grit, and talent, and soon teams and fans are clamoring for him. Many biographies of Hoy get hung up on his nickname, “Dummy”, which was a common term applied to deaf people at the time, but Churnin wisely keeps the focus on Hoy’s accomplishments throughout the story, saving such details, with contextualizing comments, for an informative afterward. A timeline of Hoy’s life offers more details for baseball lovers.

Coming soon: an interview with the author!

Review: Hands and Hearts by Donna Jo Napoli

cover of Hands and HeartsHands and Hearts by Donna Jo Napoli. New York: Abrams, 2014.

I have long been familiar with Donna Jo Napoli’s fiction for young adults, especially her achingly beautiful Hush: An Irish Princess’ Tale and the fairy-tale retellings Beast, and Zel.  But until I read the afterword of this picture book, I had no idea that Napoli is also a linguist and an activist supporting the language rights of Deaf children!  You can find more about her linguistics work, including links to a really cool series of bilingual ASL/English ebooks she helped develop, here.

Back to the book at hand: on the surface, this is a simple, lyrical tale of mother and daughter spending a day at the beach, but every bit of it is built around the things their hands do: waving hello to the waves, digging in the sand, making a tent, and even being “Yak yak hands/yak yak fingers/telling as we run/out the gate down the path.”  It’s a subtle reference to mother and child signing, and indeed, each page is accompanied by illustrations teaching a relevant sign such as RUN, WATER, or SUN.  Amy Bates’ dreamy illustrations make this a sweet, gentle tale of family togetherness.  A lovely addition to the ASL picture book canon.

Signs and Rhymes: An Interview with Dawn Babb Prochovnic

Today we have a special treat – an interview with Dawn Babb Prochovnic, the author of sixteen picture books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series (Abdo Publishing Group) and the founder of SmallTalk Learning.  Each Story Time With Signs & Rhymes book focuses on a different topic, from animals to food to school signs, and introduces basic American Sign Language through a fun rhyming story and colorful illustrations.  Dawn blogs at http://www.dawnprochovnic.com/

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Without further ado, here’s the interview!

1) How did you first become interested in sign language (and in particular, signing with hearing children)?

I took an interest in sign language as a young child. I was raised on three episodes of Sesame Street a day and enjoyed watching Linda Bove use sign language to communicate. When I was in grade school I volunteered in what was then called the “special education classroom” and enjoyed using sign language in that environment.

When I started planning for my own family in the mid-1990’s, I learned about the idea of signing with hearing babies. I read books, watched videos, researched web sites and took signing classes in my local community to expand my signing vocabulary. When my first child was born in 1999, our family embraced signing as an important part of our early communication with our daughter. Signing made it possible for her to tell us what she was thinking and what she needed before she was able to clearly communicate verbally. Back then, signing was more of an alternative thing to do with your hearing baby—it was definitely not mainstream. Our positive experience garnered the attention of other families around us. Soon, friends began asking for informal workshops.

I have an MA in organizational communication, and much of my pre-kid professional life was in the field of corporate training and development, teaching grown-ups how to communicate with each other. In the year 2000, I left my corporate job and started SmallTalk Learning (www.smalltalklearning.com), a company that specializes in teaching sign language workshops to hearing families and educators. I love teaching, I love writing, and I deeply value family and communication. Teaching signing workshops and writing books for children enables me to blend all of these interests.

2) How did you come to write the “Story Time with Signs & Rhymes” series?

When I started teaching infant/toddler sign language workshops, I quickly discovered that the most effective way to help participants learn and remember particular signs was to teach them catchy songs they could sing and sign while they interacted with their babies and toddlers.  I wrote all kinds of ditties for this purpose, modeled after familiar children’s songs and rhymes like “Old MacDonald Has a Farm” and “Oh My Darlin’ Clementine.”

Over time, I became more interested in the early literacy benefits of signing in addition to the pre-verbal benefits, and I discovered that preschoolers and elementary school children were especially keen on sign language. I wanted to share the extraordinary experience of signing with more children than I could reach in my own classes. The “Story Time with Signs & Rhymes” series grew out of that vision.

In the summer of 2004, I attended my first of many writing conferences, and I formed a critique group so that I could refine my writing skills, transform my classroom songs into stories, and learn about the business of publishing. After many rounds of critique, countless revisions, and heaps of submissions and rejections, I signed my first publishing contract in March of 2008. I currently have 16 books that have been published in the series.

3) What made you decide to take a story-like approach to the series, when so many ASL books take a nonfiction approach?

I was trying to fill an unmet need. As baby signing shifted from alternative to mainstream, a variety of sign language resources became available: board books and picture dictionaries for babies, instructive books for middle graders, “How to Sign with Your Baby” guidebooks for parents, and many different videos and websites. At the time, there were a few fairy tales and nursery rhymes translated into Signed English, but there were no original, story-based picture books for preschool and elementary aged children that incorporated sign language. The Story Time series was designed to give children interested in ASL a logical next step after board books and picture dictionaries.

The playful, rhythmic, nature of the stories encourages parents and caregivers to read, sign and rhyme with their children, which helps build early literacy skills. My overall goal for the series was to create stories for children to interact with and get hooked on reading and signing.

 4) Tell us a bit about the process for each book.  How do you decide on the topics?  How much do you collaborate with the illustrator?

Most of the themes for the stories grew out of the songs I sing in my signing workshops to teach the signs for early childhood concepts such as animals, colors, and things-that-go. Each book tells an original story that is fun to read/chant/sing with children while they sign along with key words in the text. Think: “The Wheels on the Bus,” or “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” but instead of incorporating random hand gestures for “round and round,” and “up the water spout,” children can sign along with key words like “red,” “blue,” and “green” that repeat throughout the story. Each page spread includes a small “sign language reminder picture” to encourages readers to sign along with at least one word on each page.

The series illustrator, Stephanie Bauer, had a lot of autonomy in creating the traditional picture book art, but we both worked closely with the ASL Content Consultants (William Vicars, EdD and Lora Heller, MS) on the non-fiction aspects of the books. Each glossary illustration went through several rounds of review before they were finalized. It is very difficult to convey a three-dimensional language via two-dimensional artwork, but Stephanie did a great job.

5) Do you have any new books in the works now?

I have several new projects in the works, but nothing currently under contract with a publisher. I have written a new character-driven sign language series, and I’ve completed several new picture books that are completely unrelated to signing. Two of my favorites: LUCY’S BLOOMS, about the magic of childhood firmly rooted in unconditional love, and WHERE DOES A PIRATE GO POTTY?, about a pirate’s quest to find the right spot to leave his . . . uh, treasure. [Note from Kathy: Can’t WAIT for this one!] I also have a few grown-up projects under development. My current professional goal is to sign with a literary agent so I can focus on writing new books and engaging with readers.

6)  Tell us a little about what you do in your presentations at schools and libraries.

I teach a wide variety of classes for a wide range of participants including Baby and Me classes for preverbal infants/toddlers and their parents/caregivers; Early Literacy Enrichment classes for toddlers and preschoolers; Young Writers Workshops for school-aged children; and Professional Development workshops for caregivers, educators, and librarians. Just about every workshop includes some singing, a lot of signing, some moving and grooving, and a sign-along story time!

I share some of my workshop content on my blog at this link: http://www.dawnprochovnic.com/p/summary-posts_10.html

And, examples of some of my workshops and sign language story times in action can be found on my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/dprochovnic/videos

 7) How do you respond to people who are hesitant to sign with their children due to concerns that signing will delay/interrupt speech?

Ah, the persistent myth . . .First, I take a deep breath. Then, I point them to the research that indicates that just the opposite is true (babies who sign tend to verbalize sooner and have broader vocabularies than babies who do not sign, and there is a growing body of research that shows that early exposure to sign language contributes to future literacy benefits).

I encourage folks to think about anecdotal evidence that points to the idea that signing does not interrupt the developmental milestone of speech. For example, when a child is diagnosed with a speech delay, it is quite common that sign language will be prescribed as a therapy to help stimulate speech and language development. With this in mind, it is quite illogical to think that signing is the cause of speech delays.

I also suggest folks think about how babies naturally learn to point and reach and wave, and how that does not inhibit their ability (or interest in) in saying, “Look,” “Up,” or “Bye-Bye.” And, I encourage folks to think about the relationship of crawling and walking. Babies are developmentally able to crawl before they can walk. We do not think of crawling as an inhibitor to walking. In fact, it is widely believed that crawling is an important developmental milestone that should be accomplished prior to walking.

Finally, I invite people to stop by my house to see if they can get a word in edgewise with my two kids (both prolific signers in their pre-verbal days). : )

 8) What are your favorite resources for those interested in signing with their children?

There are many good resources. For “How To” books, I especially like Monta Briant’s Baby Sign Language Basics and your book, Little Hands and Big Hands, in addition to Joseph Garcia’s Sign with Your Baby. For children, I like my books (of course!), all of the videos in the Signing Time series, and the Pick Me Up! CD produced by Sign2Me. For older children I like Lora Heller’s Sign Language for Kids and Penny Warner’s Signing Fun. I also like to steer people to the “ASL University” run by Dr. Bill Vicars at Lifeprint.com and to the “Start to Finish Story Time” series on my blog.

9) What have I not asked that you would love for people to know?

I’m quite proud of my “5th Grade Pleasure Reading Award.” It’s the only trophy I’ve ever won.

"And my favorite part about this trophy? When I bring it to school visits, kids ask if I read 77 or 78 books . . . makes me smile every time."

“And my favorite part about this trophy? When I bring it to school visits, kids ask if I read 77 or 78 books . . . makes me smile every time.”

 

10) What is the best way for people to get in touch with you or get their hands on your books?

Through my blog at www.dawnprochovnic.com or via email at info@smalltalklearning.com. You can also order all of my books directly from my publisher, ABDO Publishing Group, http://abdopublishing.com/series/457-story-time-with-signs-rhymes. I should also mention I’m a huge library advocate. My books are in libraries throughout the U.S. and even as far as Singapore and Australia. Check ‘em out!

The “Baby Fingers” Series: Cute AND Accurate

Over the years I have made no secret of my disappointment with a certain high-profile, slickly produced series of glossy board boards about signing with young children that completely disrespect American Sign Language and its users by mingling made-up gestures with actual signs and not indicating which is which.

That’s why I am so glad that the Baby Fingers series by Lora Heller (Sterling Publishing Company) exists!  This board book series combines adorable photos of young children signing with instructions for basic ASL signs that parents and children can use every day to make communication easier, reduce frustration, and increase bonding.  With topics ranging from feelings to signs to use throughout the day, this series proves that sign language board books can be both adorable and accurate.

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Picture Books About ASL and Deafness

Dad and Me in the Morning by Patricia Lakin. (Whitman, 1994)

Early one morning, when it is still dark, a young boy wakes to his special alarm clock. He puts on his hearing aid and his clothes, then goes to wake his father. Together they walk down to the beach. Jacob cannot hear, so he and his father sign or lipread or just squeeze each other’s hands. This poetic story is beautifully illustrated in glowing watercolors.

The Garden Wall by Phyllis Limbacher Tildes. (Charlesbridge, 2006)

Tim is taken aback when he learns that his new neighbor is not only a girl, but is also deaf. When he is assigned to work with her to perform a fable at school, he’s nervous – but as he gets to know Maria, their performance of “The Hearing Country Mouse and the Deaf City Mouse” comes together, and they become friends. This story introduces some basic sign language as well as information about the technology used by Deaf people.

The Handmade Alphabet by Laura Rankin (Dial Books, 1991)

To celebrate the expressiveness of ASL, artist Laura Rankin presents her striking interpretation of the manual alphabet. Here, the hand that signs “V” holds a valentine, “I” points to delicate icicles, and “O” dangles a shining ornament.

The Handmade Counting Book by Laura Rankin. (Dial Books, 1998)

The acclaimed author of “The Handmade Alphabet” now presents a book that pairs American Sign Language signs for the numbers 1-20, 25, 50, 75, and 100 with beautifully drawn objects.

Handtalk Zoo by George Ancona & Mary Beth. (Four Winds Press, 1989)

As they make their way through the zoo, a group of children sign and fingerspell the names of the animals. In addition to signing animal names, the telling of time is expressed with the signing of numbers 1–12 in a clocklike shape. Vibrant color photographs depict the action of the story and the signing, while black-and-white insets show the fingerspelling.

The Moses books by Isaac Millman (Farrar Straus & Giroux): Moses Goes to a Concert (1998), Moses Goes to School (2000) , Moses Goes to the Circus (2003), Moses Sees a Play (2004)

These excellent picture books incorporate basic sign language instruction into stories of a little boy named Moses, who is deaf. The illustrations are child- friendly and clearly depict the signs, which are related to the story. Of special note is Moses Goes to School, which offers a look at everyday life in a school for the deaf.

The Printer by Myron Uhlberg (Peachtree, 2003)

This unique picture book presents the tale of a deaf printer who, through the use of American Sign Language, is able to communicate with other deaf printers over the roar of the printing presses, and save their hearing counterparts from a fire.

Secret Signs: Along the Underground Railroad by Anita Riggio. (Boyds Mills Press, 1997)

In the mid-1800s, Luke and his mother help support themselves by making panoramic eggs of maple sugar. When a man bursts into their home and accuses them of hiding slaves, Luke’s mother denies the charges–although she is planning to meet her contact on the Underground Railroad that very day. With his mother held at home, Luke, who is deaf, must use his resources and creative talents to help make the connection.

Sesame Street Sign Language ABC with Linda Bove (Random House, 1985)

A perennial favorite, this book offers both colorful illustrations and crisp, full- color photos of deaf actress Linda Bove performing the signs.