by PJ McIlvaine
This is an excerpt from an interview that appeared in the March 2017 issue of Children’s Book Insider.
From theater critic to debut picture book author may seem a bit of a stretch, but Nancy Churnin hit one out of the park with her biography of a celebrated athlete whose passion and persistence kept him going in the face of resistance and rejection. Churnin had that same determination to bring the William Hoy story to life. Hoy never gave up, and neither did Churnin.
PJ McIlvaine: You have quite the writing pedigree: a masters degree in journalism, currently a newspaper theater critic, and now a critically acclaimed picture book author for your debut nonfiction picture book The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game (Albert Whitman & Company, 2016). How did that journey evolve?
Nancy Churnin: I’ve always loved to write and have published poetry and short stories before turning full time to journalism, where I am grateful for the opportunity to write every day. One day, when I was sitting at my desk at The Dallas Morning News, I read about a high school in Garland that was doing a play called The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy. I read that it was about a man, named William Hoy, who was deaf and introduced signs to baseball so he could play the game he loved. I was fascinated! I wrote a story about the play and received a thank you note from a man in Ohio. I wrote back “You’re welcome, but why is someone in Ohio interested in a play in a high school in Garland, Texas?” Steve Sandy wrote back that he is a deaf man and it is his life’s dream to see William Hoy in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. We kept emailing back and forth and the more he taught me about Hoy, the more I realized he was right. William Hoy deserved to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where he would be the first deaf man honored there.
PJ: Where did the inspiration for the Hoy story come from? Are you a baseball fan? With a growing emphasis on diverse books, how easy, or difficult, was it to find a home?
NC: I was trying to figure out how I could help Steve achieve his dream. I asked myself who are the most powerful people I know. And almost without thinking, I realized: children! I thought if I wrote a children’s book about Hoy, the children would see how deserving he was and they would help by writing letters and drawing pictures on William Hoy’s behalf to the Hall of Fame. Steve loved the idea! He is a friend of the Hoy family and he shared images of family photographs and letters and he educated me about the prejudice faced by deaf Americans, particularly in the 19th century when Hoy made such an amazing impact in the major leagues. Of course there was only one problem with my brilliant idea. I had never sold a children’s book. I knew it was a great story and I wrote it and I rewrote it and I rewrote it. But it was not until I realized I needed help and started joining writing groups and workshops that I started to get a handle on the craft.
I am a baseball fan, but I am even more a fan of folks with dreams who don’t give up and make the world a better place. I had many rejections for early versions of the story, but once I got it right, my amazing agent Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary found William Hoy a good home with Wendy McClure of Albert Whitman & Company. Karen loved William Hoy right away and so did Wendy!
What’s fascinating for me, looking back, is that it stands up as a good newspaper article. It just took me a long time — 10 years! — to wrap my head around how different a successful picture book is from a good newspaper article! Also interesting is that I used the very incident I started the article with in the book, but at a different place in the story, in a different context, as part of the build-up to William’s frustration, and the inspiration for his big idea that changed the game.
“Imagine you are standing at home plate, your bat poised, waiting
for the very first pitch of your very first major league game.
Are you excited? Sure! But imagine that instead of the cheers of
the crowd, you hear … silence. Because you’re deaf.
That first ball whizzes by. You think it was a ball. But was it a
strike? The umpire makes no gestures to clue you in. You can’t hear
the call, so you try to read his lips.
And while you’re trying to read his lips, the pitcher throws the
next ball before you’re ready. On purpose.
Then, after a few more pitches, you’re left standing at the plate,
not being told you’ve struck out, so everyone can laugh at you,
while you’re slowly figuring it out.
That’s what happened to William Ellsworth Hoy, one of the first
deaf and mute players in major league baseball. “
(Dallas Morning News, February 5, 2003, by Nancy Churnin).
PJ: When you decided to write the William Hoy story, did you have to get the approval and/or rights from the Hoy family?
NC: Steve Sandy was the official spokesperson for the Hoy family. The Hoy family gave him access to family photos and letters that he shared with me. The Hoy family has been delighted with the book, which has been a special joy to me. William’s great grandsons Adam and Cain Hoy are Facebook friends of mine and I have treasured kind words I have heard from various members of the Hoy family.
PJ: From writing the first draft to eventual publisher acceptance, how long did that take?
NC: I am so embarrassed to admit how long it took from first draft to publisher acceptance. I first wrote The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy in 2003!!! I had so much hubris when I began. I figured that since I am already a professional writer — a journalist — how hard could it be to write a picture book? So many many drafts, so many many submissions, so many many rejections before I realized I needed help. I actively sought it out in 2013 by signing up for 12 X 12 and Mira Reisberg’s class, and Susannah Hill’s class and PiBoIdMo challenge and Children’s Book Insider and Rate Your Story and Kristen Fulton’s Non-Fiction Archaeology and SCBWI and a Dallas SCBWI conference and critique groups galore and RhyPoIdMo and any group I could find that would have me. Once I started listening and studying and absorbing and practicing the craft, things moved along. Seven months after I signed up for 12 X 12 in July 2013 I signed with my agent Karen Grencik and she sold The William Hoy Story in the fall of 2014. Then, everything was quiet until we started the editing process in spring of 2015. The book came out in March 2016 and in this very same year, Karen sold three more books for me.
PJ: Do you have any tips or advice for staying inspired and passionate while writing? How do you keep going in the face of rejection and disappointment?
NC: What keeps me passionate is remembering WHY I’m writing. I believe we are here in this world to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Every time I share The William Hoy Story with kids and see eyes light up, every time I feel a wall coming down between kids who are hearing and deaf, every time a parent or teacher tells me that this is a child’s favorite book because that child has a challenge or feels different, William’s story inspires them to believe that their challenge or difference may be their gift too, that is everything.
PJ McIlvaine is a published writer/produced screenwriter/kid lit author/blogger/journalist. In a former life she was a great baker of Europe. PJ’s websites are http://www.pjmcilvaine.com and https://talesfromtheothersideofoblivion.wordpress.com. She is represented by Jen Corkill Hunt of The Booker Albert Literary Agency.
Tags: picture books