Sunday, December 9, 2018

Interview with author Nancy Churnin about The Queen and the First Christmas Tree PLUS a Giveaway

by Linda Hofke

The holiday season is upon us. I was reminded of that yesterday as I drove through town. In only 15 minutes I passed three Christmas tree lots and a man hauling away a large Nordmann fir.  O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree... 

Did you know that Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we know it. It then made its way to England via Queen Charlotte. How do I know this? Because I'm a nerd who reads a lot of stuff and also because award-winning author Nancy Churnin has written a book entitled The Queen and the First Christmas Tree: Queen Charlotte's Gift to England. It has received some great reviews:
“Simple prose and light watercolors keep this retelling of historical events within the understanding of children who like a good princess story.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This piece of history reads like a story, and the charming pictures add to the fairy-tale feel. But, as the author's note reveals, this is history—a little-known piece of it. There are many holiday picture books, but few are nonfiction, making this a worthy addition to Christmas shelves.” — Booklist

“Charlotte’s enduring legacy spread from England to the United States and continues today. Delicate full-bleed illustrations done in a muted palette give the story an old-fashioned feel. A brief biography of Queen Charlotte is included as well as a list of further reading on the topic. VERDICT This additional purchase can teach young students about the origin of the Christmas tree as well as biographical information about this nature-loving monarch.” — School Library Journal

“Based on the real-life events that brought the Christmas tree to Britain, the approachable text emphasizes Charlotte’s generosity, concern for children’s welfare, and lifelong love of nature. Soft-lined illustrations in a muted palette portray a humble and relatable queen who is happiest amidst children or in her gardens.”—The Horn Book

Want a sneak peek? Here's the book trailer:

Nancy was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to discuss The Queen and the First Christmas Tree.  Here is the Q & A:
How did you get the idea for the story?

Curiosity! I always wondered how the tradition of the Christmas tree began. I started searching and I found this story of Queen Charlotte who introduced the first Christmas tree to England in 1800. That led to more questions. Who was she? What did the tree mean to her? I kept searching and discovered she was a German princess who left her country and everyone she knew when she boarded a boat to marry King George III when she was only 17. And yes, that is the same King George who lost the colonies during the American Revolution. King George has become famous all over again because of the ‘Hamilton' musical, but nobody ever talks about Charlotte. And the more I knew about her, the more I loved her. I love how she cared more about growing things in Kew Gardens and caring for children than she did for dressing up for fancy balls. I love how she was so against slavery that she and King George refused to take sugar in their tea because the tea has been grown on plantations tended by slaves. I love how she and King George were the first British royals to make charitable giving part of royal duties.

How extensive was your research and did you have any problems along the way?

I found it difficult at first to find answers to all the questions I had about her. There are encyclopedias and historical articles where I found basic facts about the big biographical dates in her life as well as about at the Christmas tree. But I wasn’t sure I could trust all the information I was gathering and I had specific questions about what the yew branch that she grew up with in Germany looked like and what plants she might have tended growing up. Then a friend put me in touch with Dr. Carolyn Harris, a royal historian and professor of history at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. She read my manuscript, corrected errors and gave me details that brought Charlotte’s story to life, including the fact that winter thyme grew near her home in the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. 

Tell us a bit about your writing journey with this book? Did you have many revisions?

I knew I wanted to tell the story of how Queen Charlotte introduced the Christmas tree to England, but I learned I had to dig more deeply into who Queen Charlotte was and why motivated her to do that. I had to move from telling what happened to telling why it happened. I remember the first helpful critique I received from an editor at the 2016 WOW retreat in Helen, Georgia, pointed out that the story of the tree was fascinating, but I hadn’t yet brought Queen Charlotte to life.   That’s when I burrowed in and revised until instead of having a book about the first Christmas tree in England, I had a story about the fascinating and kind woman who brought that tree to England. 

What was your reaction the first time you saw the illustrations? Do you have a favorite page or spread?

I was enchanted by the illustrations! Luisa Uribe made it look like a fairy tale, which was absolutely perfect, because I had always envisioned this as a fairy tale that happened to be true. I love all the pages. I have a particular fondness for this one, when Princess Charlotte is trying to protect her winter thyme while the other princesses are adjusting their dresses and hair and looking at her, puzzled, through the window. It shows from the start how kind she was, how she braved the cold to protect her plants and how she did what she thought was right, regardless of what anyone else thought. It also sets up the climactic scene later when Queen Charlotte will take a walk outside in her garden, trying to think of a way to make a Christmas party special for 100 children, and come up with the idea of dragging an entire tree into Windsor Castle.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

I hope they will be inspired by this story of a kind princess who became a kind queen and that being a queen is about more than fancy gowns or glittering jewels. It is, at is best, caring for others as Queen Charlotte cared for plants and people, from orphans that she cared for at court to mothers that she helped survive childbirth by funding the hospital that was called The Queen Charlotte and Chelsea Hospital in her honor. She didn’t live to see England’s Parliament abolish slavery  in 1833, but her steadfast opposition helped change hearts and minds. I always have a Teachers Guide and project with my books. I hope families will check out the Teacher Guide, which has a lot of fun extras, and try the project, which is A KIND HOLIDAY. In honor of this kind queen, I am asking kids to share about kind things they do for others at whatever holidays they celebrate. I have A KIND HOLIDAY page set up on my website, www.nancychurnincom. I look forward to sharing and celebrating the kind things kids do. 

Nancy is also offering a free book to one lucky person. All you need to do is leave a comment regarding a tradition you enjoy during the holiday season and/or tell about something kind you have done for others during the holidays.  Also, though it's not required to enter, it would be great if you could also skip on over to Nancy's A KIND HOLIDAY page and take part by sharing a photo and a few words about a kindness you've done for others for whatever holiday you celebrate.  By sharing, maybe you'll inspire others to help kindness grow like Queen Charlotte's garden.  

This giveaway is open to anyone and the deadline to comment is Sunday, December 16th. The winner will be announced by December 18th.

Thanks so much, Nancy, for taking time out of your business schedule to be interviewed and for offering this fabulous prize. 

Nancy Churnin is the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News and author of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME, on multiple state reading lists; MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN, winner of the 2018 South Asia Book Award; CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT: HOW CHARLIE SIFFORD BROKE THE COLOR BARRIER IN GOLF, winner of the Silver Eureka Honor Award; IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING, on multiple best of year lists, including7 of the Best Jewish Books for Kids by Children’s Book Review; THE QUEEN AND THE FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE, featured on the Royal News Blog. On March 5, 2019: MARTIN & ANNE, THE KINDRED SPIRITS OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND ANNE FRANK. In 2020: BEAUTIFUL SHADES OF BROWN, HOW LAURA WHEELER WARING PAINTED HER WORLD. A native New Yorker, Nancy is a graduate of Harvard University, with a master's from Columbia University School of Journalism.

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On Instagram: @nchurnin

Friday, November 23, 2018

SCBWI Germany/Austria - Fall Retreat report

by Katja Rammer

The Germany/Austria chapter's Fall Retreat took place from the 19th to 21st of October at Rhoen Residence hotel near Fulda. We chose this location because it's smack in the middle of Germany. With members all over the country, we wanted to provide a place where everyone could make it there in a reasonable time.

The retreat didn't include any faculty this year. Instead, we focused on a calm and inspiring ambiance for the members to work on personal WIPs. In the end, seven members signed up for the retreat, five writers and two illustrators. This made for a neat little group.

The schedule included a get-together dinner on Friday night since most of us had not yet met one another. Some members met up early and acquainted themselves prior to dinner, arriving early to take full advantage of the weekend.
For Saturday we had a conference room set up with work desks for all attendees. We went there after a joint Breakfast and set to work. The arrangement including lunch on Saturday and another Breakfast on Sunday. And even afterward we went for some more work. Courtesy of the hotel, we were allowed to use the same conference room we had the day before on Sunday until noon.

The retreat's goal was to provide time for the attendees to work with a focus on their projects. This is why we deliberately avoided pre-scheduled talks, discussions, or activities. This promoted the feeling of an uninterrupted, quiet writing time and enabled members to dive deep into their WIPs. We used the coffee and lunch breaks to get to know each other. During breakfast and dinner they was plenty of time for chatter and discussion - often about craft issues as well as tips and tricks from PAL members. 
We all left the location having made significant progress on our WIPs. On top of that, we got to meet some splendid people and had a brilliant time. 
Here are a few members and their personal recollection of the event:

For me, the retreat came at the perfect time. I had just received revision notes from my agent on my WIP and wow - did I have a lot of work to do! At first, I was wary of working in a room with others because I’m usually quite sensitive to noise and distraction, but turns out I loved it and was extremely productive. It was so heartening to look up from my book and see six other people all busy working. Really put fire underneath me to not slack off. This weekend was one of the most productive I’ve ever had. I managed to edit 84 pages over three days and get a good grasp of how to handle the rest.

But of course, that was only one part of the weekend. Going to a SCBWI event is like coming home. Being with other creatives and talking about life, publishing and everything in between was both relaxing and inspiring. And I’d be remiss to not mention the awe I feel for every single person there and their work. It was a fantastic weekend and a repeat cannot happen soon enough.

Many, many thanks to our new RA Katja, who took an idea and made the weekend much better than I ever could have!


I looked forward to the retreat as a great opportunity to spend time with other writers, but what surprised me was the amount of work I actually managed to do. There’s something magical in being in a room with several creative heads doing creative work together. Something clicks in the brain, and the juices start flowing. It was a very productive, inspiring, and fun weekend. We have to do it again!


I fully enjoyed the company of a small group of competent fellow writers and illustrators in a relaxed and at the same time very professional atmosphere in a nice hotel near Fulda. The group spent productive hours working quietly in the "conference room" or in the hotel room. In the breaks, we had interesting conversations where we exchanged tips and tricks of the trade and learned from each other.

We met for dinner, lunch, and breakfast for more personal talks and had a really nice evening walk on our second day.

I would surely register again for another retreat with this SCBWI group – or another – next year, as this form of get-together proved itself to me to be worth both the money (hotel) and the time spent together in this focused environment.

Outlook for the future:
Since the reception of the event was positive throughout all attendees, plans for a similar event are already underway. Details will come to you via the monthly SCBWI newsletter. I hope to see you there!