Author pho­to by Kim Lee­son Photography

Emi­ly Schnei­der spoke with Nan­cy Churnin about her pic­ture book Dear Mr. Dick­ens, illus­trat­ed by Bethany Stan­cliffe, which was a win­ner of a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award and a Syd­ney Tay­lor Hon­or. It tells the sto­ry of Eliza Davis, a Jew­ish woman who con­fronts Charles Dick­ens about his anti­se­mit­ic char­ac­ter, Fagin, in Oliv­er Twist.

Emi­ly Schnei­der: Nan­cy, I want to con­grat­u­late you on win­ning the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award Children’s Pic­ture Book cat­e­go­ry and the Syd­ney Tay­lor Hon­or for Dear Mr. Dickens.

Nan­cy Churnin: Thank you.

ES: Dear Mr. Dick­ens is about a woman who made one impor­tant deci­sion, which turned out to be even more sig­nif­i­cant than she thought at the time. How did you come up with the idea of writ­ing about Eliza Davis and her deter­mi­na­tion to reach out to one of the most famous authors in the world about his — per­haps unin­ten­tion­al — indict­ment of Jew­sin Oliv­er Twist?

NC: This is a deeply per­son­al book for me. One of my pas­sions in writ­ing is to find peo­ple who are not only not famous, but are just like you and me. I tend to be drawn to the peo­ple who are not born into posi­tions of pow­er or great wealth or priv­i­lege. I grew up in New York City in the Bronx. My moth­er is a teacher, retired now, and my moth­er and my father both loved books. I was brought up in a world of books. We had one room — my favorite — which we called the library, where my father had built shelves from floor to ceil­ing. I was shocked lat­er when my old­er sis­ter explained to me the rea­son why he had built that library; it was sup­posed to have been the din­ing room and my moth­er did­n’t like to cook!

Any book I want­ed to read was there for me. This was in the days before Ama­zon and you could­n’t order online. My moth­er would get any books that I want­ed; by Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis, any­one I liked. When it came to Charles Dick­ens, she hes­i­tat­ed. She said, Why do you like Charles Dick­ens?” Well, he’s a great sto­ry­teller. He’s got a big heart. He’s so com­pas­sion­ate. In Oliv­er Twist he stood up for the rights of kids. And she looked at me and said, Fagin, he cre­at­ed Fagin. Do you know how hurt­ful that is to the Jew­ish peo­ple?” I did­n’t like to dis­ap­point my mother.

ES: Yes, I also grew up in a fam­i­ly where my par­ents imbued in me a love of read­ing. But there was also a lit­mus test some­times — was the book good or bad for the Jews?

NC: My moth­er had good rea­son to be upset with the man who had cre­at­ed Fagin. And it was even worse because Dick­ens was so pop­u­lar. We did­n’t talk about win­dows and mir­rors,” but my moth­er under­stood the problem.

ES: Yes, the dis­tin­guished schol­ar Rudine Sims Bish­op used that metaphor to dis­cuss how chil­dren need to see both images of them­selves and of oth­ers when they read.

NC: Dick­ens pro­vides only neg­a­tive images for Jew­ish chil­dren, and for oth­ers who are not Jew­ish. They read about Fagin and they think, that’s what Jew­ish peo­ple do. They’re thieves. They take advan­tage of lit­tle kids, and turn them into thieves. Why would some­one with such a great heart have no heart for the Jew­ish peo­ple who were so persecuted?

Much lat­er, as an adult, I was doing research on anoth­er top­ic in our local library, and I found two sen­tences in an arti­cle about a woman named Eliza Davis who wrote to Dick­ens. It became a whole detec­tive hunt, a com­bi­na­tion of my child­hood pas­sion and my being a jour­nal­ist who’s relent­less about track­ing things down.

I could­n’t believe it, but the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Texas Rare Books Col­lec­tion, near my home, had a col­lec­tion of Davis’s let­ters. This was in 2013. I wrote a ver­sion of Eliza’s sto­ry. I wasn’t even pub­lished yet because my first book would­n’t come until 2016. I wrote the draft, but I got rejec­tions. The sto­ry wasn’t active enough,” or, your main char­ac­ter is a grown per­son, not a kid.” But by 2020 — after I had pub­lished eight books — Wendy McClure at Albert Whit­man loved my idea and in 2021 the book was pub­lished. By that time, my moth­er was start­ing to have some demen­tia. But I was able to put a copy of the book in her hands and she was in tears. Lat­er, as the demen­tia pro­gressed, she would ask me, Did Charles Dick­ens get your let­ter?” It was an odd thing, but, in my heart, Eliza Davis had writ­ten the let­ter that I want­ed to write, and she got an answer for all of us.

It’s impor­tant to believe that people’s hearts can change, that there can be good in the world, that peo­ple can do bet­ter, or, to use the Jew­ish term, teshu­va.

ES: Your moth­er embraced the book, but you talk about skep­ti­cism from pub­lish­ers. What will kids make of this book? It’s not about a dra­mat­ic event.

NC: When I pre­sent­ed the book to ele­men­tary school kids, some of them told me this was their favorite book and that it encour­aged them to speak up. Eliza Davis has the same three things we all have: paper, pen, some­thing to say. The kids got that. The oth­er part of the sto­ry that I hope that they get, and that my moth­er got, is that peo­ple are capa­ble of change. Dick­ens rebuffed Eliza Davis at first, but she per­sist­ed. And when he changed, she more than for­gave him; she embraced him. It’s impor­tant to believe that people’s hearts can change, that there can be good in the world, that peo­ple can do bet­ter, or, to use the Jew­ish term, teshu­va. Davis asks Dick­ens to look at his past, look at his present and think about the future, like Scrooge in A Christ­mas Carol. 

ES: You include cul­tur­al ref­er­ences which will be unfa­mil­iar to most young read­ers. There’s a sec­tion on Sir Wal­ter Scott’s Ivan­hoe, Isaac of York and his daugh­ter, and the beau­ti­ful Rebec­ca. I love the way Bethany Stan­cliffe uses black and white for these images, which are part of the book’s sub­text. Scott was one of the world’s most pop­u­lar authors and Rebec­ca one of the best-known Jew­sin literature.

NC: Eliza Davis had to real­ly think through how to con­nect with Charles Dick­ens. She was a real­ly astute read­er of his works and they were a path to his heart. Just as she com­pared him to Scrooge, she also knew that Ivan­hoe was part of his child­hood; that’s what he would have read. Even if kids today don’t know Ivan­hoe specif­i­cal­ly, they would under­stand that this is some­thing Dick­ens read as a child with pos­i­tive Jew­ish char­ac­ters. Some­times you open doors with that kind of ref­er­ence. In his past, he had read about pos­i­tive Jew­ish char­ac­ters. But in the present, he was not rep­re­sent­ing Jew­ish peo­ple as they real­ly were. In the same way, Bethany Stan­cliffe por­trays Eliza with her child, because a moth­er would be think­ing about the future for her child and for gen­er­a­tions to come.

It takes courage to per­sist in any­thing. Eliza wasn’t a famous per­son, but she knew what she believed. She felt this was impor­tant. It’s inter­est­ing that my oth­er big book for this year was about Hadas­sah founder Hen­ri­et­ta Szold, A Queen to the Res­cue.

ES: So you also see a Queen Esther sto­ry in Dear Mr. Dick­ens? Both Esther and Eliza Davis — as well as Hen­ri­et­ta Szold — took risks in speak­ing out. Eliza express­es the fear that Dick­ens, in response to her let­ter, might even cre­ate a worse Jew­ish char­ac­ter in retaliation.

NC: Yes, Dick­ens could have made Eliza’s life mis­er­able, and been even worse to the Jew­ish peo­ple. He could have dou­bled down. She was tak­ing a risk in doing the right thing. I hope it encour­ages kids to be brave too.

In all my books, I hope that the expe­ri­ence does­n’t end on the last page, but that read­ers go out think­ing, how can I be the Eliza Davis of my com­mu­ni­ty? What can I do, how can I speak up?

ES: You could take away two con­flict­ing mes­sages from Dear Mr. Dick­ens. One is pride that a Jew­ish woman stood up against anti­semitism, and that peo­ple from any oppressed or mar­gin­al­ized group should speak up about dam­ag­ing por­tray­als of that group in a work of art. But you could also raise the issue of artis­tic free­dom. Should writ­ers mod­i­fy or lim­it a book’s lan­guage or themes in order to avoid offend­ing some readers?

NC: I think Eliza Davis was so clear in her request. Yes, there were Jew­ish crim­i­nals, but every Jew­ish per­son in Dickens’s book is a crim­i­nal. You nev­er write, she told him, about Jew­ish peo­ple who aren’t crim­i­nals, so it becomes mono­lith­ic. And that is cement­ed by every time you call Fagin the Jew.” Very often you don’t even use the name, Fagin. It’s just the Jew, the Jew, the Jew.

ES: Her objec­tion wasn’t to Dick­ens hav­ing cre­at­ed a Jew­ish char­ac­ter who was evil.

NC: No. Dick­ens rebuffs her at first, writ­ing that Fagin was based on real Jew­ish peo­ple who were vil­lains. She responds artic­u­late­ly, mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion. Dick­ens was a very fair per­son. He processed what she was say­ing; that’s one of the rea­sons he went back when his nov­el was in the process of being reprint­ed. After the 23rd chap­ter, he removed ref­er­ences to the Jew” to make it clear that this char­ac­ter was Fagin, not the whole Jew­ish people.

ES: There is an ongo­ing dis­cus­sion of how Jews see our­selves, and how oth­ers see us, in the con­text of diverse rep­re­sen­ta­tion in books for kids. Did it occur to you, when you were writ­ing Dear Mr. Dick­ens, how a book about anti­semitism would fit into to this dialogue?

NC: That’s a very inter­est­ing ques­tion. When I start­ed writ­ing it in 2013, I don’t know that that issue was front and cen­ter. But I think it’s just an ongo­ing issue for me, speak­ing up and tak­ing own­er­ship. It has always been a pas­sion of mine to break down walls between peo­ple. One of my ear­li­er books, Char­lie Takes His Shot, is about Char­lie Sif­ford, the first Black golfer in the PGA tour, and how Stan­ley Mosk, California’s Jew­ish attor­ney gen­er­al, sup­port­ed his right to play. In Mar­tin and Anne, I wrote about the par­al­lel sto­ries of Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, two great spir­its, both born in 1929. I’ve always been aware that peo­ple build walls between each oth­er. They find ways of leav­ing peo­ple out. So I’m drawn to these con­nec­tions between peo­ple. I absolute­ly love what Bethany Stan­cliffe does on the last page of our book. She cre­ates an image where these two peo­ple are con­nect­ed: Charles Dick­ens, a Chris­t­ian man, and Eliza Davis, a Jew­ish woman.

ES: Once you put a book in a child’s hands, there’s the after­life of the book. What do you hope that the read­er gains from that experience?

NC: I want my books to leave kids think­ing, iden­ti­fy­ing with that per­son, so that they will want to go out in the world and do what that per­son did in their own way. This is why I start off this book in the sec­ond per­son: Think of some­one famous, you admire. What would you do if that per­son said or wrote some­thing unfair? Would you speak up?” In all my books, I hope that the expe­ri­ence does­n’t end on the last page, but that read­ers go out think­ing, how can I be the Eliza Davis of my com­mu­ni­ty? What can I do, how can I speak up? Every time I put some­thing out in the world, it takes some courage. Every act of writ­ing, every act of art, every time we put our­selves out there, what­ev­er we do is an act of courage, but it’s so impor­tant. We need to live with courage because if you don’t live with courage, you don’t real­ly live.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.