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True Story Blog

True Story: Valentines for All—Esther Howland Captures America’s Heart

As a volunteer at my son's high school library, I was surprised to learn that one of the gazillon things that our librarians offer is card-making resources so that the kids can create their own greeting cards to give on holidays and birthdays. I was skeptical: would tech-obsessed teenagers really do this? Surprisingly, yes! They put down their phones and designed homemade cards, especially Valentines. Esther Howland would be proud.


Who is Esther Howland? The subject of Nancy Churnin's Valentines for All, Esther is the artist and entrepreneur who popularized Valentine's Day cards in the U.S. and became one of New England's first career women. Today Nancy shares how she crafted this lovely biographical valentine to the "Queen of Hearts".

Was there one aspect of Esther Howland's life—a specific scene, quote, or image—that guided you throughout the writing process?

I imagined her delight at receiving that first fancy valentine card from her father who had brought it back from a business trip to England. I thought of how that moment captured her mission to help others to feel that joy of receiving something that can speak for those who don't know how to put their love into words. Esther's valentines and the other cards she created helped people speak the language of emotions – love, friendship, grief, apology. Like a card "therapist," she transformed and elevated relationships, bringing people together and deepening their sense of being loved and valued. It is a full circle moment when Esther, who never had a partner that we know of, gives up her business to take care of her beloved and now aging and ailing father, who had given her that first valentine.


What was the most challenging thing about creating this book?

The most challenging part was staying focused on what the cards meant to Esther emotionally, while also showing that she also was an incredible entrepreneurial success. That was especially unusual for a woman in the early 1800s who was discouraged from working in, much less owning a business. Plus, she hired women, giving them their own financial resources, too. There was another challenge in the book, but one that was self-imposed. I decided to create little poems in the "Roses are red/Violets are blue" format to express Esther's feelings throughout the book. My hope is that these simple poems will encourage kids to express their feelings through poems, too. In the back matter, I describe different poetic forms so kids can experiment with the ones that they connect with most.


While researching Esther Howland, which fact surprised you?

I was surprised that the woman who became known as the "Queen of Hearts" in her lifetime never had a sweetheart of her own. However, she was devoted to her family, friends and customers, reminding us that there are indeed many wonderful forms of love and relationships. I also found it funny that her father had a paper business called "Howland & Sons" because he never expected his daughter to work. But ultimately Esther's cards became more profitable than his business.


Why do you think kids can relate to Esther Howland?

Kids have big feelings and a lot to say, just as Esther Howland did! They like to make things. And they like to collaborate with their friends. I'm hoping that Esther inspires kids to write their own words and craft their own cards for Valentine's Day and other holidays. I hope kids consider teaming up with their friends to make extra cards to give to seniors or patients or anyone who might appreciate a little extra cheer, including people at their school who might not receive cards or the message that someone cares.


Which sources were invaluable to writing this biography?

There isn't a great deal that has been written about Esther Howland. I did a lot of my research by looking up old newspaper articles and studying images of her original valentine cards which are on display in museums. My best sources were the wonderful people at the Worcester Historical Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, that are thanked in the book. The Worcester Historical Museum has a terrific permanent exhibit on Esther, who was a Worcester native, and an annual Valentine card contest for local children. They gave us permission to reproduce a couple of Esther's original valentines at the back of the book.


How did you select the timeframe for your book?

I introduced her as a girl who liked to express her feelings, but that was just a quick prelude to a time frame that begins with her coming up with the idea for starting a card company and the moment when she finally decides to sell her business and spend the rest of her time caring for her father.  


What's your #1 tip for writing true stories?

Find a subject you love, trace their steps, and see if you can feel what they may have felt so that you can share their hopes, their fears, their dreams, their tears and their joy with your readers. 


If you could pick the ideal place for a Valentines For All storywalk, where would it be?

The Worcester Historical Museum! But really, any school or library or social service organization around Valentine's Day would be wonderful. It would be so cool if the storywalk could be complemented by original valentines created by kids and then donated to those in need of cheer. In one scene, we show how much it meant to soldiers to receive valentines during the Civil War. Wouldn't it be great to create and send valentines to those serving our country far away from home, too?  


What other books would you recommend to readers who love Valentines For All?

One of my favorite Valentine's Day books is Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli (illustrated by Paul Yalowitz, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers). I love the way this story gently reminds us what a difference a message of love can make in how people feel about themselves and how they treat others. For readers intrigued by the history of popular celebrations, I also have two other books that are a good fit. The Queen's First Christmas Tree, Queen Charlotte's Gift to England, illustrated by Luisa Uribe, is the true story of how kind Queen Charlotte introduced the first Christmas tree to England in 1800, to delight a party of 100 children.Lila and the Jack-o'-Lantern, Halloween Comes to America, illustrated by Anneli Bray, is my first historical fiction, and tells the story of the Irish immigrants who brought their Halloween customs to America when they fled the Potato Famine in the 1850s. These books and Valentines for All, illustrated by Petronela Dostalova, are published by Albert Whitman. 



This sweet book is on four shelves in my TrueStory Bookshop:

  • True Stories~Women's History
  • True Stories~Artists
  • True Stories~Makers
  • True Stories~Entrepreneurs 


To take a peek inside the book, checkout my Booktok.


Every day is a good day for a true story but here are some special tie-in dates for Valentines for All:

  • February 14: Valentine's Day 
  • August 17 (1828): Esther Howland's birthday.
  • First Saturday in October: World Card-Making Day


Nancy Churnin is an award-winning author of picture books, chapter books, and board books who writes stories about people who persevered to achieve their dreams and make the world a better place. She provides free teacher guides and a project for each book with a dedicated page on her website, to encourage and celebrate kids to be heroes and heroines, too. She's available for bookings through Authors and More.

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