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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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Did your #firstpicturebook receive any rejection letters?

After three years of rejection, I finally sold my second picture book biography! (Check back in a few weeks to learn more about that project.) Honestly, I stopped keeping track of how many rejection letters it received once it reached 50. “We like it, but we don’t love it” seemed to be the running theme. But it wasn’t until one publisher sent me a long and thoughtful email with specific suggestions, that my manuscript clicked, clicked, CLICKED into place. So to celebrate acceptance after so much rejection, I’m reposting 10 Q&As with these #firstpicturebook authors:

Nancy Churnin: “The rejection letters came in three phases. The first phase was for the version of the story I wrote before I realized I needed to study this craft. There were lots of those! The second phase was after my lovely agent, Karen Grencik, took me on hours after reading the version I had written after taking multiple courses and challenges and gotten help from fabulous critique partners. Those were personalized and regretful rejections which were a big step up from the form letters I had gotten after submitting to the slush piles. The third phase came after I carefully considered a common thread in the comments in the rejections….”

Deborah Freedman: “SCRIBBLE received three rejection letters, for three different versions of the story. After each “pass”, I went back and started all over again. Two years of revisions definitely made the story much stronger, and I’m truly indebted to the two editors who took the time to give me honest feedback.”

Josh Funk: “I sent it to 36 agents. Two responded as if they read it. Ten sent me form rejections. The other 24 were black holes (I never received a response). So I gave up on agents. I sent it snail mail to 10 publishers that accepted unsolicited submissions. One sent back a rejection. 8 never responded. So that all adds up to 45 rejections and ...”

Ed Masessa: “My agent, Marcia Wernick, helped me polish the draft and sent it to a half dozen or so editors over the course of several months. They all came back with a “well done, but…” And all of the ‘buts’ hit upon a central theme – the story dragged. So I kept the bones of the story and went to work on picking up the pace and the fun factor.”

Brittany R. Jacobs: “We had one heckuva time selling the Kraken, and it was because of the artwork. About 20 houses turned us down because they didn't love my illustration style. There was even a point where I considered selling the manuscript and letting someone else do the artwork. Thankfully Pow! saved the day and offered a contract for both text and illustrations, and we ended up with a lovely book.”

Lori Alexander: “Oh, yes! Pre-agent, I sent the early versions to various publishers and ended up in their slush piles. There were a handful of non-responses and some form rejections. I nearly gave up at that point. The process was so slow and I didn’t feel like I was learning enough from the rejections. But the more I read, the more I realized rejections are all part of the business.…”

Camille Andros: “A. Yes! Of course! Probably around two dozen or so from agents and then editors. But I wasn't really shopping Charlotte around as much as I was THE DRESS AND THE GIRL which was the first book I wrote and was more focused on initially. That book got lots and lots of rejections, but each personalized rejection (they weren't all like that of course) and the feedback that came with it was so helpful in improving each manuscript.”

Katey Howes: “Oh, yes! I received at least ten very nice rejection letters for GRANDMOTHER THORN before getting the incredibly exciting call from Rob Broder of Ripple Grove Press. Most of the rejections claimed to love the lyricism and symbolism of the story, but said that it would be a tough sell in the current market because it was “quiet.” Several agents who read GRANDMOTHER THORN asked to see other works from me.”

Emma Bland Smith: “I didn’t receive many rejections for this manuscript, but I want to state that I have received many dozens, maybe even hundreds, of rejections, in total, for all my of manuscripts, over the six or so years I’ve been submitting! And I still am. With JOURNEY, it was a case of the right story getting to the right publisher at the right time. I’m very grateful.”

Susan Hood: “My first version had the same main character and the same ending, but it was a completely different story. A more modern story. My editor thought it had possibilities, but it was rejected in Acquisitions. I was so disappointed, I stuck it in a drawer for years.”

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Nancy Churnin is a theater critic and busy baseball-loving mom to four boys but today she tells us about the long road to publishing her first picture book THE WILLIAM HOY STORY—"a rewarding read-aloud choice for baseball fans" (Booklist) and a New York Public Library Recommended Book.

Q. Was THE WILLIAM HOY STORY the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. There have been so many manuscripts over the years, I can’t remember which was first. But one I remember most fondly is Monroe and the Mousecracker, Sweet! about a mouse who dreams of starring as the Mouse King in The Nutcracker. It’s still in my file cabinet and it still makes me laugh!

A. I became friends with a Deaf man named Steve Sandy, whose decades-long dream is to get William Hoy in the National Baseball Hall of Fame., where William would be the first Deaf player to get that honor. I wanted to find a way to help. I thought of the most powerful people I knew and I realized: kids! I will share the story of William Hoy with kids and they will write the letters and send the drawings that will make it happen. At that point I had not yet realized there was more to writing picture books than putting down whatever came into my head and stuffing the results in file cabinets. Slowly I realized I had to learn the craft. So I took courses and challenges and got critiques and wrote, wrote, wrote while Steve kept me going with fabulous primary source material and patiently answered question after question after question about William Hoy and what it was like to grow up Deaf in the late nineteenth century.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. Wendy Grencik, my wonderful editor at Albert Whitman & Company, picked the title. It is simple and to the point and I really like the second part of it: THE WILLIAM HOY STORY: HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME.

Q. What resources did you use while researching THE WILLIAM HOY STORY?
A. Steve Sandy provided me with reams of newspaper articles about William Hoy from the 19th century and beyond as William lived 99 years from the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy! Steve is friends with the Hoy family and, through them, was able to supply me with family pictures, too. I did my own searches and was lucky to get the encouragement and support of Texas Rangers Hall of Fame announcer Eric Nadel. He wrote a book for adults about baseball that includes Hoy and fact checked my baseball details. I am so proud that Eric wrote a blurb for the back of my book and has been reading it to kids as part of his Texas Rangers Summer Reading program.

Q. How did you decide where to start and end this nonfiction story?
A. It took me a long time to realize that the heart of the story was how his difference — his Deafness in a hearing world — was his gift to baseball. Because he was Deaf, he signed. He taught those signs to the umpires so he could play the game he loved. Those signs, which we still use today, make baseball a better game for everyone. Once that came to me, I realized I need to begin with the signs (his mother giving him Deaf applause when he practiced his throws as a boy) and finally show how he was loved by the fans when they greeted him with Deaf applause as his mother had done. The connecting thread was the applause. I used it to connect from the time he was a boy to a young rookie ballplayer to a successful and popular ballplayer.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. It wasn’t there in the first draft literally, but I like to think it was waiting to be fished out of the initial sea of words. The Deaf applause, which is in three key places, is my favorite part—especially at the end when it brings a tear to his eye. It brings one to mine as well. Every time.

Q. Did THE WILLIAM HOY STORY receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. The rejection letters came in three phases. The first phase was for the version of the story I wrote before I realized I needed to study this craft. There were lots of those! The second phase was after my lovely agent, Karen Grencik, took me on hours after reading the version I had written after taking multiple courses and challenges and gotten help from fabulous critique partners. Those were personalized and regretful rejections which were a big step up from the form letters I had gotten after submitting to the slush piles. The third phase came after I carefully considered a common thread in the comments in the rejections. I had a brainstorm and got the idea of transforming a straightforward biography to a narrative about how signs changed his life and how he used them to change the lives of others for the better. That got a couple of rejections, but when Karen sent the new manuscript to Wendy, Wendy responded affirmatively that same day!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE WILLIAM HOY STORY.
A. Utter, pure elation. Joy for me, for Steve, for William Hoy. Thankfulness that this opportunity was opening for me to fulfill my promise to myself, to Steve, to William Hoy and to give this happiness to my family.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Wendy picked the illustrator, Jez Tuya, and he’s been wonderful! She shared early sketches with me and my only comments were regard to historical accuracy, particularly that in the early days no one wore baseball gloves. Through Steve, I was able to supply Jez (through Wendy) lots of historical photographs. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by how Jez melded accuracy with a bright friendly style that kids love.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. William Hoy was coming to life. It was like finally getting to meet someone you have corresponded with for years but never got to meet in person!

Q. How long did THE WILLIAM HOY STORY take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Sixteen to seventeen months depending on how you count it. We received the offer in October of 2014. Then everything was quiet until the summer of 2015. Suddenly everything had to be proofread and questions had to be answered very quickly! There was some more back and forth in the fall. Then THE WILLIAM HOY STORY was published March 1, 2016 although people who pre-ordered were able to get it in February of 2016.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)
A. I love the book as is, but I have lots of extra anecdotes I like to bring to my presentations and kids and adults seem to enjoy getting extra inside information about his sense of humor, his honesty, and what an all around good guy he was.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about THE WILLIAM HOY STORY?
A. They are all wonderful and I treasure them all! Here are a couple that the kids addressed to the National Baseball Hall of Fame:

From Shylah D.: Mr. Hoy never gave up despite his inability to hear. His story shows how important it is that no matter what your handicap or disability is, to never give up on your dreams. If you work hard, they can come true. I will remember this story for the rest of my life. I know if it touched me, it will touch other kids just like me. Please enter Mr. Hoy into the Sports Hall of Fame. His story needs to be shared and heard by everyone.

From Payton N.: He's a big influence in many peoples lives including my little brother Tyler. Tyler is also deaf and he also plays on a baseball team but they're called The Angles. Their team is undefeated and I'm so proud of him! If you put William Hoy in The Hall of Fame it would make a big difference in his life. I really hope this letter convinces you because I told my brother I would try and I hate to make him sad.

From Elizabeth: I am an eleven year old girl who enjoys watching a baseball game. William Hoy changed baseball for everyone, and he's not in your hall of Fame! I don't understand why not!!!!! He was an amazing baseball player who was just DIFFERENT! William Hoy should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and it's silly if you don't see that!

Q. When you do readings of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. The kids get really quiet when he is bullied, particularly by the pitcher who tricks him into thinking there’s another pitch coming because he knows William was too far away from the umpire to see that he had three strikes. Their eyes get big when William gets his big idea and starts scribbling on his pad. They are so joyful at the end when they can see what it means to him to be greeted by the crowd with Deaf applause.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Write the story you believe with your whole heart needs to be in the world, that will make a difference in children’s lives. When you commit to that story, you are an advocate for that story and you will become an unstoppable force. Sure, the story may need to be rewritten or reworked a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand times. You have to be open to learning, to growing to learn, to give the story everything it needs to breathe. Don’t make it about you because if you do your feelings will get battered and bruised. Make it about the story. You serve the story and your job is to keep going until you get it where it needs to go.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you recommend?
A. If you are writing a non-fiction biography, ask yourself what was the person’s dream when that person was a child. How did the dream change over time and how did the person make the dream come true? Can you feel the desire for that dream as intensely and urgently as your character? When you do, start writing!

Q. What are you working on now?
I am thrilled to report that my second book, another non-fiction picture book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain, will be published by Creston Books, in Fall of 2017. It’s the true story of a man who was motivated by love to move a mountain, using only a hammer, chisel and his own persistence. The amazing Marissa Moss is the editor and I am thrilled to report that I’ve seen some of the early illustrations by the fabulous Danny Popovici. Plus I have several manuscripts in progress and I have treated myself to Kristen Fulton’s amazing WOW retreat for children’s book writers July 17-23 for a week of writing, rewriting, and inspiration.

To learn more about Nancy, visit her website.
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