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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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True Story: Hope for Ryan White

Before I read this book written by Dano Moreno and illustrated by Hannah Abbo, I associated the name Ryan White with tragedy. A teen who was diagnosed with AIDS after a blood transfusion, Ryan was told he had six months to live AND THEN he had to face discrimination from his community and the education system. But Dano's book reminded me that Ryan lived five years longer than expected and he chose to use that time to educate others about the disease because "the more people knew, the less they feared." Since reading this biography about the young activist, I now equate Ryan White's name with hope—hope that his legacy lives on, inspiring young people to fight fear with facts.


Today Dano Moreno discusses how he tackled a tough subject while honoring a young hero in Hope for Ryan White.

Ryan White's life was too short—passing away at 18 years old. How did you turn such a sad subject into an uplifting children's book? 

I kept young readers in mind as I wrote Hope for Ryan White, and I focused on Ryan's life—which was short, but heroic. Ryan knew that if he was kept out of school for having AIDS, others would be too. This motivated him to become an advocate and a public figure, educating and inspiring people all over the world. My goal was to amplify Ryan's voice and remind young people that we all have the ability to create a more inclusive world.


While researching this book, which fact surprised you the most? 

I enjoyed learning about the White family's friendship with Sir Elton John. I also loved learning about Jill Stewart, the student body president at Ryan's high school. She played a pivotal role in ensuring Ryan would be welcome at his new school and in the broader community.


Was there one aspect of Ryan life—a specific scene, quote, or image—that guided you as you wrote this biography? 

Yes! There's a photo of Ryan that came to mind many times while I wrote. It shows Ryan speaking with the media. He's happy, confident, and surrounded by adults with microphones who are eager to hear what he has to say. I love this image because the traditional power dynamic between children and adults is flipped. This photo also inspired the cover of Hope for Ryan White, illustrated by Hannah Abbo.


Why do you think kids can relate to Hope for Ryan White? 

Ryan's story is about the need to be accepted, heard, and treated fairly. It's about challenging misinformation and discrimination. These are relevant themes for kids today. 


Which sources were invaluable to writing this biography? 

My primary source was Ryan White's autobiography, Ryan White: My Own Story, coauthored by Ryan White and Ann Marie Cunningham. I read old news articles and watched interviews with Ryan and his mother too.


How did you choose the title for this book—was it your working title or did it change over time? 

I landed on Hope for Ryan White as the title early on. Though I revised the story countless times, I knew I wanted to convey a sense of hope in both the title and the story. Hope is a common and important element in children's books. They're wonderful tools for opening up conversations about difficult but important topics.


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

The main character's emotional journey is just as important as the events that occurred. We're better able to learn from our history and our heroes when we connect with their humanity.


If you could pick the ideal place for a Hope for Ryan White storywalk, where would it be? 

I'd love to see a Hope for Ryan White storywalk anywhere! If I had to suggest one place, I'd choose a park in Cicero, Indiana—the town where Ryan found acceptance.


What other books would you recommend to readers who love Hope for Ryan White? 

Two of my favorite picture books that address challenging topics with hope and sensitivity are That Flag by Tameka Fryer Brown and Nikkolas Smith and Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd and Christian Robinson.


True Story Tidbits

Inspiring and educational, this book is on two shelves in my TrueStory Bookshop:

  • Activists
  • Science

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 Hope for Ryan White:

  • August 18 (1990): Congress passed the Ryan White CARE Act, creating programs that provide health care for people living with HIV. 
  • December 1: World AIDS Day—unite in the fight against HIV, show support for people living with HIV, and commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.
  • December 6 (1971): Ryan White's birthday


Dano Moreno is also the author of Our Wish For You: A Story About Open Adoption, illustrated by Ryan O'Rourke.


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True Story: Door By Door—How Sarah McBride Became America’s First Openly Transgender Senator

When I'm writing a biography, I always search for the thread that starts from a childhood moment, weaves its way through challenges, and ties into an accomplishment later in that person's life. So I was delighted to spot that thread early on in Door by Door: How Sarah McBride Became America's First Openly Transgender Senator by Meeg Pincus and illustrated by Meridth McKean Gimbel.


At a young age, Americans learn about the country's presidents. But do most American toddlers use their building blocks to create a model of the White House? Do most American kids request a podium for a holiday gift? Do most American teenagers work on a gubernatorial campaign? No, but Sarah McBride did. She knew politics was her destiny. But what she didn't know was "why her body didn't match her brain and heart." Born with a boy's body, Sarah longed to be seen as a girl. Heartfelt and engaging, this is the true story of Sarah's McBride's quest to become her authentic self—an American leader working to improve the lives of others.


Today author Meeg Pincus discusses creating Door by Door—How Sarah McBride Became America's First Openly Transgender Senator:


In the back matter, there is a wonderful note from Sarah McBride. How involved was she in the process of making this book?  

Sarah has graciously been involved from the very beginning of this book, before it was a book and before she was a senator, in fact! I approached her about writing her story for kids when she was still at the Human Rights Campaign and had been the first openly transgender person to work at The White House and to give a national political convention speech. I wouldn't have written it without her, and we are grateful that she has worked with us throughout the process – commenting on drafts and illustrations, contributing her beautiful note, and launching the book with us.


Was there one aspect of Sarah McBride's life—a specific scene, quote, or image—that guided you as you wrote this biography? 

I actually think it was the image of her asking for a podium for Christmas as kid! That quirky fact of her life just illustrates so powerfully how strong the dream was for her to speak up for others, to make a life in government and politics. She knew from such an early age how she wanted to help the world, just as she knew her gender (which was different from what she was assigned at birth) but she felt she could not achieve her dream and also live as her true self. To me, this is the heart of Sarah's story, especially for kids, as it was a struggle she had since childhood.


While researching this book, which fact surprised you the most? 

Learning about how active and impactful she was in politics as a youth was surprising – you don't hear of many kids devoting themselves so fully to local political campaigns, but Sarah did. She gave a televised public speech introducing Delaware's governor-elect when she was just a teenager.


Why do you think kids can relate to Door by Door?
I think kids may relate to several parts of Sarah's story. For some, it will be her feeling different and her worries about not being accepted as her true self by her loved ones and others in her life. For some, it will be her passion for a dream she's not sure she will ever get to accomplish. For some, it will be her desire for a more inclusive culture, where everyone is embraced for who they are. At its core, I think kids will relate to Sarah's emotional journey – her fears, her dreams, her sadness and relief – as all humans have these emotions.


Which sources were invaluable to writing this biography?
Sarah herself was the most invaluable source, both in real time and in all the writing she has done and interviews and speeches she has given. I read the articles she wrote when she came out as trans in college and later as a young adult. I watched her political speeches and the interviews she gave at bookstores and on talk shows after the release of her memoir. I read her memoir at least three times all the way through. Sarah is one of the most eloquent people I've ever encountered, and her own words were the key sources for this biography.


How did you select the timeframe for your book? 
I knew the book had to begin in her childhood, as the story is so much about what she knew from when she was a child. In my original version, I had started the story with her asking for a podium for Christmas and then ended it with her at the podium at the Democratic National Convention. But it took a while to sell the manuscript, so by the time it sold to Penguin Random House, I needed to end with her becoming a state senator, and my editor wanted even more focus on her childhood, so I went earlier than the podium to her building The White House out of blocks as a very young child!


What's your #1 tip for writing true stories?
Beyond the typical (and important!) advice to research deeply and thoroughly, use primary sources, etc., for me the #1 tip is to tap into the underlying emotion of a true story and find a way to connect readers to that heart. Whether it's a biography or a STEM story, there needs to be something emotionally compelling to draw in a reader, from compassion to curiosity.


If you could pick the ideal place for a Door by Door storywalk, where would it be?
Definitely Delaware! Probably around the state house, where Sarah serves as the nation's first openly transgender state senator, and the area where she grew up.


What other books would you recommend to readers who love Door by Door?
I recommend several nonfiction picture books about LGBTQ+ role models and history in my "Solutionary Stories" Bookshop list. Gayle E. Pitman and Rob Sanders have been groundbreaking authors in this niche, and luckily we are adding more books (by them and other creators) to this list each year.



Both uplifting and informative, this book is on two shelves in my True Story Bookshop:

  • Activists
  • LGBTQ+ Trailblazers 


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 Door by Door—How Sarah McBride Became America's First Openly Transgender Senator:

  • Election Days – both federal and local election days – are a huge and important tie-in to this book, especially in these times when politicians have been attacking the rights and freedoms of transgender and other LGBTQ+ Americans through discriminatory laws, banning books, and the like.
  • June: Pride Month
  • March 31: International Transgender Day of Visibility 
  • Oct. 11: National Coming Out Day 
  • Nov. 20: Transgender Day of Remembrance 


Meeg Pincus is the author of several "Solutionary Stories"—nonfiction & informational books that inspire kids to make a difference—such as Miep and the Most Famous Diary and So Much More to Helen! To learn more about her work, visit her website.

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True Story: Rena Glickman, Queen of Judo

It's been almost three years since my last blog post so I'm excited to kick off my True Story series with Rena Glickman, Queen of Judo by Eve Nadel Catarevas and illustrated by Martina Peluso (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2022). 


Rena Glickman, known professionally as Rusty Kanokogi, was a Jewish girl from Coney Island who grew up to become a judo master at a time when the sport was strictly for males. Disguised as a man, she entered and won the 1959 YMCA Judo Championship but was forced to give back her medal when it was discovered that she was a woman. Never wanting that to happen to another female, she set out to make women's judo a popular sport around the world. Her fight for equality resulted in the first Women's Judo World Championship and turning women's judo into an Olympic sport.


Since Eve is one of my critique partners, I was lucky enough to be an early reader of this project and so thrilled to see her hard work pay off with her debut book. One fearless, determined woman writing about another fearless, determined woman! Today Eve answers my questions about Rena Glickman, Queen of Judo: 


Was there one thing—a specific scene, quote, or image from Rena's Glickman's life—that guided you throughout the writing process?  

It was a quote. Rusty (I've always used Rena's nickname) always said, "In life you're either the hammer or the nail. Be the hammer." It doesn't get more straightforward than that!


While researching this book, which fact surprised you? 

Rusty was so committed to holding the first Women's Judo World Championships (at Madison Square Garden) that she mortgaged her own home.


Why do you think kids can relate to Rusty? 

Girls today are taught to go after what they want. That wasn't a general precept in the 1950s, but that's exactly what Rusty did. Obstacles didn't deter her. Rusty forged ahead.


Which sources were important in creating this biography? 

There were no books on Rusty. I used every magazine, newspaper and online article I could find. Thankfully, I found Rusty's daughter. She was invaluable.


How did you select the timeframe for your book? 

Rusty's childhood was so rife with drama (a lot of it didn't make it into the book – too dark), I knew I had to start there. The culmination of the story was women's judo becoming, at long last, an Olympic sport.


How did you determine if information should be included in the story or the back matter? 

Ooh, that's a good question, Karlin. I can't tell you how often I put in and take out information during the writing process. In one draft it's part of back matter, next draft it's part of the text, and finally it's out altogether. But not really because I'll have a change of heart and back it goes, just written differently. Back matter is where I put elements that are relevant to the subject's life story, but don't serve the story. It's where I house statistics or inroads made beyond my subject's lifetime.


If you could pick the ideal place for a storywalk for this book, where would it be? 

The streets of Coney Island where Rusty grew up, the place that helped her become an independent, strong-willed woman who would stop at nothing to achieve her dream – and to encourage others to do the same.


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

Ferret out as much source material as you can. Dig, dig, then dig some more. You never know when you're going to come across that stop-you-in-your-tracks quote or anecdote—the one that pulls the whole story together.


What other books would you recommend to readers who love Rena Glickman, Queen of Judo? 

Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer's Historic Run by Kim Chaffee & Ellen Rooney and Billie Jean!: How Tennis Star Billie Jean King Changed Women's Sports by Mara Rockliff & Elizabeth Baddeley.


Thank you, Eve, for being the hammer (wink!) and for taking the time to chat about this kick-butt biography!



Spirited and empowering, this book (with its "Kapow!" cover) is on four shelves in my TrueStory Bookshop:

  • Women's History
  • Athletes
  • Activists
  • Jewish Heritage Stories 


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 Rena Glickman, Queen of Judo.

  • February (first Wednesday in February): National Girls and Women in Sports Day raises awareness about the positive aspects of sports and the continued need to promote gender equality in every way.
  • June 23 (1972): The day Title IX was signed into law. Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or any other education program that receives funding from the federal government.
  • July 30 (1935): Rena Glickman's birthday.
  • August 21 (2009): YMCA gives Rusty back the medal she was stripped of 50 years earlier.
  • September 25 (1988): First Olympic Women's Judo competition (This was a demonstration tournament with no medals. After that, Women's Judo became a full medal Olympic sport.) 
  • October 28: World Judo Day celebrates the martial art and the birthday of its founder, Kanō Jigorō. 


Eve Nadel Catarevas is also the author of Wonderful Hair: The Beauty of Annie Malone, illustrated by Felicia Marshall and published by Creston Books. To learn more about Eve and her work, visit her website.
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