Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Interview with Author Nancy Churnin on Her Latest Picture Book, Mama's Year with Cancer

I (Tina Cho) want to welcome author Nancy Churnin back to the Grog Blog. You can read a past post about her here. Nancy coauthored a picture book with Shayna Vincent titled Mama's Year with Cancer, illustrated by Wazza Pink, published by Albert Whitman on September 28, 2023. 

*Note: Sadly, on September 12, 2023, Shayna's five-year battle with breast cancer overtook her body and she passed away, three days after celebrating her daughter's 5th birthday. We think of her and her family and all those going through cancer. They are brave heroes. This blog post was written a week before her death. Shayna's family would love it if you purchased this book to help others understand cancer, perhaps buy a copy for your hospital or school or guidance counselor. Thank you! 

This book grabbed my attention because I went through a lumpectomy in 2021 and rung the bell after my radiation treatments, all the while I was still teaching. If you're looking for a book to talk to a child about cancer, this is perfect. Nancy also has a teacher's guide available.

My review (by Tina Cho)

In Mama’s Year with Cancer, a little girl learns to deal with her mama’s diagnosis of cancer, by making her cards, brushing her “new” hair carefully, but also “hating the port on mama’s chest which makes it hard to cuddle.” Speaking to a counselor makes the girl feel better. The girl and Daddy work together to make each holiday through Mama’s year of cancer special until Mama finally rings the bell. Lovely illustrations capture the emotions and headaches of going through cancer. Back matter includes author Shayna Vincent's story of cancer, tips for talking about cancer to children through age 8, further resources, and other books about cancer for children ages 4-8.

1. How did you come up with the idea to write a book about cancer for children?

Shayna Vincent is a dear friend that I met through her mother, children’s book author Johannah Luza. Shayna was struggling to find a book to explain to her young daughters what to expect when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I said to Shayna, “Let’s write the book you want to have in the world.” Shayna is an incredibly kind person who celebrates her daughters’ birthdays as Kindness Days, where they do things for others, just as we share in the book. The idea that she could help other families with our book was a powerful motivation for her. That is the hope we share, that the book will help families dealing with cancer feel seen and cared about and give others understanding and ideas of how to support those in their community with cancer.

                                                           Shayna Vincent with her daughter Avivah

2. You and Shayna collaborated on this book. I’ve never written a book with someone. How did that work? What was your process?

I asked a lot of questions. I listened. I knew that my role in the collaboration was to channel Shayna’s story and spirit and what she wanted to convey. I sent a draft to Shayna. She got back to me quickly with her writing, with notes about what I’d gotten right and what needed to be changed or revised. Drafts went back and forth until Shayna felt the truth of her voice and vision and I knew it was in a form that could help children understand, know their power to help, and the importance of expressing their feelings and receiving help.

3. How much research did you have to do for this story?

I am lucky to have two doctors in my family – my brother, Dr. Jon Churnin, and my brother-in-law, Dr. Carl Nash, as resources. My sister-in-law is a breast cancer survivor, so I was able to consult with her. I am also a longtime journalist who wrote for the Healthy Living section of The Dallas Morning News before I became their theater critic. As a health reporter, I am used to doing research and talking with doctors. I remember – just coincidence – that I had taken a class on cancer in college that I still remembered. I dedicated the book to my sister-in-law, Suzanne Updegraff, and also to my niece, Jaimee Granberry, who was diagnosed with breast cancer while the book was in progress. I am glad to report that Jaimee, who has three young daughters, is doing well, receiving excellent medical care, and loving support from her husband, Jared, and family. I hope she will continue to do well. One of the many things I learned from Shayna, though, is that cancer is never over. We hope for remission, and we stay vigilant.   

4. How long did it take to write this book?

This took a couple of months. It was the fastest writing and turnaround I have ever experienced. I think part of the reason was that Shayna and I were so in synch with each other, and our mission and the universe felt that this needed to be in the world. Sometimes it takes time for ideas to develop and grow. But in this case, we seemed to know exactly the story we wanted to tell. It felt as if we were chasing the story, trying to keep up, rather than pushing it along.

5. This story is told in 1st person point of view, and it works beautifully. Did you originally write it in 1st person?

It never occurred to either of us to write it any other way. Remember, Shayna wanted this to be a book she could share with her daughters to help them understand what cancer is, what the treatments would be like, how their mom would be feeling, what would change and what would stay the same, what they could do, and where they could turn to find help and support. So, it made sense to tell it in the voice of one of her daughters – Mila, who was four when Shayna received her diagnosis – and have the child share her discoveries with the reader.

6. Was it hard to find a publisher for a picture book on a grim topic like cancer?

I am grateful that I have built up relationships with editors and publishers over the years. I had five books published with Albert Whitman and two more on the way when I emailed this manuscript with Sue Tarsky, the senior editor there. I remember it was in December and Sue was on vacation in London. She got back to me the next morning saying she wanted to acquire it. From the start, Sue has been passionate about this story and her care and concern about Shayna. I feel we are all on this mission together to get Shayna’s story into the world.

7.  I like how this book addresses the emotions a child goes through when a family member experiences cancer. I’m sorry that Shayna and her family have had to go through this horrible experience. Did you also interview other families?

This is very much Shayna’s story – not a composite story. That said, I did draw upon medical experts, talk to people I knew who had been on the cancer journey, and do research to make sure everything is accurate. You will see a list of resources in the back matter and a bibliography of children’s books about cancer. I hope these will help people who want and need to know more.

8. I like how Shayna addressed the ringing of the bell in her author’s note, as there have been controversies as to “when” the bell should be rung. Did you also come across that issue when writing this book?

When we began the book, Shayna was very joyful about being able to ring the bell at the end of her year of chemotherapy. We capture that happiness and hope in the book. We felt that was important for a book that would be an introduction to a child’s understanding of having a parent with cancer. Shayna’s cancer journey didn’t end there, however, which you will learn in the back matter. Shayna’s cancer spread and she is now in Stage IV, undergoing new treatments. She addresses that in her author’s note: “Whether ringing that bell marks the end of treatment or the beginning of a new phase, I feel a family should look at it as only a part of their path, instead of one single event or a short period of time. Cancer doesn’t define a person, but even if a patient has been in remission for years or will forever be in active treatment, it changes a person.”

9. What advice would you give to our Grog readers about writing children’s books on hard topics?

Ignoring hard topics doesn’t make them go away. Children going through a difficult time need to feel seen, need to know they’re not alone, need to see strategies for dealing with their difficult situation, need to have their feelings of fear and anger and hope, worry and love validated. These books can be mirrors for these children and windows for children who know someone going through a difficult time. Shayna and I hope that simply by talking about cancer, explaining that it is not catching, how important it is to be a good friend, to share moments of fun, to help as you can, that it will start discussions and open hearts.   

10. What are your next books coming out?

This is a busy year for me! On the same day that Mama’s Year with Cancer comes out, I have my first historical fiction picture book: Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern, Halloween Comes to America. It’s the story of Lila, one of the many Irish immigrants who came to America during the Potato Famine of the 19th century, and how she tries to keep her beloved Halloween traditions alive in her new home where people have never heard of these things before. The book is illustrated by Anneli Bray and published by Albert Whitman. I hope it reminds kids to be thankful of the gifts that immigrants bring us. I would love for kids to share images of the jack-o’-lanterns they carve, whether they carve them out of pumpkins or something else!

On Nov. 7, I have two books coming out. Valentines for All, Esther Howland Captures America’s Heart brings me back to the world of picture book biographies with the story of Esther, who came up with the idea of creating and selling Valentine cards in the 1800s to help others express their feelings. I have created a project for this one called Valentines for All, encouraging kids to send valentines to people not expecting them – other kids, other schools, seniors, people in community programs, whoever would be lifted up by a loving note. The book is illustrated by Monika Roza Wisniewska and published by Albert Whitman.

Counting on Shabbat is my first board book. The 48-word rhyming text, aimed at toddlers, is about counting, Shabbat, and kindness as an elderly person prepares for the weekly celebration of Shabbat alone – and is surprised and delighted when there are five knocks on door and a family joins him bringing food and cheer. I hope this book reminds children to remember our seniors, to write notes, to visit, and to share pictures of the caring things they do on my Counting on Kindness page. The book is illustrated by Petronela Dostalova and published by Kar-Ben Publishing.


Nancy Churnin writes children's books about people that inspire kids to make a positive difference and encourage kids to be heroes, too. Dear Mr. Dickens, the story of a woman who spoke up to Charles Dickens, won the 2021 National Jewish Book Award and a 2022 Sydney Taylor Honor, is a Junior Library Guild selection and is featured in an educational program at The Charles Dickens Museum in London, teaching kids to recognize and stand up to antisemitism. Among her other honors: multiple Sydney Taylor Notables, National Council for the Social Studies Notables, Silver Eurekas, Mighty Girl lists, Sakura Medal finalist, Notable Book for a Global Society, Anne Izard Storytellers Choice Award, the South Asia Book award, Bank Street College and state book lists and starred reviews. Mama's Year with Cancer, co-authored with Shayna Vincent, is the story of Shayna's cancer journey told through her young daughter's voice. Nancy lives in North Texas. 

You'll find free teacher guides, resources, and projects on her website at Visit her on Facebook at Nancy Churnin Children's Books, on Twitter @nchurnin and Instagram @nchurnin


  1. So excited for every book that Nancy writes...but this one is close to my heart as cancer has had a huge impact on my family. Thank you, Tina and Nancy, for a fabulous interview. We are all grateful to the late Shayna Vincent for being the compassionate person she was...and her light lives on in those who loved her.

  2. Nancy, thank you for sharing this lovely interview. And Tina, thank you for bringing Nancy and this book to the GROG to share with us this week.

  3. Condolences to Shayna's family. Thank you Tina and Nancy for sharing this book. Cancer runs in my family and the book will speak to many.

    1. Thank you for your note. Sorry to hear cancer runs in your family, too.

  4. My sympathies to Shayna's family and to you, Nancy. Tina, this is a beautiful interview -- thanks so much for sharing it.