Deborah Hopkinson has a lot to celebrate this year, with multiple new books being released, including her third novel, A Bandit’s Tale, a picaresque novel narrated by Rocco Zacarro, an Italian boy sold into slavery in 19th-century New York City, a period during which both children and animals were routinely abused. She spoke with Bookshelf from her home in Oregon about how she juggles her many projects.
You seem to move back and forth between fiction and nonfiction fairly seamlessly – do you prefer one discipline to the other?
Actually, I’m not sure I ever would have written nonfiction except that I wrote one of the Dear America books for Scholastic (Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker, New York City 1909) and after I finished, I had all this material left over. I remember saying to my editor, ‘I could write a whole other book,’ so I did. I wrote Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York 1880–1924 (Scholastic, 2003), and that got me started on the nonfiction path.
Shutting Out the Sky is about life in New York City during the same period in which A Bandit’s Tale is set. So did you still have material left over even after writing it?
Well, I love that period in New York City and I wanted to return to it. I learned so much from doing all that research about people like Jacob Riis, who was so important to improving the lives of the poor, but whose work is not well known at all to younger readers today. And this was the third novel I’ve written after The Great Trouble, which is about the 1854 cholera epidemic in London, and Into the Firestorm about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, so with A Bandit’s Tale, I think of them as my “Great Cities” trilogy, even though the stories are not at all related.
All of your fiction is thoroughly informed by fact. I have to say that the author’s note for A Bandit’s Tale is the most exhaustive one I’ve seen in quite a while.
My problem is I can get carried away. I’m lucky my editors are accommodating. But, The Great Trouble has been on something like 17 state [reading] lists because it has a lot of STEM connections, so I had that in mind when I was writing the author’s note for A Bandit’s Tale. You want to make it as useful to teachers as you possibly can.
Your body of work does mesh well with the curriculum changes we’ve seen recently – the push toward work that provides STEM connections and the nonfiction mandates of the Common Core. Do you do a lot of school visits?
I could use more visits! Although I am doing more than I have ever done because until 2014 I was still working full-time [Hopkinson worked in the development office as a fundraiser for Oregon State University, Whitman College, and the University of Hawaii at Manoa]. I love to do them. I have started to visit more middle schools and found that I love middle schoolers. I’ve been inspired by the Steven Johnson series on PBS, How We Got to Now, where he shows the history of an idea and how it resulted in a particular innovation. I’m looking forward to explaining to students how the invention of flash photography finally allowed Jacob Riis to go into tenements and the “child dens,” like the one where Rocco lived in A Bandit’s Tale, and show the horrible conditions. Those photographs were the foundation for Riis’s book, How the Other Half Lives. It’s incredible the impact his photojournalism had on social reform and, for me, the STEM connection is exciting. When you do this kind of research, you see that the way ideas develop is often the same way scientific discoveries evolve.
A Bandit’s Tale has incredible photographs but securing the rights to photographs like the ones in your novel can be difficult and pricey. How did you go about it?
Well, I used one of those photos – the shocking photo of the dead horse in the street with a group of children standing nearby – in Shutting Out the Sky and I have shown it at school visits and it sparks a lot of discussion. I always ask the students what they think it is depicting. Some of them have suggested, ‘The kids killed the horse,” or ‘The horse was run over by a car.’ But then I ask them to dig into the photo and look closer. Then they see the carriages in the background and notice the children’s bare feet, and they begin to understand these are not modern times, and these are not normal conditions. I think photographs can help us time travel in a way that words alone do not.
I had tremendous support from Knopf in securing the photographs, and great cooperation from the Museum of the City of New York in using Jacob Riis’s photos. Others are from the Library of Congress, a great and economical source for historical photos.
The full-time job you quit – philanthropic fundraising – is not a conventional background for a writer. How did you decide to switch gears?
Well, I think I wanted to be a writer beginning in about fourth grade but it wasn’t until my daughter was about three and I started reading to her that I, like many others, arrived at the mistaken idea that picture books are short, they should be easy to write while also working full-time! Several years later, I sold my first story to Cricket magazine, and, eventually, I sold my first picture book, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt (1993), to Anne Schwartz, when she was at Knopf. But what helped me when I started writing books was that I already knew how to revise. Whether it’s writing grant proposals, or speeches, or annual reports, the work I did always required revision. I could make a stab at what was needed but a faculty member or a dean or the president of the college would add their input. And in fundraising, you can write a great proposal but in order to get the grant, it has to match whatever goals the foundation that’s giving out the money has, so you learn not to take rejection personally.
A Bandit’s Tale is a picaresque novel told in first-person, which is an old-fashioned style. Did Dickens inspire you?
I’ve long been a fan of Charles Dickens and there are some Dickensian elements in The Great Trouble, too, but I wanted to explore that more. I knew the protagonist would be something of a rogue so I looked at the work of Henry Fielding on Project Gutenberg. In fact, writing the chapter headings in Fielding style turned out to be my favorite part of writing A Bandit’s Tale. Whenever I got stuck, I would go back to Fielding for more inspiration. I loved the sense of humor it added to an otherwise really grim situation.
You also just released Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig (illus. by Charlotte Voake, Random House/Schwartz & Wade), which was delightfully subversive.
Yes, the writer Rosanne Parry tweeted that she recommended my book about “serial pet killer” Beatrix Potter. Some parents will probably object but I have been sharing it with children and it doesn’t bother them at all.
You have another new book out this month, Follow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtles (illus. by Meilo So, Chronicle) co-written with Philippe Cousteau. Are you always this prolific?
Actually, it so happens that I have five books coming out this year. That sounds outrageous but one of them I wrote eight years ago. And the Beatrix Potter book – that release was timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of her birth. But I also have a picture book, Steamboat School (illus. by Ron Husband, Disney/Jump at the Sun, June), and the third of my nonfiction books on World War II, Dive: World War II Stories of Sailors &Submarines in the Pacific, (Scholastic, Sept.).
Not only that but my daughter’s having a baby! It’s kind of a busy year, I guess.
A Bandit’s Tale by Deborah Hopkinson. Knopf, $16.99 April ISBN 978-0-385-75499-6