This fall, prolific children’s author Deborah Hopkinson launches five new books, including an Elizabethan spy novel, a fractured “Cinderella” tale, a picture book inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and two chapter books in a new series about a ship’s cat named Trim. PW spoke with Hopkinson about what inspired her many projects, some disturbing controversy regarding one of them, and her writing process.
You have an impressive number of books coming out this fall. What prompted this burst of creativity?
It was the pandemic. I had a full-time job up until 2014 and then I did a lot of school visits through 2019. I had been scheduled to do research in Galveston [Texas] for the deadliest hurricanes [in the Deadly series] in March 2020 and, of course, that is when lockdown started. I came home and I thought, well, if I cannot do any school visits ever again, I better write my way out of this.
In your historical novel The Plot to Kill a Queen, the aspiring playwright and 13-year-old heroine meets Shakespeare and stumbles upon a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth while in the court of Mary Queen of Scots. How did you conceive this novel?
I first came across an article in the Atlantic called “Was Shakespeare a Woman?” about Amelia Bassano Lanier, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare. I was fascinated by her and I had been part of this group [of authors] that wrote Fatal Throne with Candace Fleming and Linda Sue Park and Lisa Sandell, who is actually my editor at Scholastic. I had done some research on the Tudor period, and I thought, this would be a really fun story. I liked the idea that this book is in a three-act structure and it also includes theatre terms in it with definitions. I wanted to make it useful for teachers and educators and librarians and parents.
One of the best parts about this is my daughter is a Waldorf teacher in Vermont and she and my six-year-old grandson were here [outside of Portland, Ore.] in July, so we recorded the back matter [for the audiobook]. And there is an actual one-act play included, so [my daughter] Rebecca got to be the narrator of the play. Live theatre in America is suffering and also [lacking] in many schools. I think it is a way to introduce Shakespeare in the context. That’s the fun part about historical fiction, as opposed to nonfiction—you can play with history.
What prompted your picture book Small Places, Close to Home?
I wanted to do something with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ 75th anniversary and I wanted to make it accessible. The title comes from a speech where [then United Nations Ambassador] Eleanor Roosevelt says, “Where do human rights begin? They begin in small places, close to home,” so that was the inspiration and I worked with [editor] Donna Bray. This is [illustrator] Kate Gardiner’s first book. She was amazing in her sketches and we went back and forth to make sure that it was as diverse and inclusive as possible. I am hoping it is useful for a wide range of ages. And, of course, the topic is as timely now as ever.
There has been some controversy regarding Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred, illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky. What happened and what is your reaction to it?
In Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred, Ella and her wife live happily ever after, with [the mouse] Fred watching over the magnificent fairy-tale pumpkins on their farm. When I previewed the book at the Charlotte Huck Festival a few months before it came out, an educator asked if Paul and I anticipated much pushback. The question took me by surprise, though in retrospect it shouldn’t have. When I wrote it, about three years ago, that’s simply how the story came out! And why not? It seemed like a lovely, perfectly happy ending to me then—and it still does.
When I accepted appearance invitations for this fall in a couple of states, I provided hosts with descriptions of my presentations and the books I would be sharing with young readers, which did not include Cinderella. But even before the book was published, my invitation to a library festival and two schools in one state was rescinded; the public library indicated there was a fear of being targeted by a local group.
A school in another state also rescinded their invitation; again, even though I was not planning to talk about Cinderella. Both decisions to ban me for simply having written it seem to be based on fear. Ironically, one of the books I did plan to feature was Small Places, Close to Home, inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I’ve been disheartened at times. It’s not just the lost opportunity to connect with young readers, or the loss of income, but the realization of how rapidly a culture of fear and intimidation is spreading. We know many book creators are experiencing similar bans. Schools and libraries also need support and the tools to handle situations that arise. My experience underscores the need for all of us who care about children and teens to support the work of organizations like the National Coalition Against Censorship and their initiatives, including their Kids’ Right to Read Project.
I’ve written so much about history: on the Holocaust, women’s rights, the U.S. labor movement, the atrocities of the Bataan Death March, and horrific natural disasters. It’s both sad, ironic, and also rather ludicrous that my first talking animal book—a good-natured, light-hearted fractured fairy tale with a talking mouse—is considered so dangerous.
How did you create the character Trim for your new chapter book series and what led you to craft these adventures?
Again, it started with history. I was researching cats, and I came across Trim, who was the cat of the British explorer Matthew Flinders. He was the first person to actually name Australia and circumnavigate it. Matthew Flinders wrote a tribute to Trim in 1809 and died shortly after that, and it was not found in his papers until the 1970s. It is hilarious and incredibly modern. He wrote a lot of anecdotes about his ship’s cat. I had a conversation with Kathy Landwehr [associate publisher of Peachtree Books] and Kathy made an offhand comment like, “I’m a cat person.” And I said, “Oh, I have this for you!” [Illustrator] Kristy Caldwell has done such an amazing job with the perspective and the characters.
How does your writing process change as you move from nonfiction to fiction and picture books?
Nonfiction is easiest for me. When I write nonfiction, I think of myself as a curator. For example, the [project] I am working on now is about the Battle of the Bulge. Just like if you are designing a museum exhibition, you want to have as many voices as possible.
Because I wrote professionally in a business and non-profit capacity for so long—I wrote grants, I wrote thank-you letters for donors—I did all kinds of writing, and one of the things I always say to kids is that any kind of writing is practice. It does not really matter what I am writing, it is the process that is so absorbing and hard. The challenges are always specific to what is on the page. It is the work itself that I just love.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing up Trim #4, which is called Trim Sails the Storm, a picture book called Evidence about John Snow, and a book about the Battle of the Bulge. I have a two-part series called World War II Close Up, and those are shorter books than Race Against Death. I wanted them to be no more than about 224 pages, and almost like starter nonfiction. And [my book about] Marie Curie comes out sometime in February.
The Plot to Kill a Queen by Deborah Hopkinson. Scholastic Press, $18.99 Oct. 17 ISBN 978-1-338-66058-6
Small Places, Close to Home: A Child’s Declaration of Rights by Deborah Hopkinson, illus. by Kate Gardiner. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $19.99 Oct. 3 ISBN 978-0-063-09258-7
Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred by Deborah Hopkinson, illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky. Random House/Schwartz, $18.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-593-48004-5
Trim Sets Sail by Deborah Hopkinson, illus. by Kristy Caldwell. Peachtree, $14.99 Oct. 24 ISBN 978-1-68263-290-1
Trim Helps Out by Deborah Hopkinson, illus. by Kristy Caldwell. Peachtree, $14.99 Oct. 24 ISBN 978-1-68263-291-8.