Deborah Hopkinson is the author of the new children's picture book biography Thanks to Frances Perkins. Her many other books include How I Became a Spy and Butterflies Belong Here. She lives near Portland, Oregon.
Q: Why did you decide to write a children's picture book biography of Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the U.S. cabinet?
A: I have long admired Frances Perkins. I was struck by the way being an eyewitness to the Triangle Waist Company fire propelled her to get more involved in workers’ rights and improving factory conditions. I was fortunate that Margaret Quinlan and Kathy Landwehr at Peachtree Publishing Company also admired Frances. So when they mentioned her as a subject for a picture book, I was delighted.
I’ve also had the opportunity to work with economic educators at the Federal Reserve, and believe that young people need to know more about financial literacy and basics such as saving—whether it’s for a new book, a bike, or planning for an education or career training course.
Q: How did you research her life, and did you learn anything especially surprising?
A: I love working with primary sources if I can. I relied on Frances Perkins’ 1946 book, The Roosevelt I Knew, the excellent resources of the Frances Perkins Center, the Social Security website, oral history interviews, radio addresses, and speeches.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: I hope Thanks to Frances Perkins helps young readers build empathy and compassion, and they will use their minds and hearts to serve others, as she did.
I also wanted this book to be more interactive, rather than a traditional biography of a remarkable person of the past. So it begins with math questions that prompt young readers to think about their lives, perhaps in a different way. When we are young, even 30 seems old. I don’t expect to change that, but I would like children to be open to the notion of planning.
Before becoming a full-time author, I worked at Oregon State University in fundraising and grant-writing. And some of our outreach programs for first-generation college families stressed the idea that “college is a plan.”
Kristy Caldwell’s wonderful illustrations tackle not only difficult events in the book, such as the Triangle Fire of 1911, but also show us a contemporary scene with a diverse group of people enjoying Washington Square today. I hope this makes children feel that they belong, and that everyone deserves to be able to plan for the future.
Q: What do you see as Perkins' legacy today?
A: I think Frances Perkins’s life shows us what public service can mean: how a vision of a more just and inclusive society can come to fruition through hard work and sound policies. Millions of Americans have benefited from programs like unemployment insurance and the Social Security Act.
Thanks to Frances Perkins was published in August of 2020, to coincide with the 85th anniversary of the Social Security Act. Of course, when writing and planning the book, we couldn’t know about the pandemic. But this is a good time to look back at her accomplishments, as we debate issues like health care tied to employers and protections for workers.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m delighted that Kristy Caldwell and I will soon be working together on another project, but it’s too soon to give out the details. It is, however, something completely different!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I hope that adult readers will take this opportunity to learn more about Frances Perkins. This year, we lost another remarkable woman in Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s time for young people to learn more about women leaders in our history.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Deborah Hopkinson.