Saturday, April 16, 2016

Q&A with Deborah Hopkinson

Deborah Hopkinson has written more than 40 books for children, including the new middle-grade novel A Bandit's Tale, which takes place mostly in 1880's New York City. Some of her other books include Follow the Moon Home, Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig, and Courage & Defiance. She lives near Portland, Oregon.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Bandit's Tale and for your main character, Rocco?

A: I have written two previous historical fiction books for young readers: Into the Firestorm was set in San Francisco and The Great Trouble takes place in London, and I wanted to place the next story in New York City. Rocco grew out of reading accounts of young street musicians, including a boy who had run away to Central Park.

Q: The book includes some historical figures. What did you see as the right blend between history and fiction as you were writing the novel?

A: I wish I knew the right combination! Often I have to cut out aspects of history that are absolutely fascinating to me, but don’t necessarily move the story forward.

It just so happens that sometimes events coincide, though. Henry Bergh, the founder of the ASPCA who does appear in A Bandit’s Tale actually did die during the Blizzard of 1888, just as he does in the book.

And apparently during that same storm Jacob Riis, the pioneering photojournalist whose photographs of the tenements on the Lower East Side captured the public’s attention, hatched the idea for his book, How the Other Half Lives. 

I realize I may be the only one who loves these sort of coincidences, so I try not to overdo them in the storyline!

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write this, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: I love to consult the work of scholars in my research, and I read biographies of Riis, as well as works on street musicians, pickpockets, and immigrant communities.

I find it enormously helpful when writing fiction to walk around in the neighborhoods where my story takes place. In this case I walked all over the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village.

I also went to museum collections to read letters written by Henry Bergh and read 19th century annual reports on site at the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

I think the Bergh papers were perhaps the most surprising. In his papers I encountered letter after letter where he brings specific street conditions to the attention of the public works department. And, most surprising of all, he got polite responses time after time, though I am sure the folks there were thinking, “Not another letter from Mr. Bergh!”

Q: You've written fiction and nonfiction, for different age groups. Do you have a preference?

A: What I like best, actually, is alternating from one to the other. I love writing in both genres but it’s always nice to switch it up.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, actually, I am beginning to write my third nonfiction title set in World War II (the second, DIVE! comes out in September). Then I’ll make use of that same research for a spy novel for kids set in London in 1944.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, I guess it’s obvious that I love history. But I also think that although many young readers gravitate to fantasy, humor, or realistic fiction, they can get excited about historical fiction too. I encourage parents to read books along with their children.

 I’m a big fan of the work of Steven Johnson, who wrote a nonfiction title about the 1854 cholera epidemic entitled The Ghost Map, which inspired my historical fiction book, The Great Trouble. His popular PBS Series How We Got to Now includes an episode on Light, which features Jacob Riis.

I didn’t know about this series when I wrote A Bandit’s Tale, but I highly recommend it to readers of all ages who want to know more about how technology – in this case the invention of flash photography – changed lives.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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