Deborah Hopkinson is the author of many books for children, including the new picture books Independence Cake and A Letter to My Teacher. Some of her other books are Dive!, Follow the Moon Home, and A Bandit's Tale. She lives near Portland, Oregon.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Independence Cake, and what kind of research did you do to write the book?
A: Independence Cake takes place in 1789, and is a (very) fictionalized account of Amelia Simmons, who in 1796 wrote America’s first cookbook, American Cookery.
My editor Anne Schwartz (Schwartz & Wade) and I were discussing ideas for a picture book set during the Revolutionary War period. After striking out on several ideas related to the conflict, I stumbled upon this fascinating tidbit of culinary history.
Very little is known about Amelia Simmons – even where she lived. On the title page of her book she describes herself as “An American Orphan.” But although her real life was undoubtedly more difficult than the light-hearted concoction I’ve whipped up, she definitely seems to have been infected with an entrepreneurial, independent spirit.
I love Giselle Potter’s illustrations, which are reminiscent of the 18th century. We also managed to get a little history thrown in: the Independence Cake of the title actually becomes 13 cakes, one for each colony.
Q: You also have another new picture book out, A Letter to My Teacher. What was the inspiration for that book, and what does it say about the impact a teacher can have on a student?
A: There were a number of inspirations for A Letter to My Teacher. Certainly one was my daughter, Rebekah, who was in graduate school to become an educator when I wrote an early draft of the manuscript. (That was during an April 1 snowstorm in New Hampshire in 2011.)
I’ve only been a full time author for three years, and have been so inspired by my travels around the country, where I’ve visited elementary and middle schools in many states. I believe teachers, librarians, staff, and parents create amazing communities of learning across America, and we have much to celebrate.
At a recent school visit, parents bought a copy of A Letter to My Teacher for each teacher, to be given during Teacher Appreciation Week. They plan to have every student sign his or her name, as a class gift. It was an honor to autograph each of those books and I only wish I could go back to see the presentations to the teachers!
Q: In both cases, what do you think the illustrators, Giselle Potter and Nancy Carpenter respectively, added to the books?
A: Authors don’t normally choose their illustrators, but I was ecstatic when Anne Schwartz decided on Giselle and Nancy for these picture books. This is the third title Nancy and I have done together, and she brings something different to each.
Here, she creates a warm, nurturing relationship between a teacher and student, but at the same time we see the entire school community, and I think, can imagine the teacher having a similar impact on each student in her class.
I’ve admired Giselle’s work for many years, and am thrilled to be able to share this book with students. I previewed it last week at a school visit, and second graders were delighted by the details: we scoured each spread to see just how many of the little Bean boys (the family Amelia is living with has six sons) appear.
Often one will be hiding in a cupboard or under a table. Those imaginative touches really make a book come alive and I hope make multiple readings enjoyable.
Q: You write for various age groups. Is your writing process similar, or does it change depending on the type of book?
A: I do change much about the process when I am writing a 1,200 word picture book compared to a 60,000 word work of nonfiction for middle schoolers. However, some things remain the same: I try to do as much research as I can, and I revise a lot (sometimes more than I want to!), as I work with collaboratively with my editors. Writing is hard, and yet that challenge is also what makes it so rewarding.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I am just finishing a chapter in an anthology entitled Fatal Throne, to be published next year. It’s the brainchild of author Candace Fleming and is also edited by Anne Schwartz. I’m honored to be one of six female authors, who each took on the story of a wife of Henry VIII (Tobin Anderson contributes pieces as Henry throughout).
It was the first time I was involved in writing fiction that veers into YA, and it was really great to be in the company of some amazing writers. In addition to Candy Fleming, Jennifer Donnelly, Linda Sue Park, Stephanie Hemphill, and Lisa Ann Sandell took part.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Since it’s now spring, I can’t pass up the opportunity to encourage students and parents to join their local summer reading program. The 2017 theme is the same for all readers: “Build a Better World.”
I like to think my new books fit in: cooking together is fun – and food brings local communities together through farmers’ markets, community farm shares, and the support of local restaurants.
And, of course, it’s never too late to sit down to write a letter to that teacher who helped launch you into the world.