Author Deborah Hopkinson Joins Us!
We’re joined today by award-winning author Deborah Hopkinson, author of the recently released THE GREAT TROUBLE, a terrific new middle grade novel based on the London cholera epidemic of 1854.
Deborah, you’ve written some incredible historical fiction over the years — Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt; Sky Boys; Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek; A Boy Called Dickens — to name a few. What prompted your interest in writing about different time periods? And which is your favorite or most memorable era to write about?
I’ve always loved to read, but I didn’t actually realize how much I loved history until I began writing children’s literature. In part, I’m just not very good at fantasy, humor, or science! But, as I tell students during author visits, one of the best things about being a writer is being able to discover things I never knew and share them with others, and that is what writing about history enables me to do.
I’m especially interested in the 19th century because so much happened then. I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution in America, so perhaps it was always part of my world view. And the period is so rich it’s hard to run out of subject matter to explore – from the Civil War, to women’s rights, Westward expansion, and the emergence of modern science and medicine, it’s a treasure trove of stories waiting to be told.
I have to admit, though, as much as I love writing about 19th century America, one of the best things about working on The Great Trouble was being able to immerse myself in the London of Dickens. My own favorite books are set there, and I’m especially excited that Listening Library found Matthew Frow, a talented young British actor, to bring the voice of Eel to life for listeners.
THE GREAT TROUBLE is part medical mystery, part survival story, part Dickensian adventure based on a real public health scare — the 1854 London cholera epidemic. What drew you to this subject? And how much did you know about Dr. Snow before you started your research?
I think I have to give credit to NPR, not just for a story that prompted me to write the historical fiction story that became my first book, Sweet Clara, years ago, but also for covering Steven Johnson’s 2006 adult nonfiction title, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed, Science, Cities, and the Modern World. I can’t recall exactly when I heard a review, but it prompted me to get a copy, which is how I first learned about Dr. John Snow, who is considered the father of public health.
The Common Core Standards are now calling for fourth graders to read 50% fiction and 50% nonfiction, but in this case I felt that telling the story through historical fiction and being able to put Eel and Florrie at the center of the action would help the time period come alive for young readers. (And the book will, I hope, be useful for the Common Core. We have an Educator’s Guide and my wonderful editor Allison Wortche allowed me to include more than 16 pages of back matter.
What’s especially striking to me now, of course, is that cholera is in the news today, with the recent outbreak in Haiti. Dr. Snow hoped that, “the time will arrive when great outbreaks of cholera will be things of the past.” We still have much to do to prevent future outbreaks.
The hero of the story, besides Dr. Snow, is a young orphan named Eel. How did you perfectly channel the story from a 13-year-old boy’s point of view?
Well, I’m not sure about that, but thank you for the compliment! I’m fortunate enough to be the parent of both a daughter and a son, and I love asking both boys and girls at school visits what kind of books they like to read. Also, when I was growing up, I read a lot of disaster and adventure stories, along with books about World War II. When I was a girl, there weren’t as many adventure books with female heroines. I’m not sure that makes it easier to imagine being a boy in London in 1854, but I did my best – and having a great narrator like Matthew Frow for the audio version helps a lot.
I assume the research is part of the fun in writing. Can you describe your process?
Research is definitely fun, and learning new things is one reason I love historical fiction and nonfiction. I read extensively, and also peruse the bibliographies of academic works to find new sources. With The Great Trouble, I also was incredibly lucky to be able to spend a week in London. This gave me the chance to walk along what was now Broad Street, see the actual location of the pump, sit in Golden Square park, and trace a path to the street where Dr. John Snow lived.
Of course, a lot has changed since 1854, but as I tell students during author visits, there is something special about being able to see things with your own eyes.
If you could go back in time to visit and/or live, what time period would you choose and why?
How is your writing process different when you create a middle grade novel such as THE GREAT TROUBLE as opposed to a picture book? Which do you prefer and why?
When you’re not writing or researching, what do you like to do in your spare time?
In addition to writing, I serve as vice president for Advancement at Pacific Northwest College of Art, a college of art and design here in Portland, Oregon. It’s sometimes challenging to have two careers, but I believe strongly in education, and find it rewarding to be working to help make a college education affordable for students. And when I do have spare time, I like to work out at the gym, which gives me the energy to meet all my deadlines!
What can we next expect from you that you can share with us today?
I’m working on a new middle grade novel set in the late 1800s in New York City, along with three upcoming picture books from Schwartz and Wade. One of them is set in Great Britain – and I’m saving up my miles so that I can go back to London again!
Thank you so much, Deborah, and we look forward to reading more of your engaging and fascinating work.
And thank you to my colleague Susan who suggested this post and worked on the brilliant questions!
Thanks to you, our readers, for joining us, and please share your thoughts in our comments section.