Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Interview with Deborah Hopkinson

This week I'm delighted to have the opportunity to interview award-winning children's author Deborah Hopkinson, whose latest historical fiction, The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, was published this fall by Knopf Books for Young Readers. Last week I wrote a review of this book, which I highly recommend for middle-grade readers who enjoy historical fiction. The book's fast pace and sense of high adventure should appeal to children who don't usually like to read.

ML: Why do you write middle-grade fiction? 

DH: I first dreamed of becoming a writer when I was in the fourth grade, so I feel a natural affinity with this age group, though I like writing for a wide range of readers.

ML: Why did you write The Great Trouble as middle-grade fiction? 

DH: While I have written nonfiction, I wanted to bring young readers right into the turmoil of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, and also to explore the history of this moment in public health from the perspective of a young reader. That’s why Eel, the narrator of the book, helps Dr. John Snow (based on the actual historical figure) solve the mystery. 

ML:What makes a great middle-grade story?

DH: Well, I think middle-grade novels must stand alone as fiction no matter the age of the audience—that means aspiring toward that magical combination of characters, plot and setting all working together to create a wonderful story. For myself, both in The Great Trouble and in my other middle grade novel, Into the Firestorm, I do try to keep reluctant readers in mind and include lots of action and short chapters.

ML: Tell us about the research you do for your books. What historic event or period in history most appeals to you. 

DH: I was so fortunate to be able to travel to London to research The Great Trouble. That gave me the chance to actually walk the streets and see the replica of the Broad Street pump. I traced the path from the Golden Square neighborhood, where the epidemic took place, to Dr. John Snow’s home. Of course, I also consulted a number of resources, including Steven Johnson’s excellent nonfiction book for adults, The Ghost Map. I was also able to visit the Wellcome Library in London, which had some helpful articles and artifacts compiled by previous researchers.

I do love researching the nineteenth century, especially the second half of the 1800s. It was such a tumultuous time, with so many changes in society, medicine, civil rights and social justice, both in Great Britain and in the United States as well.

ML: Is writing your full-time job? What do you like doing in your spare time? 

DH: I have always been a writer with a full-time job! Presently I serve as vice president for advancement at Pacific Northwest College of Art and write primarily on the weekends. In my spare time I like to go to the gym— and of course, read!

ML: Do you have any advice for parents whose children don’t like to read? 

DH: Yes, absolutely! I think reading with your kids—even when they are older—is very important. With younger children, that may include reading aloud to them, but also reading a book together, taking turns with pages or chapters and stopping often to discuss the meaning or story. And even with teens, reading the same books together helps to underscore that reading is important to us as well.

Deborah Hopkinson is the award-winning author of picture books, short fiction, and nonfiction.  Her award-winning works include Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, winner of the 1994 International Reading association Award; Apples to Oregon, which won the Golden Kite Award, and Keep On!, winner of the Oregon Book Award.  Her 2012 include Annie and Helen and A Boy Called Dickens, and Titanic Survivors: Voices from the Disaster, which was named a Robert F. Sibert Honor book and finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award.  Deborah serves as Vice President for Advancement at Pacific Northwest College of Art.


  1. I saw a documentary about that very cholera outbreak. It was very fascinating. Glad you've written such a book.

  2. I love the research part of writing and admire the fact that you did on-site research. Your book sounds very interesting. Two of my three boys are reluctant readers, and I appreciate your thoughts on the topic.

  3. It is amazing that Deborah is an award-winning writer and having a full-time job at the same time!! How does she manage that? Maybe you have another interview with her for that question. :-) Thank you so much for sharing with this wonderful interview at Kid Lit Blog Hop!

  4. Lina, I feel very privileged to have had the chance to interview Deborah Hopkinson. Yes, I do have more questions for her, but that will have to wait for another opportunity. She is, as you noted, a very busy lady.