Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight: Deborah Hopkinson

Deborah Hopkinson
Deborah Hopkinson is the author of the ALSC 2005 Notable Children’s Book, Apples to Oregon: Being the (Slightly) True Narrative of How a Brave Pioneer Father Brought Apples, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Grapes, and Cherries (and Children) Across the Plains (Simon & Schuster/Anne Schwartz). Her book Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building (Random/Schwartz & Wade) is an ALSC 2007 Notable Children’s Book. ALSC Quick Lists Committee included her book Bluebird Summer (Greenwillow) in the Books on Separation and Loss booklist. Deborah lives near Portland, Oregon.

What is your personal history and how has it informed your work?
I grew up in Massachusetts, the oldest of three girls. I was the first member of my family to get a college degree. I also grew up during a time when women were beginning to break into new fields. I believe my interest in history and historical fiction is a result of not being satisfied with what I read in textbooks in school. I was always curious about ordinary people, and the lives of women. I suppose my stories are a way to discover history for myself and share it with readers.

Describe your writing process.
I do lots of research before starting a picture book, and then I put the research to one side and try to find a way to illuminate the core of the story, or at least the part that’s most intriguing to me. I also revise a lot. As an example, I think editor Anne Schwartz and I did nine or ten revisions for Sky Boys as well as my new book, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek. I am lucky to have talented editors who push me to keep making a manuscript better.

How do you select your books’ topics?
I am always looking for new ideas and stories. I tell students when I present in schools that it’s like having antennae: stories are all around us, in what we experience, hear on the radio, read in books or newspapers, or see on the Internet. I also tell kids that I get lots of rejections. Not every story ends up being a book.

For my new book, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, I wanted to do a book in honor of the Lincoln Bicentennial. But it took a long time and a lot of research to find something new about Lincoln’s life, and to find a way to tell it that I hope encourages young people to get excited about history. Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek tells the story of how Abe was rescued from Knob Creek when he was seven by a childhood friend. But I use that incident to challenge young readers to think about how we learn about the past and to ask questions about what we know, what we can prove, and what we may never know.

Why do you write for children? What experiences have influenced your writing for young people?
I began writing for children as a practical matter — I had a full time job and a toddler and picture books seemed easier to tackle than a long novel. (They still are, years later!) But I soon realized that I would rather write for children than adults.

Please describe a few of the collaborations that you have developed because of your writing, either during the writing process or after the project is completed.
I’ve been very fortunate to meet some amazing and talented people in my writing career. I have worked with my editor, Anne Schwartz since she accepted my first picture book in 1991; she also edited my most recent book, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, which has received three starred reviews. I’ve been delighted to collaborate with editor Lisa Sandell on three books so far, and we will be working together on a new book on the Titanic.

I’ve also developed wonderful friendships with fellow writers and illustrators, including Deborah Wiles, Candy Fleming, Nancy Farmer, and James Ransome.

Share any experience you may have regarding audiobooks.
I love audiobooks. Often I will listen to a book commuting to and from my job. When I first moved to Oregon my family was still living in Eastern Washington, where my son, Dimitri, was finishing high school. I moved by myself to Oregon and commuted home for more than a year every weekend — five and a half hours each way. I listened to lots of wonderful books that year!

I have also listened to audiobooks with both my children, now young adults. And we still do. Favorite selections include The Eye, the Ear, and the Arm and The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer, Year of Wonders by Gwendolyn Brooks, all of Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana series, and The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw.

Describe yourself as a reader. What books influenced and inspired you as a child? As an adult?
I was the sort of kid who always had a novel in my desk in elementary school. (And I would sneak it out to read behind my big geography book.) I love both nonfiction and fiction. The hardest part of having a busy schedule is not having time to read.

By the time I was in middle school I was reading the classics; Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen remain my favorite authors. I don’t read a lot of adult fiction. I believe some of the best literature being written today in our country is for young people.

What role did libraries play in your childhood? What role do libraries play in your life now?
Libraries and librarians were extremely important to me as a child. I recall going in to see the school librarian before spring break each year and coming out with an armful of books to keep me going through the week. I went to the city library every Saturday too.

I am fortunate now to live in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area which has wonderful libraries. And I’m especially excited this year because I will be visiting libraries throughout the state as part of Oregon Reads, a statewide reading celebration in conjunction with Oregon’s 150th birthday. My picture book, Apples to Oregon, is the feature selection for young people.

What do you consider the challenges and rewards of being an author? Of being an author who visits schools and libraries?
Well, probably the greatest challenge of being an author is to earn a living to support a family. That’s one reason why I have always worked full time in addition to being an author. I work in the field of philanthropy, raising funds for colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations. My specialty is writing grants.

Having a full time job means I don’t get to visit as many schools and libraries as I would wish, but I am hoping to do more. The rewards are meeting children, parents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers who read. Sometimes authors don’t know about the impact of our books. I remember a bookstore visit a few years ago during which I signed a copy of Apples to Oregon for a girl of seven. Meanwhile, her two-year-old brother ran around us, calling out, “Apples Ho!” A fan!

What do you want children to come away with after reading one of your books?
I hope that children who read any of my historical fiction or nonfiction books come away wanting to know more. I think that historical fiction is a great jumping off point to dig deeper, read more widely, and learn.

Recently I have become increasingly interested in historical literacy. I think that developing critical thinking skills in looking at the past is important, because we can then use those same skills in looking at the present. Media literacy is essential to a democratic society. Moreover, young people today will have to make many decisions as citizens that require scientific literacy as well.

Please share a little about your current work.
Well, first of all, I am behind. Very behind!

Seriously, though, I am working on some exciting new projects, including a middle grade novel with lots of travel and geography ties, a picture book about World War I, and a picture book about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. I’m also tremendously excited about the new picture books I have coming out next year: Home on the Range, John A. Lomax and His Cowboy Songs; Keep On! The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole; and The Humblebee Hunter, a story about Charles Darwin.

At this point in your career, what has been your most memorable experience?
I have had so many wonderful experiences and the good fortune to have my work recognized. But I would have to say that visiting schools in rural areas are my most memorable experiences. I recall a small town in central Oregon where the library was just a small room, most of the children and families were economically disadvantaged. The hotel I stayed in had definitely seen better days. But somehow that librarian had managed to scrape together funds to bring an author to her school, and many parents attended my sessions.

It is a humbling feeling to go into communities like this, where you can see such a powerful commitment to children and belief in public education. I hope we don’t lose that.

In this world of instant communication and concerns about privacy, how does the Internet (if it does at all) affect you personally and as a writer?
Well, even though I have long used the Internet, lately I feel as though I can barely keep up — especially with the limited time I have to write in my daily life. Should I be writing books or keeping a blog? And exactly what is Twitter?

I am making an effort to do more on the Internet. Right now I am (slowly) revamping my website, and I am also starting two blogs: www.deborahhopkinson.blogspot.com and one especially for parents and kids: www.readwithyourkids.blogspot.com. I firmly believe parents should read with their kids as a lifelong habit — and not stop once kids are reading independently.

What are your goals and aspirations?
That’s easy: my goal is to be a full-time writer someday soon! Seriously, though, nothing would make me happier than to be able to spend all my energy on research, writing, and sharing stories with young readers.

What piece of advice has been the most valuable to you?
Someone once told me it is important not just to revise what you have written, but also to think about what’s missing. When I present in schools I always remind kids that revision actually means to “see again.” And while it’s painful, it’s often necessary to throw the whole story out and see it with new eyes.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of the ALSC Blog?
My books would not exist without the support of educators. And I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of the work of librarians and teachers to our society.

I am always amazed at the dedication I see when I visit schools across the country. There is something so special about walking into an elementary school, and feeling immediately that the people here have together created a nurturing, vibrant community for children. In most cases, the library is at the heart of this community. Thank you to everyone who works with children and young people for all you do.

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