Author Spotlight

Interview with Author Deborah Hopkinson

Author Deborah Hopkinson describes her research process in her latest book for young readers, DIVE! World War II Stories of Sailors & Submarines in the Pacific. She shares the tremendous impact librarians and libraries played in shaping her childhood experiences. I received a complimentary ARC of DIVE! in preparation for this blog interview.

How would you describe your latest book, DIVE! World War II Stories of Sailors & Submarines in the Pacific? Is this selection geared for elementary age children or older readers?  

(Image provided by Michele Kophs)
(Image provided by M. Kophs)

 DIVE! is a work of nonfiction which tells the story of the submarine war in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. It covers an aspect of WWII history that may be unfamiliar to young readers.

Like my other recent nonfiction books, Titanic: Voices from the Disaster and Courage & Defiance, DIVE! is probably best suited for readers in fourth and fifth grade and above. I think middle school students, and even high school students and adults might also enjoy reading about the submarine war in the Pacific. Having said that, I’ve met some avid military history buffs in third grade who will probably dive right in!

 DIVE! features visual materials, including photographs and timelines, to describe these events. What role do these elements play in sharing this story?

 I love visuals and believe they can truly help make history come alive. So many students are visual learners.

I have to admit that when I first began researching DIVE!, I was a bit afraid it might be a challenge to find black and white photographs of submarines compelling enough to interest kids. Boy, was I wrong: I love the photographs!

We included dramatic shots through periscopes, photos of sailors with their dog mascots, and pictures that show daily life on a boat. Also included is a map of the Pacific. All in all, the visuals in DIVE! help readers better imagine what it might have been like to be a submariner during wartime.

The timelines in DIVE! are handled somewhat differently than in my previous books. Instead of placing one timeline in the back of the book, timelines by year are placed at the end of chronological sections to help provide additional context. Our goal is to make a complex topic as accessible as possible.

 What was the most challenging aspect of writing DIVE! for a younger audience?

 One of the most challenging aspects was to try to condense complex military history into what is hopefully a page-turning narrative. There were many stories I could have told of other sailors and submarines, but I feel the ones featured help convey what it was like for the young men who went to war in the Silent Service. Another challenge was to convey the often salty, humorous voices of submariners in a manner appropriate for a younger audience.

 DIVE! consists of an extensive bibliography, links to resources, and source notes. Has the role of publishing documentation for children remained consistent throughout your career, or have you seen a shift in how nonfiction writers cite their resources for young people?

Documentation and source notes have always been important to me, ever since I published my first longer nonfiction work, Shutting out the Sky, Life in the Tenements of New York,1880-1924, in 2003. I spent much of my professional life working in universities as a grant writer, and so have always tried to follow academic standards of documentation.

My goal in DIVE! was a little different: I wanted to make the “back matter” as user-friendly as possible. To do that, we used the notion of a submarine to make it more fun. For instance, all the back matter, including the bibliography and source notes, etc., is included in what we have called the “After Section,” which plays on the aft section of a submarine.

Also, my amazing Scholastic editor Lisa Sandell and I tried to find ways to bring information into the text itself. In addition to breakouts, we included “Skipper’s Recommendations,” to encourage readers to “dive deeper” (excuse the pun) and become more familiar with how a nonfiction book is put together. The designer helped to make the book both accessible and dramatic.

Please describe your experience sharing nonfiction books with children in libraries.  

(Image provided by Elisa Johnston)
Deborah Hopkinson (Image provided by Elisa Johnston)

Whether I’m presenting in a library, school, or young authors’ conference, I almost always begin by asking children and teens what they’re reading for pleasure. It’s no surprise that fantasy usually tops the list. But you’d be surprised how many students say they love historical fiction and nonfiction too. At one recent school, when I asked sixth graders what had kept them up reading late, one boy answered, Field and Stream Magazine. Isn’t that great?

What I try to do is to convey my own passion for history and for the stories of real people in my books. For Courage & Defiance, about the Danish resistance in WWII, I show them a photograph of the needlepoint that activist Niels Skov did in prison, and tell how I was able to meet him when he was ninety-four. In my new book, I am excited to share stories such as the harrowing patrol of the Wahoo in Wewak Harbor, the evacuation of nurses from Corregidor, of how a small dog named Penny stowed away on a submarine. I love to use visuals in my presentations. I also lead writing workshops where young people imagine past lives by putting themselves in the shoes of a Titanic survivor and writing a letter describing the events of that disaster.

How has the experience of winning awards for your work, including a Sibert Honor and YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor for Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, impacted your writing process?

 It’s been such an honor and a thrill to have my work recognized. As far as the writing process itself, I have to admit that probably my harshest critics — and the ones I care most about — are young readers. And as I meet children and teens in schools, libraries, and at conferences, I am always measuring my work against their questions and interests.

I take it as a personal challenge to try to make history come alive through the stories and photographs I share from my books. And when I return to my desk, I’m always thinking of how to make the past intriguing and compelling for young readers.

How have libraries and reading shaped your experience as a child and also in your current career?

 I was a shy and awkward child and libraries and librarians saved my life! I spent so much time in school libraries, as well as in the public library in Lowell, Massachusetts, where I grew up. My love affair continued as an undergraduate and graduate student. Then I went on to work in higher education, helping to raise funds for libraries at the colleges and universities such as Whitman College and Oregon State University.

One of my favorite stories of how libraries affected my writing took place when I worked at Whitman, which is in Walla Walla, Washington. One day during my lunch hour, I went to the library to look for a book for a writing project. On the shelf nearby I caught sight of this title: Slavery in the Clover Bottoms: John McCline’s Narrative of His Life During Slavery and the Civil War. I was so intrigued I checked it out, and later wrote a short historical fiction Ready-to Read book based on McCline’s remarkable life, entitled From Slave to Soldier, which was illustrated by Brian Floca.

 How can children’s and teen librarians combat any preexisting stereotypes when promoting nonfiction materials?

 I’m sure the librarians reading this interview are far more skilled than I am at promoting nonfiction. But what I try to encourage when I do a family literacy event at a school or library is for parents and children to use nonfiction to explore the world together. And I think librarians can reinforce that with displays and through interactions with patrons.

I like to think of nonfiction as stepping stones across a river. You can start with just one thing: a nature documentary, an item in the newspaper, a novel, and your curiosity can lead you further, to learn more.

DIVE! is actually the perfect example of how one thing can lead to another. One day my husband brought home from our local public library here in West Linn, Oregon, the famous German U-Boat film, Das Boot. I think it was the three and a half hour version. Well, both my husband and son enjoyed it so much that we decided to watch all the submarine films we could find. Later, when I was proposing to my editor possible topics for three nonfiction books on WWII, I suggested submarines based on that experience.

What role should nonfiction play in children’s libraries? How can youth services librarians encourage those involved with children’s literature to explore nonfiction works?

 Nonfiction is more essential than ever! We live in a world where the ability to read and think critically, digest facts, and evaluate texts and visual messages is absolutely crucial to a functioning democracy.

Luckily, there has never been a better time to promote nonfiction. There are so many wonderful authors and illustrators working in this field, creating works from picture books to sophisticated young adult nonfiction on a wide variety of topics.

As I mentioned earlier, linking nonfiction to films, novels, magazines, the Internet, and other media is a key promotion strategy. There are links to virtual submarine tours, oral history interviews, and online museum websites to help expand the reading experience in DIVE!

What new projects are you working on at this time?

 I’m just finishing work on an entry in an anthology that’s the earliest time period I’ve ever tackled. The project is called Fatal Throne, and it’s a compilation of the story of Henry VIII and his wives. It’s historical fiction, not nonfiction, which makes it especially fun.

I’m also in the midst of writing my third nonfiction WWII book, on D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, which will come out in 2018.

Thank you to author Deborah Hopkinson for explaining the writing process for DIVE! and for sharing how libraries and librarians have influenced her writing!



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