Interview with author Deborah Hopkinson

Today I’m thrilled to welcome back author Deborah Hopkinson. I interviewed Deborah here previously in a more general sense, but this time I’d like to talk specifics about her latest book, KNIT YOUR BIT, coming from Putnam Juvenile on February 21, 2013.

KNIT YOUR BIT is a fictionalized account of the real “Knit-In” event at Central Park in 1918. Despite being fiction, it was heavily researched to get the historical details right, and readers can learn a lot about the time, World War I, and the people who lived then.

Please help me welcome back Deborah!


LT: Hi, Deborah. It’s great to have you back. I love KNIT YOUR BIT and how it melds a fictional story with a nonfiction event. How did you first become interested in writing about this topic? Where did the seed of the story come from?

DH: The seed of this story actually dates back some years, to my first professional job.  After graduate school I stumbled into a career in fundraising, which I have pursued ever since, in addition to being a writer.  My first position was Staff Writer for the American Red Cross in Honolulu.

DH: As part of a history celebration, I wrote some articles for the organization’s newsletter and stumbled upon one of firemen knitting in World War I.  I loved that image.  As a writer interested in history, I collect books on a wide variety of topics.  At some point, thinking about the upcoming anniversary of WWI, I remembered that photo and began reading about the history of knitting.  Eventually, in Anne L. Macdonald’s NO IDLE HANDS, THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF AMERICAN KNITTING, I found a reference to the 1918 Central Park Knitting Bee, and that’s where the story began.

LT: What kind of reader do you think this book will appeal to?

DH: I think that my editor, Shauna Rossano, and the illustrator, Steven Guanaccia, have done wonders to make this story appealing to young readers. I hope people who love crafts and knitting will be interested.  I know that I often sign copies of my picture book, SWEET CLARA AND THE FREEDOM QUILT, which are being given as gifts to adults.  I hope folks will give KNIT YOUR BIT to friends (women and men, as well as boys and girls) who knit.

LT: What was your research process like for this book?

DH: Like many of my picture books, KNIT YOUR BIT is historical fiction inspired by real people or events, and includes an author’s note about knitting for soldiers during World War I.

DH: The New York Times published an article on the knitting bee back in 1918, and some of the details of the prizes awarded are pulled directly from that piece.  I also researched and got permission for the historic photos on the endpapers, which include one of sheep grazing during World War I on the White House lawn.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to track down permissions for the Makiki fire station photograph, but I have added to my Pinterest Board for KNIT YOUR BIT:

Knit Your Bit cover
KNIT YOUR BIT by Deborah Hopkinson

LT: What was your favorite part of the book to research and/or write?   What was the hardest part of the research and/or writing for you? How did you deal with that?

DH: I actually love doing research of any kind.  The hardest part is not having enough time, or not being able to travel to do research on-site.  For KNIT YOUR BIT, the fact that I couldn’t actually find any first-person accounts of children who participated in the knitting bee meant that I felt the story, although based on real events, needed to be historical fiction to be appealing to readers. I always tell kids that when authors put words in character’s mouths the story becomes fiction.

LT: How have your research and writing processes evolved over the course of your career?

DH: I think my processes have improved over the years.  I’m writing a nonfiction book now on World War II, and I’m being careful to cite each source meticulously as I go along.

DH: This is something I learned the hard way, especially with longer nonfiction.  The vetting and research process for my 2012 book, TITANIC, VOICES FROM THE DISASTER (a YALSA Nonfiction Award finalist) was incredibly detailed and time-consuming, because of the wealth of information and the sheer complexity of the story.  So even though it might be tedious, I have learned to take my time and carefully track information and sources. It definitely saves time later!


LT: I think every book teaches us something new, about the world, about ourselves, or about the craft of writing. What have you learned as a result of writing this book?

DH: I tend to write for older readers, especially since both my kids are now in their twenties.  I like to do author visits and talk with first and second graders and imagine how the book will sound if I’m sharing it with them.  That was especially helpful in paring down this story to be as kid-friendly as possible.

LT: Besides promoting your new book, what are you working on now?

DH: Right now, I’m finishing the proofreading for my fall middle grade novel, THE GREAT TROUBLE, A MYSTERY OF LONDON, THE BLUE DEATH, AND A BOY CALLED EEL.  I’m very excited about it because 2013 is the bicentennial of the birth of Dr. John Snow, whose work in the 1854 cholera epidemic changed medical history.  With the recent outbreaks of cholera in Haiti, this topic is especially relevant today.

LT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about?

DH: I have several knitter friends who helped with this book, including Robin Smith, who knits hats for premature babies with her second graders.

DH: I, on the other hand, am an extremely poor knitter and I’m not very good at hats – or socks.   I knit scarves for relaxation only, and only dare give my handiwork to people who don’t knit at all. I am lucky enough to live near Portland, Oregon, where there are many wonderful yarn stores and enthusiastic knitters.

DH: I’m also delighted that the tradition of knitting for soldiers continues today. I hope that KNIT YOUR BIT inspires readers to learn a new skill or share one with others.

LT: Thanks so much for sharing with us, Deborah. And best of luck with KNIT YOUR BIT!

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Introducing Loralee Leavitt and CANDY EXPERIMENTS

Today I’m thrilled to introduce a longtime friend of mine and fellow nonfiction writer,  Loralee Leavitt.  I first met Loralee many years ago through an online critique group put together by SCBWI Western Washington. We were an assorted mix of beginning writers, writing everything from picture books to novels, both fiction and nonfiction. The group eventually dissolved, but Loralee and I still run into one another from time to time at in-person SCBWI events, and we always enjoy keeping up with one another’s careers. Now, I couldn’t be more excited to help Loralee launch her exciting new book, CANDY EXPERIMENTS!

Candy Experiments by Loralee Leavitt
Andrews McMeel Publishing
January 1, 2013
160 pages

LT: Welcome, Loralee, and congratulations! How did you get started with science experiments using candy? What was your inspiration?
LL: It actually started with my four-year-old daughter, who one day after Halloween asked to put her Nerds in water. The next time she asked, I realized it was a chance to get rid of all the Halloween candy I hadn’t wanted my children to eat. We covered the table in bowls of water and started throwing in candy to see what would happen. Soon we discovered crazy things, like the floating M&M m’s or lollipop sticks that unrolled when they were wet.

LT: How did you get from that initial inspiration to developing the actual experiments in the book?
LL: When we started doing candy experiments, I saw that we could teach real science with them, and drew from my own science background to create experiments. I also asked other experts for ideas, and read books like The Science of Sugar Confectionery, in which I learned things that led to new experiments. Other experiments came straight from what my children were trying: for instance, my son’s attempts to sink a marshmallow by jamming M&Ms into it became one of my density lessons.

LT: How much time did you spend researching overall, and how long did it take to write the book?
LL: I spent about two years developing and researching experiments and writing rough drafts. (This was an on-and-off process, since I was also very busy raising children.) After I found my publisher, I had about five more months to finish writing and researching, check my science, and take photos.

LT: The design of the book, the photos and layout, is gorgeous. Did you supply the photos, too? Can you tell us about that process?
LL: After the publisher saw the photos I’d taken for my website and magazine articles, they decided I’d be able to provide photos for the book. Luckily my husband is an excellent photographer, and was able both to take some photos and teach me what I needed to know. I’m also grateful to a friend of mine who brought a professional photographer to my home to give me some tips, such as using a roll of white paper to create a smooth background.

LL: To take most of the photos, I set everything up on my kitchen table by a north-facing window, and set the camera on a tripod so I could take long exposures for good lighting. Other photos were more challenging, like microwaving a marshmallow on a paper background and opening the microwave fast enough to snap a photo before the marshmallow collapsed. I assigned one of the hardest photos to my parents: a series of pictures of a Mentos/Diet Coke geyser, which they took in a floodit backyard one dark summer night.

LT: Fun! During your research, did anything surprise you, catch you off guard, or make you change your planned course for the book?
LL: The book is full of experiments that surprised us, many of them coming from things we tried that had crazy results. I had no idea when I put gummi worms in water that they’d absorb enough water to double in length, or that opaque Smarties would melt into clear puddles, or that conversation hearts would bob up and down in soda.

LT: What was the hardest part of the research and/or writing for you? How did you deal with that?
LL: One of the hardest parts was finding answers to really weird questions. For instance, I asked several experts why, when I dropped M&M’s into water and they dissolved, the resulting pools of color didn’t mix together on their own. At last I found a similar experiment on the ACS website and contacted them to see if they could provide me with a good explanation. And they did.

LT: What kind of reader do you think CANDY EXPERIMENTS will appeal to?
LL: I targeted the book at 7- to 10-year-olds, but older and younger people should enjoy it as well. Even adults love learning that the m’s from M&Ms float in water.

LT: I think every book teaches us something new: about the world, about ourselves, or about the craft of writing. What have you learned as a result of writing this book? What surprised you the most during the process?
LL: I loved learning about the ingredients and science of candy. For instance, I learned that taffy pulling is what makes taffy soft by incorporating air bubbles–without the air bubbles, the taffy would be as hard as lollipops.

LL: I also had to think hard about what made these experiments so interesting to me, and try to share my amazement with my readers.

LT: I love that answer! I’ve found that focusing on what makes the subject so interesting to me is the key to my successful nonfiction writing as well. And it’s not nearly as easy to do as it sounds! Are there any other tips you would like to share with aspiring children’s book writers, especially those writing nonfiction for kids?
LL: Write about what you love. For me, writing about the science of candy captured my sense of childlike discovery/explored things I’d loved since I was a child: science, writing, candy, and family. I was excited to share my discoveries with others. Also, I spent so much time on this book that I couldn’t have stuck with it if I wasn’t really interested.

LT: That’s definitely good advice. What are you working on now?
LL: Right now, I’m mostly working on publicity for my book, arranging reviews, guest blog posts, and book signings. I’m finishing up an ebook about car trips for, since everybody always asks me how we manage our kids on long driving trips. I’m collecting more candy ideas in case I get the opportunity to do another book, and I have a historical novel that I’d like to polish up and submit.

LT: Good luck with those! What would you most like people to know about you?
LL: When I became a mother, I worried that I’d have to put my writing aside. Little did I know that my kids would lead me to my big break! I’m so thankful for the way that my family, my love for science, and my love of writing have combined to make this project a success.

LT: It is a great story, and a good reminder to just go with the flow sometimes. Thanks so much for stopping by, Loralee, and much success with your fantastic new book!

Loralee Leavitt destroys candy for the sake of science at Her new book, CANDY EXPERIMENTS, contains dozens of amazing experiments including creating giant gummi worms, turning M&Ms into comets, and growing candy crystals. 

Facts First! Nonfiction Monday

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Cybils nonfiction picture book roundup #2

My fellow judges and I are still hard at work trying to finalize our round one shortlist for the Cybils nonfiction picture book category. It’s a difficult task because there are so many great books this year! Here are some reviews of some of my personal favorites (Note: I had many, MANY favorites this year). I enjoyed and would recommend all of these.


LITTLE DOG LOST : THE TRUE STORY OF A BRAVE DOG NAMED BALTIC by Mônica Carnesi (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin)

This is the true story of a nameless dog seen floating on a piece of ice down a river in Poland. Initial attempts to save the dog fail, and he is washed out to sea. Fortunately, the crew onboard a research vessel sees him and finally succeeds in rescuing the dog and nursing him back to health. The story is told in simple but engaging text with delightful illustrations. I think kids and dog lovers of all ages will love this book. I know I did!


NORTH : THE AMAZING STORY OF ARCTIC MIGRATION by Nick Dowson, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick)

This beautiful book is firmly on my list of all-time favorite nonfiction picture books. Rather than talk about why animals migrate south for the winter, this book looks at the flip side: why and how they come back from all over the world to live in the Arctic the rest of year. It presents a wide variety of animals, including many different kinds of land mammals, birds, whales, and fish. The artwork is stunning, the text is both factual and lyrical, and the layout maximizes the effect on each on every page. This is about as perfect a nature book as I could imagine. Highly recommended!



This is another beautiful book by Candlewick. What I enjoyed most about this book is that the love the author has for his subject comes through on every page, in both the text and the illustrations. Even if you’re not a big baseball fan (which, admittedly, I’m not), there is still a lot to love about this book, especially Ted Williams’ admirable perseverance and dedication to his sport. The author’s note explains that Williams wasn’t perfect, which makes him even more human. There’s also a bibliography and, for true baseball fans, a detailed table of Williams’ career stats.


EGGS 1, 2, 3: WHO WILL THE BABIES BE? by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Betsy Thompson (Blue Apple)

I thought this was one of the stand-out books for younger kids, teaching number recognition and counting as well as introducing a variety of different animals that hatch from eggs and what those eggs look like. The text is appropriately simple but descriptive and interesting, with the repeated question, “Who will the babies be?” and a fold-out page providing the answer for each number 1-10. The collage artwork gives the pages a rich, three-dimensional look and adds tons of visual interest. My only complaint with this book is that I don’t think the numbers match how many eggs the animals might really have (nine frog eggs, for example), so it’s a bit misleading in that regard, but it does such a wonderful job of achieving its other goals that I’m willing to let that detail slide.


A LEAF CAN BE… by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Violeta Dabija (Millbrook/Lerner)

This is a deceptively simple, but really quite ingenious, rhyming poem about all of the different things a leaf can do or be used for throughout the year. The glowing illustrations provide the perfect accompaniment as well as an explanation of each line of the poem, plus there’s a section at the end of the book with even more details. I think young kids will love this book and it will open their eyes to a whole new appreciation of the nature all around them. Well done!


Disclaimer: All of these books were obtained from my amazing local public library system. 

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Revisions, and revisions, and revisions, and…

Today I’m over at Emu’s Debuts spilling the beans on my revision experiences for my first picture book, to be published by Schwartz & Wade/Random House, Spring 2015. Head on over and check it out!

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2012 Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book report #1

Phew! Now that I got my revision done and sent in, I can get back to reading Cybils nominees in the nonfiction picture book category that I am judging. Last year I wrote up longer reviews of only a few of the Cybils nominees. This year I’m going to try to write many more, but shorter, reviews. Rather than offer comprehensive reviews, the goal will be to capture my initial impressions and thoughts. So, here comes the first batch!


BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin)

This is a wonderful book that should appeal to all kinds of kids, across a wide age range, and with many different interests. The artwork is stunning. The story of Tony Sarg and the beginnings of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade puppets is one that needed to be told, and this book tells it artfully, illustrating the man’s creativity as well as hard work and dedication. Entertaining, inspiring, and educational—all rolled into one beautiful package.


BROTHERS AT BAT by Audrey Vernick (Clarion)

This is the true story of the Acerra family and their 12-member all-brother baseball team. Baseball fans especially will love this heartfelt telling of the family’s travails and triumphs, both on the field and off, but the expertly told family story offers something for everyone. The text and art work together beautifully to bring the historical period to life.


A PLACE FOR BATS by Melissa Stewart (Peachtree)

Okay, I have to admit that I have a bit of a bat phobia. On a rational level, I know they’re helpful and I’m glad they’re out there, but I really don’t like having to think about them. Stewart does an excellent job of raising awareness about the importance of bats as well as offering ways people can help them thrive. The fascinating illustrations are realistic and not “cute-ified,” which did make me squirm a little, but Stewart’s text compensates by creating sympathy for the creatures. Even as an adult reader, I learned a lot about bats. This book would make a good science read-aloud for preschool and early elementary grades. And maybe those kids won’t develop an irrational bat phobia like mine!


ANNIE AND HELEN by Deborah Hopkinson (Schwartz and Wade)

I love Deborah Hopkinson’s work, and the story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, has always fascinated me, so I was excited to see this one in the nomination list. It didn’t disappoint. Told sparingly and through primary sources, it focuses on the early relationship between the two women and on Sullivan’s struggles to break through Keller’s barriers. The art adds a beautiful, historical feel to the text, and the book ends on a triumphant note with Keller’s first written letter home.


BON APPETIT! by Jessie Hartland (Schwartz and Wade)

This is a delicious biography of Julia Child! Although a tad overwhelming and busy at first glance, the art and text quickly draw readers in and hook them, and reading it becomes a rewarding adventure. Hartland uses energy, humor, and compassion to follow Child’s life story from childhood on in a style that mimics her personality and how she lived her life. Jam-packed with facts and entertaining details, this longer picture book with fascinate older picture-book readers.

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It’s time to get busy

I’ve been working like crazy lately on a revision for the editor of my first book. I’m simultaneously blown by away by how much work she’s asking me to do AND by how much better it’s going to make the book. Most of her comments feel so utterly, obviously right–AFTER I’ve read them–that I’m left wondering why I didn’t think of them myself.  (I’m also left wondering why she ever bought the book in the first place, but in that way lies madness, so let’s not go there, okay?) I thought I had given everything I had to this book, thought there was nothing more I could do, but now I realize how lazy I’d actually been. A few days ago, Mitali Perkins wrote about being grateful for traditional editors. I couldn’t agree more. The process is not only making a better book, but making a better writer. That’s not to say there hasn’t been some gnashing of teeth, banging of head on desk, and wine and chocolate binges, of course. And I’ll be over-the-moon happy when I think I’m finally done. But it’s getting there. I think I can see what it might one day be, and it sure feels good.

Cybils 2012 logo

As soon as I wrap up the big revision I’m looking forward to fully jumping into two more exciting activities! First, I’m thrilled to be judging the Non-Fiction Picture Books category of the Cybils again this year. We have just over 100 nominations to read. I’ve had a slow start given the revision, but hope to be picking up steam soon. I’m maxing out my check-out limit at the library and building huge stacks of beautiful books to indulge in. What could be better?


And, I’m also attempting to do agency-sister Tara Lazar‘s Picture Book Idea Month (or PiBoIdMo). The goal is 30 picture-book ideas in the 30 days of November. I had a great big bunch of them right before the challenge officially started, and today, on the first official day, I had two more (and I even fully drafted out one of them–WOOT!). This is a fun challenge with a ton of support and camaraderie for all levels, and I can’t wait to see what else comes out of it.

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The Call

In case you missed it, I made my debut post over on the Emu’s Debuts blog earlier this week! Emu’s Debuts is a group blog maintained by debut authors represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency (get it? E. Mu.?) We blog about that nebulous, murky area between an author’s first book offer to the publication of that debut book: Contracts! Revisions! Reviews! Oh my! It may seem like it’s easy once you’ve signed on the dotted line, but it’s a whole new set of problems, anxieties, and rewards.

Anyway, it’s tradition on Emu’s Debuts for the introduction post to be about “the Call.” So, please click here to read how my first book deal came to be.

Have you gotten “the Call” yet? If so, what was it like for you? If not, what do you imagine it will be like when it finally happens? Let me know in the comments!

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Book launch for Kim Baker’s PICKLE!

Every book launch party I’ve ever been to has been a ton of fun. If that’s not enough reason to go to as many as you can, how about just just supporting our local authors and illustrators? You want them to come out and support you on your big day, don’t you? If you didn’t make it to Kim Baker’s PICKLE launch party at Secret Garden Books last week, here’s just a taste of what you missed:

There was food!

table full of food
Can you spot all of the pranks here?


There were friends!

crowded bookstore
How many faces of SCBWI do you recognize here?


There were prizes!

Kim holding prizes
I believe those are the broken-glass stickers and the trick pencils. Later, I won an exploding can of snakes!


There were books!

Kim even read a scene from PICKLE to us.
(I think I snorted out loud.)


There were even pickles!

Wait a minute, I don’t think those are really pickles.


But don’t worry, if you didn’t make it to this book launch, there will be another one coming soon to a bookstore near you. Make sure you get out there and see what all the fun is about! And if you still need to pick up a PICKLE, you can always click here:

 Shop Indie Bookstores

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Signed, sealed, delivered… S&W, I’m yours!

A few days ago I signed  (with my super-fancy pen–thanks Joni Sensel!) the official contract for my first book, to be published by Schwartz & Wade at Random House, and dropped it in the mailbox. Woohoo! What a fantastic feeling.

signing the contract

Armed with the Authors Guild’s Model Trade Book Contract & Guide, I sat down to pick my way through the legalese if only to know that I had done my due diligence. Thanks to my super-awesome agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, and the equally awesome Erin Murphy, there really wasn’t anything left for me to negotiate, although Joan did read and reply to a rather long list of probably mostly stupid questions from me. The reasons why I’m absolutely thrilled and relieved to have these wonderful people on my side just keep mounting.

There was only minor sticking point: what to call MYSELF! I know, that doesn’t sound very hard, does it? Well, it was for me. There are just too many of us Laurie Thompsons in the world. How could I stand out and be unique, without confusing the issue one way or the other? Well, after running in circles for a few days, we (yes, I even made poor Joan weigh in on this one) went for adding my middle name, Ann, to the mix. Laurie Ann Thompson. Exciting, huh? I know, it really shouldn’t have been that hard. Oy.

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My first studio recording

My lovely and talented friend Tina Hoggatt recently put out a call for participants for an art projects she is working on called Story Chairs. Basically, there are these super cool-looking chairs that she helped design that have speakers in the wings and automatically play stories when you sit in them. I submitted one of my own stories, Invasive Species, and she took it! So, last week I had the experience of reading it and being recorded and edited on-the-spot at Jack Straw Productions. Wow! How cool is that?

Laurie giving thumbs up at the studio recording
Here I am giving a thumbs up that we’re ready to go. The amazing Mo is at the controls.

I also has the great honor of reading a deeply moving true story by another friend and agency sister, Audrey Vernick. I’d just met Audrey for the first time a few weeks earlier at the EMLA client retreat in Port Ludlow, so it was especially poignant for me to read her beautiful, heartfelt work. I hope I did it justice!

Here’s me reading inside the studio.

Thank you Tina and Audrey for one fun and very memorable day!


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