Review: A Bandit’s Tale by Deborah Hopkinson

Today, I’m thrilled to be par­tic­i­pat­ing in anoth­er blog tour for Deb­o­rah Hop­kin­son! This time, the award-win­ning mas­ter of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion for chil­dren takes read­ers back to nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry New York City in her new mid­dle-grade nov­el: A BANDIT’S TALE: THE MUDDLED MISADVENTURES OF A PICKPOCKET (Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Read­ers | on sale April 5, 2016 | Ages 8–12 | $16.99). Here’s the pub­lish­er’s descrip­tion of this sto­ry of sur­vival, crime, adven­ture, and horses:

Here are a few words from oth­er reviewers:

“A strong choice for those who enjoy adven­tures about scrap­py and resource­ful kids.”
School Library Jour­nal, Starred Review
“A dynam­ic his­tor­i­cal nov­el ide­al for both class­room stud­ies and plea­sure reading.”
Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, Starred Review

And here are a few more from me:
I am a diehard ani­mal lover, so when I found out that the founder of the ASPCA, Hen­ry Bergh, appears as a char­ac­ter in this nov­el and that part of the plot is about help­ing the street hors­es in NYC, I knew I had to read it! What I found was so much more. It turns out there were sev­er­al oth­er things I loved about this nov­el, too:

  1. It’s an inter­est­ing set­ting, late 1800s New York City, that I had­n’t real­ly thought about much before. The nov­el immers­es read­ers in this world and brings it to life on a very human lev­el. I love when his­tor­i­cal fic­tion does that!
  2. There’s a secret! I won’t give away any spoil­ers, but there’s an inci­dent at the begin­ning of the book that isn’t ful­ly explained or under­stood by the read­er until much lat­er, but it sure keeps you wondering.
  3. I love the voice. The book is writ­ten in first-per­son from Roc­co’s some­what irrev­er­ent point of view, some­times address­ing the read­er direct­ly. Roc­co thinks and sounds like a com­plete­ly believ­able 11- to 12-year-old. He is naive and imma­ture but good-heart­ed and try­ing to cope as best he can with a chal­leng­ing and com­plex world. I espe­cial­ly appre­ci­at­ed how with age and expe­ri­ence he is able to look back on pre­vi­ous events and see them differently.
  4. Okay, as much as enjoyed the set­ting, plot, and char­ac­ter of the nov­el, what tru­ly blew me away was the back­mat­ter. (I love fic­tion, but I guess I’m a non­fic­tion girl at heart!) There’s a map; an expla­na­tion of what a picaresque nov­el is; notes about the set­ting, times, and peo­ple; a glos­sary of terms used by the thieves; a guide for fur­ther read­ing; and source notes. Many real peo­ple are ref­er­enced in the nov­el, and Hop­kin­son takes great care to explain exact­ly what is true and what she made up for the sake of the sto­ry. I think read­ers and writ­ers alike will find it inter­est­ing to see how the fic­tion and facts can inter­twine and overlap.
  5. Adding to all of this were the pho­tos! Being able to see authen­tic vin­tage pho­tos from the actu­al time and place of the nov­el real­ly added to the intel­lec­tu­al under­stand­ing as well as the emo­tion­al impact of the fic­tion­al scenes.

5B7C832B-F02E-4045-A0AD-C26D55DC4289All in all, this book earns A Ban­dit’s Tale two thumbs up from this read­er! I would high­ly rec­om­mend hand­ing it to any­one who enjoys his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, ani­mal lovers, adven­ture lovers, ruf­fi­ans and rogues, and, yes, even read­ers who tend to pre­fer non­fic­tion his­to­ry and/or biography.
Thank you to Deb­o­rah Hop­kin­son and Michele Kophs at Prova­to Events for the plea­sure of read­ing this advance read­er’s copy!
For oth­er stops on the Ban­dit Blog Tour please check and watch for the hash­tag, #Ban­dit­Blog­Tour.

Alchemy and Karen Cushman!

Oh, this is so much fun! Not only is there a brand-new book out from one of my all-time favorite authors, but I got to read an ear­ly copy (squeee!) and inter­view the author for my blog (huz­zah)!

First, let me gush a lit­tle about how much I enjoyed read­ing Alche­my and Meg­gy Swann. There’s an awful lot for read­ers of any age to love in this lit­tle book: from the open­ing scene where we start right in with action and a bit of a mys­tery, to the feisty but kind-heart­ed hero­ine, to the his­tor­i­cal rich­ness, to the won­der­ful array of cre­ative insults. It’s tru­ly got some­thing for every­one. If you’re not already a fan of Karen Cush­man, this book will sure­ly trans­form you into one. And now, let’s meet the alchemist herself—welcome, Karen!

LT: First, I love the par­al­lels between the father’s search for alchem­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion and Meggy’s per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion. What made you start think­ing about alche­my as a book sub­ject, and was the par­al­lel planned from the outset?
KC: I found alche­my an intrigu­ing idea but did­n’t real­ly have an idea about how I’d use it in a book until I thought more about trans­for­ma­tion, about that very par­al­lel between alchem­i­cal and per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion.  I love how the ides of change works for both and how trans­for­ma­tion may not hap­pen exact­ly as they want­ed or expected.


LT: I think you real­ly gave us an accu­rate por­tray­al at what it’s like to feel dif­fer­ent and/or unwant­ed and the mis­guid­ed but all-too-com­mon defense mech­a­nism of push­ing peo­ple away before they can reject us, and it is these under­stand­able flaws that make Meg­gy such an inter­est­ing and uni­ver­sal­ly appeal­ing char­ac­ter. Did you know you were shoot­ing for that at the start, or did those aspects of char­ac­ter evolve nat­u­ral­ly as you wrote the story?
KC: Meg­gy start­ed out much sweet­er and more com­pli­ant but as I under­stood more about her and her strug­gles, I real­ized she prob­a­bly would not have respond­ed or act­ed in such under­stand­ing ways.  So, yes, those aspects of char­ac­ter evolved as I wrote the story.


LT: I find it fair­ly dif­fi­cult (but extreme­ly enter­tain­ing) to pic­ture you hurl­ing insults at any­one, but Meg­gy seems to have no trou­ble what­so­ev­er. How exact­ly did you come up with Meggy’s many inven­tive invectives?
KC: I found an invalu­able lit­tle book called Shake­speare’s Insults and bor­rowed some of those.  And there is a web­site called the Shake­speare­an Insult Kit ( that allowed me to come up with intrigu­ing com­bi­na­tions.  It was great fun.


LT: I can tell you did a ton of research for this book. Do you think you’ll reuse any of it in future sto­ries? Will we see Meg­gy again? (I need to see her reunit­ed with her goose!)
KC: I had­n’t planned on a Meg­gy sequel but young read­ers have said they like the idea.  First I’d have to fin­ish a new book, Will Spar­row’s Road, where I will use a lot of what I learned about Eliz­a­bethan England.


LT: How about non­fic­tion? I’m a pri­mar­i­ly non­fic­tion writer who dab­bles in research-based fic­tion when some­thing I’m research­ing gets my imag­i­na­tion going. Have you ever or do you think you will ever dab­ble in non­fic­tion? You’ve cer­tain­ly got the research part down!
KC: So far it’s the “what if?” of sto­ries that has my atten­tion.  I love sit­ting in my chair and mak­ing things up.  But I dab­ble in non­fic­tion when I write my author’s notes.  The notes for Meg­gy Swann were espe­cial­ly fun to do.


LT: I love that you “like to write about gut­sy girls fig­ur­ing out who they are,” and I love gut­sy girls, even if some of us don’t get gut­sy or fig­ure out who we are until we’re actu­al­ly mid­dle-aged women (who, me?). Which real-life gut­sy girls (and women) have inspired you most?
KC: Some of my female heroes are Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House, the anthro­pol­o­gist Mar­garet Mead, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, and genius illus­tra­tor Tri­na Schart Hyman—all gut­sy girls.


LT: I’ve always said that I’ll feel like a suc­cess­ful writer when I receive one let­ter from a read­er say­ing that my book helped them in some way, and you’ve said that con­nect­ing with read­ers is what makes you feel proud­est of your work. What’s the best let­ter you’ve ever received from a reader?
KC: I got a won­der­ful let­ter that said, “I nev­er read one of your books but now that you’ve come to my school, I am con­sid­er­ing try­ing to read one.”  But I trea­sure the ones that say “I nev­er thought about that before but…” or “Since I read your book, I know there are oth­er peo­ple who feel like I do.”


LT: Alche­my and Meg­gy Swann, even more so than your oth­er books, I think, is a short­er book with more dif­fi­cult lan­guage. Was there ever any ques­tion, from you or your pub­lish­er, about audi­ence, age, and/or read­ing ability?
KC: No, I think Dinah, my edi­tor, thinks as I do that we should give young peo­ple more cred­it for their under­stand­ing. And I tried to use words that could be under­stood through con­text or ono­matopoeia.  It was great fun search­ing the­saurus­es and the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary.


LT: I love that answer and com­plete­ly share the belief that we should chal­lenge and believe in chil­dren rather than sell them short. Since you men­tioned Dinah, can you tell us what it’s like to work with the leg­endary Dinah Steven­son?
KC: Leg­endary?  Is Dinah old enough to be leg­endary?  I was assigned to work with Dinah when Clar­i­on bought my first book–an amaz­ing stroke of luck.  Dinah is a great edi­tor, intel­li­gent, insight­ful, and not at all pushy, and she makes my work much bet­ter and rich­er than it would be with­out her.  That does­n’t mean I don’t snarl and throw things when I get one of her famous 17-page edi­to­r­i­al let­ters, and I don’t fol­low every sug­ges­tion she makes but I do think about them care­ful­ly.  And she always reminds me it’s my book and I should write it my way.


LT: Age has noth­ing to do with it—only the esteem she’s earned with­in the indus­try! You’ve been very loy­al to Dinah and to Clar­i­on over the years (and I must admit that Clar­i­on is one of my dream pub­lish­ers!). They’re inter­est­ing because they’re a rather small imprint with a small list, but owned by a huge con­glom­er­ate. How do think this has helped or hurt you?
KC: I think Clar­i­on’s small size has meant there’s a small­er list and few­er oth­er authors.  I can have a per­son­al rela­tion­ship with every­one on the staff and feel they know me.  I like that.  And I’m sure the sup­port Clar­i­on gets from Houghton Mif­flin Har­court ben­e­fits me in ways I don’t even know.  So far I have felt no drawbacks.


LT: Final­ly, any advice for up-and-com­ing wanna-be’s?
KC: I tell most women who come to me for advice that they prob­a­bly are just too young yetI was fifty, after all, before I start­ed writ­ing.  Beyond that I rec­om­mend what most writ­ers dolots of read­ing, much writ­ing, cri­tique groups, and sup­port groups of like-mind­ed folks like the SCBWI.


LT: Phew, that’s good to knowI’ve got a few more years yet. What a relief! Thanks so much, Karen. As always, it was won­der­ful to talk with you, made even more so by hav­ing such a delight­ful book to discuss. 



** Dis­claimer: I received a free advance review copy of this book from the publisher.

Interview with Deborah Hopkinson

I became a fan of Deb­o­rah Hop­kin­son in 2007, when I start­ed Anas­ta­sia Suen’s Easy Read­ers and Chap­ter Books course. For the first assign­ment, we had to read five chap­ter books then choose one to ana­lyze. I chose PIONEER SUMMER because it was my favorite. Years lat­er, when I became co-region­al advi­sor for SCBWI West­ern Wash­ing­ton, I knew I had to bring Deb­o­rah up to talk to us. I’m thrilled that she’ll be com­ing to our con­fer­ence this April, and that I’ll final­ly get to meet her in per­son! I’m going to try not to go all fan-girl on her, but you nev­er know. 
I thought I’d take this oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask her a few ques­tions that have been on my mind and share them with you, so we can all get to know her a lit­tle better…

L: From oth­er sources I found online, it sounds like you start­ed writ­ing for chil­dren when your own chil­dren were young, just like I did. Is that right? Did you always know you want­ed to be a writer? Tell us how you got started.
D: I want­ed to be a writer from the time I was in the fourth grade, but it wasn’t until my daugh­ter, Rebekah, was born that I real­ized I want­ed to write for chil­dren.  As a young moth­er with a full time job, pic­ture books seemed short enough to be doable with my busy sched­ule. It took me about two years to sell my first mag­a­zine sto­ry, and anoth­er cou­ple of years to sell my first pic­ture book.

L: When­ev­er I’m not writ­ing, I feel like I should be, but when­ev­er I am writ­ing, I feel­ing like I’m tak­ing valu­able time away from oth­er things. What tricks have you learned for find­ing a bal­ance between your own cre­ative pur­suits and the demands of keep­ing up with the indus­try, work­ing full time, tak­ing care of your home and fam­i­ly, etc.? 
D: Well, I don’t lis­ten to or wor­ry about peo­ple who have firm guide­lines about how one must write every day.  But I once read a great arti­cle where the author rec­om­mend­ed two kinds of writ­ing goals: out­put and process.  I use a com­bi­na­tion of those strate­gies to bal­ance my life.  Out­put goals might be expressed as: “I am going to sub­mit a man­u­script this month.”  And then you do what­ev­er it takes to meet that dead­line.  Process goals are: “I am going to write for three hours every week­end.”  It also just works to put your ener­gies in the direc­tion you want to go as much as you can.

L: Many of your books are his­tor­i­cal and obvi­ous­ly heav­i­ly researched, yet they end up in the fic­tion sec­tion. How and when do you decide when to go straight non­fic­tion ver­sus when to fictionalize? 
D: Whether a book is his­tor­i­cal fic­tion or non­fic­tion often is deter­mined by how the sto­ry is pro­gress­ing, I think.  Many times the demands of a dra­mat­ic arc make it a bit dif­fi­cult to tell a com­pelling sto­ry for young read­ers in a non­fic­tion format. 

L: What do you think about the cur­rent state of the pic­ture book indus­try?
D: Well, I am not sure I know enough to be an expert on that!  I feel for­tu­nate to still be able to occa­sion­al­ly sell pic­ture books.  I also try to have some cur­ricu­lum tie-in so that my books are appro­pri­ate to schools and libraries. 

L: I noticed the warm ded­i­ca­tion in STAGECOACH SAL to your amaz­ing super­a­gent, Steven Malk at Writ­ers House (who was at our con­fer­ence last year—thanks, Steven!). Tell us how you snagged him, and if you can, give us a peek inside your author-agent relationship!
D: I called Steven up some years ago at the rec­om­men­da­tion of a fel­low writer, and feel very for­tu­nate to be able to work with him.  Steven is won­der­ful.  I have had many doors opened thanks to his hard work, and I also make an effort to work hard on my own to under­stand what my edi­tors need and want. 

L: My hus­band once asked me what I would con­sid­er suc­cess in this indus­try. I told him I will know I’ve made it when I receive one let­ter from one child say­ing that some­thing I wrote made a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in his or her life. (Of course, I’d love truck­loads of let­ters like that, but if I can get at least one, I’ll die hap­py.) You’ve got a long and var­ied book list, with an impres­sive list of awards to go with it. So, how do you define suc­cess? Do you feel like you’ve achieved your dream? If not, what’s left on your to-do list?
D: Well, I try to be very grate­ful for the luck and suc­cess that I have had.  Right now I am vice pres­i­dent for Advance­ment at the Pacif­ic North­west Col­lege of Art.  I have sev­en peo­ple report­ing to me, and it is cer­tain­ly one of those “big jobs.”  I do feel for­tu­nate to have had, in a way, two careers.  How­ev­er, that doesn’t mean I still don’t dream of becom­ing a full time writer!  But with a kid in col­lege and one in grad­u­ate school, that may not ever happen. 

L: What tips would you like to share with aspir­ing children’s book writ­ers, espe­cial­ly those of us writ­ing non­fic­tion or fic­tion based on facts for grades preK‑5?
D: Well, I think it is very impor­tant to under­stand as much as pos­si­ble about how pub­lish­ing works as ear­ly in one’s career as pos­si­ble. Also it helps to under­stand the cru­cial role of teach­ers and librar­i­ans in children’s lit­er­a­ture.  And I would give writ­ers the same advice I give stu­dents dur­ing author vis­its: Read!

L: What’s com­ing up next for you?

My newest book is The Hum­ble­bee Hunter, illus­trat­ed by Jen Corace. It’s based on the fam­i­ly life of Charles Dar­win and his chil­dren at Down House. It was recent­ly reviewed in the New York Times, which was excit­ing.  My oth­er forth­com­ing books include Annie and Helen, to be illus­trat­ed by Raul Colon, and A Boy Called Dick­ens, illus­trat­ed by John Hen­drix, who also did the art­work for Abe Lin­coln Cross­es a Creek.

L: Those sound won­der­ful! I can’t wait to see them. Thanks so much for chat­ting with me, Deb­o­rah. See you in April!