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!