Always a reader
My name is Deborah Hopkinson. I live near Portland, Oregon. I grew up in Massachusetts. And when I speak to students in schools, I always talk about how I started out at a reader. And I think it's important for young people to get the sense that reading is important, and that's what makes writers.
When I was little I loved to read. I always tell the story of how I would have those big textbooks — the history or the geography books — and I would have the novel I was reading hidden behind it. So that was what I wanted to do. And I either wanted to be a writer or a doctor, but my math skills weren't quite there for science, although I love science now. I love to write about it.
Family book club
When I go and talk to mixed groups like that of parents and kids together, one of the things I always try to talk to parents about is reading with their kids. We think of reading with your children of reading with the toddler with the toddler on your lap.
My idea of children is that when you have a child, you have this life-long reading group that's built into your family. You have a way to share the books that are important to you. Once that your child starts to read, a lot of parents continue to read what they're going to read and then their kid is reading on their own.
I think that's an opportunity that is often missed that to read the same books and to discover some of the wonderful literature that's being written right now in America. Some examples for older teens right now, The Hunger Games. I lent it to my 24-year-old daughter and she was up until 6:00 in the morning. You know, a book that kept me up.
Saying to someone, here's a book that's interesting to you. My son is in community college and just finished reading Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian — a wonderful book.
I read voraciously, but I often find that some of the most interesting works being done are for young people and that people are missing out if they just assume those books are for young people. That's something that I think is very important for us as parents.
Where are the girls?
When I was a young girl, I remember these moments, having my 4th grade textbook and seeing just the shaded parts and wondering, you know, "Where were the women in these textbooks? Where are the stories about people who were like me? Where are the girls?"
As I began to write stories, I always found myself drawn to history, and I found myself drawn to the stories that I hadn't found when I was a young reader. And those are the stories that I've come to write about.
It's all in the details
There's a survey that was done that if you ask adults to describe their history classes in elementary and high school, what one word would they choose? They always choose the word "boring," and I've tested that with audiences. History, in fact, is not boring at all; it's fascinating. Part of our challenge as educators and parents and librarians is to bring history to kids in a way that shows them that it's exciting.
One of the ways that I introduce history to children when I go into a school visit is right away, I start to make sure they understand the difference between historical fiction and the information or non-fiction. Even when I'm writing historical fiction, I try very hard to make the story as accurate as possible.
I also will include a note in the back that might say how the story differs from the actual reality. I see historical fiction, in many ways, as a jumping off point for young readers that they will start following threads into history and wanting to learn more. It's very important, especially then in picture books, to get the illustrations right.
That's something that I've worked a lot about on. I have a series of books on the Klondike, and one of the photos for the covers had a boy with a regular knapsack, and I was able to show the illustrator a book of historical photos where they had these boxes that they tied on their backs.
You see these men — this line of men going up Chilkoot Pass in Alaska — and the editor said, "Could there have been that many people?" Yes, there were because they had to take their supplies over. So again, trying to work with the illustrator and the editor and the art director to bring those historical, accurate research into the picture book.
We're all discoverers
As someone who's written about history for a number of years now, I've tried with each of my books to approach history in a different way. I've become very interested in historical literacy and what that means. How we study history and how we can help children study history.
In my new book, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, I've really taken that to a different level, I think. The story is about an incident in Abe Lincoln's childhood when a boy named Austin Gollaher saved him from drowning.
There are many instances about Lincoln's childhood that are obviously made up. But this one, we sense that there is some basis in fact, and there was a relationship between these two men. What I do in the story is really have kids become historians themselves and think about the story.
What do we know about it? Could it have happened this way? Could it have happened a different way? And how do we know that? One of the things that the book says [is] if you weren't there, you can't know for sure. That's the fun part about being interested in history and learning about history is that we are discoverers and we are explorers in history trying to piece together.
One of the things that's been interesting to me in the last year is to talk with the children in schools who are very much in this election season that we've just gone through here in fall 2008 — get a sense of history themselves, what it means to be part of a big, historical moment.
Many times, I think those of us who are older and have these memories of things that happened to us in history — the assassination of John F. Kennedy — we remember that. I think that the young people growing up today in this year will have that sense of history. A book like Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek is a way for them to look at the different aspects of history and start to be historians themselves.
One more thing I might add on this is, historians, when they talk to each other, they argue with each other and they fight, and they have different points of view. But many times, our history textbooks for kids have what someone's called a corporate author. This is the way history was. These are the names. These are the facts.
But knowing more history is not knowing more facts. Knowing more history is knowing how to read, and I think in Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, it's a way to start that process with the youngest readers.
History's boys and girls
I had 60 books by my desk for years, and I had so much that I decided to also try to do non-fiction for the first time. Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York was that book. It follows the immigrant experience from 1880 to 1924 of when people came over from Eastern Europe and Italy. Then it talks about what life was like on the Lower East Side.
It's been very interesting for me to use that book in classrooms with children and also to have them look critically at the photographs. That's one of the things that I've been doing with kids a lot is have them get a sense of history by looking at the photographs and seeing what they might be able to tell.
I was recently in Lowell, Massachusetts, where I was born and grew up, and my second non-fiction longer book is called Up Before Daybreak: Cotton and People in America. There, you can actually see in the Lowell Historical National Park what a mill was like.
Those books tie together in a way of looking at aspects of our history that were very much important to children. Children were involved in the fields as enslaved workers, as sharecropping kids after the Civil War, and mill workers. I think that's a way into history for kids is to see what their lives might be like if they lived in a different time.
Adjust your antenna
One of the things that I talk about in schools a lot is, where do writers get ideas? My presentation many times is called "What Makes a Writer?" Readers make writers, and writers are someone who keep looking, who listen.
I was recently in a school in Washington state, and after I left, the teacher told me that the 4th graders had all decided to go and do historical fiction based on buildings in their community. I think of a writer as someone who has their antenna up — you're always looking for ideas for stories.
It might be something you see in the newspaper. It might be something you hear on the radio. It might be something you experience. I always keep my eyes and ears open that way. But what I choose to write about sometimes doesn't always end up in a book.
That's another thing that I think is important for young readers and young writers to know, that writers — it's a process. I don't magically have one idea and then it becomes a bestselling book. I have lots of rejections and I have lots of editors that help me make my work better.
I think it's important for young readers to do that. I try to find stories where there's a child protagonist — there's something interesting that it might fit in with what teachers and librarians are studying in school. And also something that fascinates me because that's what makes it fun to research.
A question I ask students a lot in classrooms is how do you do your research. It's very interesting. It doesn't really matter what grade it is or where I am in the country. People will say the computer, dictionaries, libraries. I have to really elicit an answer of seeing it, going someplace, and seeing with your own eyes. That's something that I try to focus on.
Writing about other cultures
Many people ask me about my first picture book which is probably my bestselling book so far, which is Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, which came out in 1993. I got the idea for that story one morning as I was getting ready for work. I worked at the University of Hawaii, then at Honolulu, and there was an NPR story on the first black graduate of Williams College.
Elizabeth Scott, who was a quilter, was interviewed for that story. There was a quilt exhibition in honor of the first black graduate. I got interested in quilts and the Underground Railroad when I first wrote that book. That was my first picture book and it doesn't have a note.
That book is historical fiction as is Under the Quilt of Night. There's this association of quilts with the Underground Railroad, and I think it's a point where teachers can use those books in various ways in the classroom, but also have children, again, do research and say, "Well, we have these myths and this folklore about this, but is it really true?" It may be that we find out that it's not.
I also wrote another book about black history called A Band of Angels. I really had a wonderful experience doing that. I was able to interview Beth Howse, who is the special collections librarian at Fisk University.
This is the story of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. I asked Pat McKissack, because I was a little leery about doing this story because I had done two other ones on another culture than my own. I lived in Hawaii for 20 years, so I had a very good sense of what it's like to live in a multicultural society that's different than where I grew up.
Pat McKissack, when I was about to do Band of Angels, said, "You know, I did something on Ella Sheppard, who's the Jubilee singer," she said. "Go ahead. I think parents have been and teachers have been very welcoming of books if they're well done and historically researched."
Keep your day job
When I speak with children in schools, I always tell them that I have another job, that I'm here as an author on my vacation day, and I've always worked full time. I have a career in philanthropy. I started many years ago at the University of Hawaii.
I'm now vice president for advancement at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, which is fun for me because there's an illustration department, so I'll be able to hopefully bring in illustrators and build up that.
One of the things I think is important for children to know about is that if you have a dream on something that you really wanna do, you may not always be able to do it full-time. We live in a culture that's very celebrity driven, and I think our ideas of success are sometimes like well, if we can't make it on American Idol or if we're not a movie star, then we can't be an actor.
I think that's the same way with writing. For me, I've always balanced those two things. We have two grown children who are actually are still living at home. I've had a very supportive husband who cooks, which is helpful. I try to write when I can. I write on weekends, I write at night.
Every once I in a while I'll take myself away and take a day off and write. My newest book, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, I remember taking a day off from work and sitting at the Oregon State University library and just pounding away at it.
An excerpt from Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek
This is my new book, Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, illustrated by John Hendrix. I'd like to read you a little bit from it. It takes place in Kentucky, 1816.
Now, here's an old tale of two boys who got themselves into more trouble than bear cubs in a candy store. I like it so well I've asked my friend John to help out by drawing some pictures. All stories have a time and place, and this one's no different. It happened on the other side of yesterday before computers or cars in the year 1816. This green Kentucky valley is our place. Don't you feel like sticking your toes into that rushing water? That's Knob Creek.
Life was hard for many folks then — especially those in slavery, and in just a few years, all the cares of America would fall on the shoulders of one tall, thin man. But in 1916, he's only seven. Here he is fetching wood for his mother. All spring, he's been helping his father plant corn and pumpkins.
Look, now he's stopping to watch a wagon rumble by. I daresay you've guessed his name, Abraham Lincoln. He'll grow up to become our 16th president. There's another boy here, too, sitting on that rock waiting for Abe. That's Benjamin Austin Gollaher. Austin for short.
Now I can just hear you grumbling, "Who? That feller isn't in my history book! What do I care?" Well, Austin is Abe's first friend. He's three years older and as proud of Abe as a big brother. Abe's legs were long. His arms were long. Why, even his ears were long Austin would say later. And when it came to being smart, he was way yonder ahead of me. Alright, that's what we need to begin: a time, a place, and our characters, two boys named Austin and Abe.