Archive for the ‘Writing for Children and Young Adults’ Category

A Woman Walked Into a Picture Book…


After decades of publishing books that have sometimes been called lyrical and important and poetic, I’m about to publish a picture book that my friend Carmen Bernier Grand calls hilarious.

Zoo poo

Thanks, Carmen.

Ironically, this book was born in a brainstorming session where my writer retreat friends and I were making each other laugh—and the idea for it wasn’t even mine. I was just the one who seriously wanted it. Now it’s about to come out and I’m terrified.

Aren’t you often terrified?

Art makes us vulnerable, and the sea can be so brutal.

My writer friends and I sometimes shout, “Back, back, Fearnando.”

Poor Fearnando. He just wants to protect us. As shame guru Brene Brown (she of the academic research around vulnerability) tells us, “The message is, do it! Get your courage on, but be clear that it won’t be easy. It’s going to feel like shit.”

(This is an appropriate message from someone who would write What Do They Do With All That Poo.)

zoo poo 2

Humor is, well, fun and games. Right up to the point someone slips on a banana peel.

I thank my lucky stars that one day I took a deep breath and began to sing as part of my Vermont College of Fine Arts lecture (which is another story) and Cate introduced herself afterwards and admitted she sings and…

VCFA singing

…Reader, we sang. (Singing in public is scary. It’s a lot like telling a joke. Do you feel—as I do at times—that you can die from scary? But do you also feel more alive when you’re taking risks?)

Cate also wrote her critical thesis on funny picture books, and since I was her adviser I got to think about all of this. A lot. (Thank you, Cate—and she’s going to post for all of us later this month and give us all kinds of wisdom about why women feel they are so shut out of humor in picture books.)

That’s why I read an article called “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian” ( about how humor dances on the edge of the unacceptable. Is often transgressive. As the article says, “Go purely light-hearted and you risk being toothless. Too edgy, and you’ll make people uncomfortable.”

It made me look inside for part of the answer. Good girls don’t bite. Luckily, I was born fierce. (So was my daughter, who demanded that her teachers have a sense of humor. So was my granddaughter–as you can see.)

My mom recently asked me, “When did you get to be so civilized?” Well, Mom, it happens to the best of us. But Mom herself was pretty unconventional–tough, but also witty. When I was growing up in rural Ethiopia and we were given a chicken to carry with us in the Jeep, I made her laugh and laugh by announcing, “I smell something foowwwwl.”

I did not win any good-kid awards in my family. I did get to feel the zingy power that comes from making someone laugh.

My dad loved a funny story, too. And in my family we didn’t get the memo that only boys get to take after Dad–because for a long time there weren’t any.

Humor. Often so uncivilized. I have a feeling we’ll have to push hard to wedge this particular door open wider because there’s a lot at stake in seeing women as sweet and ladylike. Grandmas? We wear aprons and are jolly and warm and comforting. In other words, on the other side of the door, a big sweaty mass is pushing back.

Brene Brown says, “I want to create. I want to make things that didn’t exist before I touched them. I want to show up and be seen in my work and in my life. And if you’re going to show up and be seen there is only one guarantee. And that is, you will get your ass kicked.”

I don’t like getting my ass kicked. I—like you, like all humans, probably–have been on a lifelong quest to get over shame. To actively…with big gulps…resist the idea that I was born to sit down and shut up and make myself small.


When the sea is brutal, there’s only one real boat for me.

The sisterhood.

sisters at beach

Yes, I mean my actual sisters (and my brother, too) who make me laugh harder than anybody else can.

I also mean my sisterhood of writer friends. For example, recently Jennifer Jacobson and I have been exchanging manuscripts and we ask each other for help in answering how can this story take more risks, be more inventive, be more muscular?

And I mean the sisterhood of teachers, librarians, academics, reviewers who can use their power to amplify the voices of the small peepers down here up to our eyeballs in sand.

Maybe a woman walked into a bar…and walked away with a black eye.

But maybe the sisters are there with ice packs and raw beef.

Didn’t we once, long ago, burn our bras together and feel the power?




2018 dawns full of emotion and the messy glory of life

Mid-January, I was battling both rain and snow (which of course = ice) at Vermont College of Fine Arts and loving doing the picture book workshop at residency with ten students eager to learn about this quirky genre + Liz Garton Scanlon + Ashley Wolff showing us how life looks from the illustrator’s point of view. VCFA

As I always do, I had one of my own manuscripts open–a picture book I’ve been working on–and as I sat through lectures and readings about the amazing and complicated craft of writing, I was jotting down ideas and zingy snippets that came to me. Doodling and moodling.

On a break, I listened to a voice mail from the hospice nurse who had been stopping in to visit my mom for nearly a year. “Please call me,” it said. I texted my sisters and asked someone to give me a call. “Please call me,” one of my sisters texted back, a few hours later.

Oh, Mom.

She was always so ready to go for it. So hard to pin down and box in. Such a lover of words and books. Someone whose life was saved by reading and by being intellectually curious and open to learning more, more, more.

For her memorial, we are taking donations to print the first set of Ready Set Go books in the language of Dizi, heart language of Maji, where most of my sisters and I learned to read and put down roots in this life, where we acted out stories and fell in love with the earth and life and family with its messy glories, as one of my author friends put it.

dog 5

Dogs and chickens may run in front of you. The thief may take advantage of chaos. Life may slam you and knock your feet out from under you, but stories are something to cling to when everything else is shaking.

Or so it has been for us–my parents and siblings riding the rapids in the same boat.




Travels and the writing life

When I talk to young writers and when I have conversations with MFA students in the Vermont College of Fine Arts program, I like to imagine I can take a bit of the mystery out of words like “inspiration” and “imagination” by pointing to ways that details and scenes in my books have grown out of observation.

An Icelandic proverb says, “Keen is the eye of the visitor.” Isn’t that one reason travel writing is so vivid and compelling?

When everything is off-balance, our senses go on high alert. When we can’t understand the language, we start relying on other ways of taking in information. I learned these things growing up in Ethiopia.


I experienced the Icelandic truth all over again recently traveling in Guatemala and doing an author visit in Russia.

tuk tuk

Embarrassing as it is to admit, Guatemala was only part of a blur of Central American countries until we visited Brian and Sandi, Presbyterian social workers living there and working on issues of women’s human rights to things like safety and education and jobs.

girl with her basket

I listened. I learned. I saw connections to my books…

boy with pigeons

Boy with pigeons in the park

The biggest thrilldom in Russia was getting two days of talking to readers and writers there–Russian, American, Canadian, Australian, Jamacian, Czech…so many word people from all over the world. So much to soak up. So much to share.



And oh the stories! Who knows how these images and feelings will seep into my writing.



Where are the parents?

Some time ago, my brother Christopher Kurtz and I wrote a picture book together about a boy in Ethiopia who had become Chris’s friend during the years when Chris was teaching in the Bethel Girls’ School.  Only a Pigeon was praised for giving kids a rare look at life in an African city–no wonder, because Chris and the illustrator, E.B. Lewis, traveled to Ethiopia to do the art research, and it’s my book that most distinctively and accurately shows Addis Ababa streets and neighborhoods.

Only a PigeonI was surprised at the critics who read this mostly true story of a boy who shines shoes for a living and still takes time to care tenderly for his pigeons and asked, “But where are the parents?”  It was a criticism that was repeated when the idealistic parents of the girls in my novel Jakarta Missing leave them alone for a week.

There’s a large gap between a lot of U.S. readers and resourceful working kids in parts of Ethiopia (note this boy from our recent trip, out watching the cows with no parents in sight) and all around the world.

01 boy whip

Now Deborah Hopkinson has used her writing talents to show a time and place where children in the United States routinely had to learn to find their way with no parents anywhere around.  It’s powerful for us all, old readers and young readers, to understand the working life of children who don’t have access to school…and maybe some of the rest of us will meddle our way to having their backs.

01 Bandit's Tale

Jane: I love the way you weave real people into your historical fiction—I especially loved the way Jacob Riis shows up in this story and kids can get a feel for how his photographs shifted the social conscience of America.  Can you give readers a bit of insight into the challenges of incorporating someone like Riis into a lively, fast-moving tale?

 Deborah: This is actually the part of writing historical fiction that I like best. A Bandit’s Tale was inspired by my longtime fascination with Riis, who I encountered some years ago when I wrote two books set on the Lower East Side: Hear My Sorrow, part of the Dear America series, and a nonfiction work entitled Shutting out the Sky, Life in the Tenements of New York.

When proposing A Bandit’s Tale, a fictional story set in the same period, I realized I wasn’t quite done with my writing about Riis – or those compelling photographs of the time.

Jane: I would imagine kids would be astonished to discover that not long ago people their age were fending for themselves on the streets of New York City.  Have you had responses yet in author visits or pre-publication reading?

 Deborah: For years now, I’ve shown students a photo of children on the streets of New York playing next to the carcass of a dead horse. Like Riis’s photographs, this one has stayed with me for years and served as an inspiration for including another historical figure in this story: Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA. I’ve only had a chance to preview Bandit and haven’t had response from any young readers yet, but I’m looking forward to talking with them about it.

 Jane: Photos like the one at the opening of Book Two and the three boys sleeping in the window well have immense power.  What was your plotting process like as you studied those historical photos and worked out the story of A BANDIT’S TALE?

Deborah: I very much wanted A Bandit’s Tale to be a visual experience. And, as sometimes happens in research, one thing leads to another. I discovered a young reporter named Max Fischel, who served as Riis’s assistant and helped translate for him in the Jewish community. So it made sense for Rocco, our protagonist, to serve in the same role as part of his journey from street musician, to pickpocket, to runaway, to activist.

I highly recommend that students and adults interested in this period watch Steven Johnson’s PBS series, How We Got to Now.  All six episodes are fascinating, and the one entitled Light features Jacob Riis.

Jane: What’s your biggest hope as historical fiction like this flies out and into the hands of readers?

Deborah: Over the last couple of years, since the publication of my last historical fiction book, The Great Trouble, A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, I’ve visited dozens of schools and had Skype visits with students who learned about cholera and epidemiology for the first time while reading that book, which is set during the 1854 cholera epidemic in London. I’ve been immensely delighted that it’s been part of many state award reading lists, book clubs, and battle of the books programs.

I know that fantasy and dystopian genres are popular. But my favorite part of sharing historical fiction is to have groups of two hundred or more kids so intensely fascinated by looking at an 1854 death certificate that you can hear a pin drop – and to make the connection to Dr. John Snow’s work then and the cholera outbreak in present day Haiti.

In the same way, I hope reading A Bandit’s Tale will expand readers’ awareness that change can take place through the dedication and determination of individuals. Like Mary Hallanan, the other main character in the book besides Rocco, our narrator, I hope kids will want to be “meddlers!”