Today, I’m pleased to welcome Deborah Hopkinson to Orange Marmalade. Deborah is the award-winning author of dozens of superb nonfiction and historical fiction books for children.
Her newest novel, A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket, was released last week.
It’s a riveting story starring a scrappy immigrant boy in late-19th century New York City. I had the privilege to talk with Deborah about her book as part of her blog tour and today I’ve got those questions and answers for you, plus a signed copy of her book to give away!
A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket, by Deborah Hopkinson
pubished in 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf
Rocco is an 11-year-old boy, newly arrived in New York City. His impoverished Italian family has sold him to a corrupt padrone who puts him to work as a street musician. But the cruel, Dickensian conditions drive Rocco to seek a better income with a band of pick-pockets.
Jacob Riis, Homeless Children
Rocco’s considerable misadventures lead him, by chance, to an acquaintance he calls Meddlin’ Mary, and her father, Mick, who are dedicated to caring for abused workhorses in the city. He also encounters a man named Jacob Riis who is just as dedicated to caring for abused children.
With a propensity for wheelin’ and dealin’ and lying to save his skin, Rocco soon lands in a dangerous entanglement between his shady connections and his esteemed new friends.
Woven into this fast-paced, engaging story are a number of thought-provoking ideas about truth and lies, things seen vs. things hidden, and the power of kindness. It’s an exceptional story that I highly recommend for ages 9 and up. It would make a brilliant book club selection with ample material for discussion. Hopkinson includes extensive historical addendums in the book and makes use of historical photos to illustrate the text.
♦An Interview with Deborah♦
1. What was the first kernel of an idea that propelled this work, the starting point that led you down this road?
I actually began thinking about A Bandit’s Tale some years ago, when I wrote Shutting out the Sky, Life in the Tenements of New York, set in this same time period in New York City. I wanted to do another historical fiction novel set in a great city (Into the Firestorm takes place in San Francisco, and The Great Trouble in London) and so putting New York and the 19th century together made sense.
2. What surprised you about Rocco’s character as he developed?
What a fun question! Well, Rocco had a weakness for sausages that surprised me, since I don’t eat them myself.
3. Is he your favorite character?
I love both Rocco and Mary, but to my surprise, Officer Reilly, though he plays only a minor role, turned out to be my favorite character. With that twinkle in his eye and love of engines, he kept reminding me of my late father.
4. If Rocco could visit modern day NYC, what do you think he would most like to do? Where would you take him?
Old Mulberry Street, NYC from italianaware (dot) com
I’m sure Rocco would want to visit Soho and Little Italy, to see what it’s like today. And, of course, we’d have to go to Central Park!
5. As you were researching the historical characters, was there someone you felt like, “Oh, I sure would like to talk to you!” What questions would you ask him?
I would have loved to talk to pioneering photojournalist Jacob Riis and ask him to say more about how and why he decided to devote so much of his time to housing reform and improving conditions in the Lower East Side tenements. As an immigrant himself, he might have been satisfied with achieving success as a journalist. If he’d just done that, we might not remember him today. But because he remembered what it was like to be down and out himself, he devoted himself to being a change-maker.
6. I was intrigued by the idea of “seeing” woven throughout the narrative: people who did not see what was before them, or did not want to see, and people called to help make these hidden lives visible. Can you talk about how that idea emerged and grew in this novel?
The idea of seeing and being visible or invisible also grew out of looking at the photographs of Jacob Riis, and also thinking about how the invention of flash photography affected his work. He himself had written newspaper stories about the Lower East Side, but felt frustrated that he couldn’t get the public to pay attention to the suffering he saw there.
Jacob Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement
The story goes that Riis read about the invention of the flash bulb in the newspaper one morning, and set about finding someone to teach him photography because he immediately saw that this could bring his words to life.
Today, although we are inundated with images and stories, I think we still recognize the power that one photograph has to make us see. The streets of the Lower East Side were crowded with people and it was difficult to focus on individuals and their stories. Likewise, we hear of thousands of Syrian refugees, but it was the photo of one small boy that propelled many to pay attention.
7. Another wonderful theme is the virtue of meddling. I love the nickname The Great Meddler. What an honorable label! In what sense do you see your authorship as a kind of meddling?
I’ve only been a full-time author since 2014; for many years I also pursued a career in philanthropy, so I feel strongly about giving back to education and nonprofit organizations in our communities. Now that I am writing full time, I sometimes feel a bit selfish that I am not engaged in volunteer work as well, but writing books feels like the right choice right now. This spring Follow the Moon Home, a picture book I co-authored with environmental activist Philippe Cousteau, is also being published. It’s about a group of students who do a community action project in their town to protect sea turtles.
So I do feel writing is one way I can be a meddler too – though not compared to many others, including Henry Bergh! When I was researching A Bandit’s Tale I had the chance to see some of Henry Bergh’s many, many letters to the public works department complaining about dangerous holes in the roads.
8. The physical abuse of children and animals is such a grievous topic. Have you written on such egregious issues before and how does it impact you as a writer to do so? Do you feel any kind of bond between you and Jacob Riis?
I encountered some of the topics in A Bandit’s Tale when I wrote Shutting out the Sky in 2003, along with a Dear America about the Triangle Waist Company fire called Hear My Sorrow. And I have certainly been inspired by the work of Riis.
I read voraciously as a child, and that included war stories and disaster stories, subjects that still fascinate me. I’ve just finished the second of two nonfiction books about World War II, and I also wrote Titanic: Voices from the Disaster.
9. Did you like Black Beauty as a child? Or is there a particular “animal story” that you like best?
I have a vivid memory of reading Black Beauty as a child. I also had several small ceramic horses, one of which I named Merrylegs. As a dog lover, I really do not like animal stories where dogs die, however. I don’t think I ever recovered from watching Old Yeller.
10. There are many male characters in the story, portraying the gamut of qualities. I appreciated the tenderness of Mick Hallanan. Was it a conscious decision to give such nurturing qualities to a male character? If so, why?
I don’t think it was conscious. I’m not sure if the real Michael Hallanan was a widower, though when he died there was no mention of a wife, so taking that as my starting point – and reading the little I could find about him, he just sort of emerged as a character from there. You can still see the “H” marking the Hallanan stables in Greenwich Village, and so it was easy to imagine a hardworking immigrant who became part of the community.
11. You’ve written extensively on subjects from the latter 19th to early 20th century. Is this your favorite time period to explore? Why? Are you drawn to any other time periods you hope to write about at some point?
I’ve always been drawn to writing about the 19th century, both in England and the United States. It was such a tumultuous time, with advances in science, human rights, and the emergence of social reform movements. I’m a Baby Boomer and now that I’m writing about World War II, I’m enjoying that as well.
12. Are you working on another project that you’re able to tell us about?
In addition to writing both nonfiction and fiction set in 1944, I’ve just finished a draft of a story about the formation of the movement in Great Britain to abolish the slave trade in the late 18th century. Unlike A Bandit’s Tale, there are no photographs from the period, of course, and I find that I miss that as an essential component to trying to convey the setting. So I probably won’t be writing about the Middle Ages anytime soon.
I want to thank Deborah again for appearing here today. For other stops on the Bandit Blog Tour, and to find more of her excellent titles, please check her website at this link: deborahhopkinson.com.
I have a signed copy of A Bandit’s Tale that I would love to pass on to an Orange Marmalade reader. To enter the drawing, make a comment on this blog post before Sunday, April 17, telling us an animal story you or your children have enjoyed, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sorry, this has to be for U.S. mailing addresses only.