Interview with Deborah Hopkinson
If you could ask Beatrix Potter anything what would it be?
Beatrix Potter was such a fascinating woman, who left an incredible legacy in both in children’s literature and as a conservationist. I think I would like to ask her which of her accomplishments she took the most pride in.
What made you want to write about Potter’s misfortunes in pets?
Animals (wild and tame) were a big part of Potter’s life. My family wasn’t big on pets when I was growing up, though we did have some misadventures with wild birds we tried to save. But when my children were young we lived on a half acre in Walla Walla, Washington, where we had many pets – and our share of disasters. I think many children can relate to losing a pet, or borrowing something and having it get ruined.
Do you remember your childhood pets?
Yes, indeed. I especially remember an English Springer spaniel named Penny that we only kept for a few days. She was tied up outside, and looking back, I am sure my parents just hadn’t realized the work involved in having a dog, so my dad returned her. I never forgot that, though, and one of the first things we did when we moved back to the Pacific Northwest from Honolulu was to get a dog.
Of course, if you have one dog, you might as well have two. Our current dogs are re-homed from families who could no longer care for them; their names are Rue and Brooklyn. (But lest readers get the wrong idea and begin writing to me, we can’t take any more and are stopping at two!)
How has Beatrix Potter influenced this book, besides the plot?
Beatrix Potter’s own picture letter to Noel Moore, which inspired her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, also led to the format for my book, which is designed as a picture letter. I’m excited about incorporating “picture letter workshops” into my school visit sessions, which often include a writing activity.
Why did you change Beatrix’s age in the book?
My editor suggested, and I agreed, that since this was a fictionalized story – not a biography, it would be more appealing to child readers if it were about a young girl rather than a Victorian lady in her twenties.
What are some discussions for parents and kids about the subjects in this book?
Well, hopefully it will be obvious to children from the tongue-in-cheek tone of the story that Beatrix Potter was not exactly a model pet owner, even if her intentions were good, and that pet ownership comes with responsibilities. Further, as it is quite clear from the narrative, it’s not exactly a good idea to try to keep wild creatures in captivity. However, I trust that most children today will look at Beatrix’s disasters and know they can do a much better job than she did!
How does this book connect children with Beatrix Potter?
One of the most fascinating aspects of an artist like Beatrix Potter is realizing that she began seriously practicing her craft from a very young age. That is something that I hope parents, teachers, and librarians will mention when sharing this book with young readers, and is a big part of what I talk about at author visits all over the country. Reading, writing, art, music, sports, an interest in science or medicine – these are lifelong pursuits. And what we do as adults is often triggered by our interests as children. I hope that reading about Beatrix Potter as a young artist will inspire children in their own pursuits.
Did you read any of Beatrix Potter books when you were growing up?
While I still have the copy of Make Way for Ducklings which my grandmother gave me when I was little, I don’t actually recall having any of Potter’s books. But since my daughter is now expecting her first child, I intend to remedy that for my first grandchild.
How does Beatrix Potter compare to any of the past historical figures that you’ve written about?
Although Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig does not focus on Potter’s later conservation activities, though they are mentioned in the author’s note, I am looking forward to sharing her life story along with other historical figures who feature in my new book, A Bandit’s Tale, The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket, which also takes place in the 19th century.
Beatrix was born in 1866, and so we celebrate the 150th anniversary of her birth this year. She is remembered, in part, as a conservation activist who bequeathed Hill Top House and her property to the National Trust to help conserve the Lake District which she loved. This year is also the 150th anniversary of the ASPCA, which was founded by Henry Bergh in April 1866. Mr. Bergh, an activist who lobbied for improved treatment of workhorses in New York City, appears in A Bandit’s Tale.
My favorite part of writing this book was exploring Beatrix’s own journal and then writing a fictional story that still captured her wonderful spirit.