I have long admired Deborah Hopkinson’s writing and if you have ever heard her speak, she does an amazing job of giving the story behind the story of her books. If she’s ever at a conference near you, attend her session. I really love the way she gives teachers concrete ways to use her work in the classroom. Her respect and admiration for teachers shines through all she does so it is not too surprising her newest book is called A Letter to My Teacher, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Schwartz and Wade), just out today, which is why I’m celebrating her on a Tuesday rather than a Friday!
A Letter to My Teacher
Since it was published in 2004, I’ve shared my picture book Apples to Oregon, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, with thousands of readers. At author visits, where I often present to five or six hundred students each day, I never get tired of seeing children’s delighted reactions to Nancy’s humorous (and quite fictionalized) depictions of the Luelling family’s 1847 trip across the plains to establish the first fruit orchard in Oregon. I have to admit the words are pretty silly too. The subtitle is: Being the (Slightly) True Narrative of How a Brave Pioneer Father Brought Apples, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Grapes, and Cherries (and Children) Across the Plains.
I’ve admired Nancy’s impressive body of work ever since I first read Loud Emily years ago. In addition to Apples to Oregon, Nancy created the art for my Fannie in the Kitchen: The Whole Story from Soup to Nuts of How Fannie Farmer Invented Recipes with Precise Measurements. So when my editor Anne Schwartz let me know Nancy had agreed to collaborate on A Letter to My Teacher I was absolutely delighted.
Unlike our first two collaborations, both historical fiction picture books, A Letter to My Teacher is a contemporary school story. (My first school story, actually!) It explores the relationship between an exasperating second grader and the wonderful teacher who inspires her throughout the course of the year.
Nancy’s art brings the two main characters to vivid life, and also manages to capture the essence of a nurturing learning community, something I find whenever I walk into elementary schools in my home state of Oregon or across the country.
The endpapers depict the young narrator’s bright yellow raincoat hanging in her cubby; on the last page, we see her embarking on her own new journey. On each page, Nancy imbues the illustrations with humor, kindness, and respect.
I wrote A Letter to My Teacher when my daughter was in graduate school to become an educator, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching her thrive in her chosen profession. Now a young mother herself, she’ll someday (it goes so fast!) experience that unforgettable moment of watching your child line up with his or her kindergarten teacher for the first time.
Although the experience of being a parent and a visiting author played a part in this story, its inspiration came from a completely unexpected source. One night in 2010 while reading The New Yorker, I stumbled upon a hauntingly beautiful poem by W.S. Merwin entitled, “A Message to Po-Chu i.” The poem pays tribute to the Tang dynasty poet Po-Chu i (772-846). (You can access it here🙂
I don’t pretend to be an astute literary critic. But something in Merwin’s poem touched me deeply. Although it acknowledges the conflicts and global challenges of today, it remains, I think, a testament of hope and the power of creativity. It confirms my belief that somehow, from one generation to the next, we do our best to nurture compassion and imagination, even in the midst of turmoil and conflict.
I could be wrong, of course. But, at least, that’s what inspired the writing of A Letter to My Teacher. It’s my small way to honor my own teachers in the past, dedicated teachers like my daughter, and future educators too.
And as for that feeling of hope – I know I’ll experience it again when I walk into that next school and see the powerful, inspiring community teachers, staff, parents, and children create together each day.
Deborah Hopkinson is the award-winning author of more than 45 books for young readers including picture books, historical fiction, and nonfiction. She has won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for picture book text twice, for Apples to Oregon and A Band of Angels. Other titles include Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, winner of the IRA Award; and Sky Boys, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor book.
Deborah’s nonfiction includes Titanic, Voices from the Disaster, which received a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction honor and a Robert F. Sibert Honor and Dive! WWII Stories of Sailors and Submarines in the Pacific. Her nonfiction picture book, Keep On! The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole, won an Oregon Book Award.
Deborah lives near Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @deborahopkinson or visit her on the web at www.deborahhopkinson.com.