by Sharron L. McElmeel
UPDATE: November 2014

Little in Deborah Hopkinson's background would hint at her ability to weave a powerful story of African-Americans and slavery, but that is exactly what she did when she authored Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. Since that first picture book was published, Hopkinson has authored several additional titles, each focusing on a historical event or person. Her New England childhood has brought her settings for stories published since Sweet Clara, but the plots themselves are woven from her passion for learning about the past.

Deborah Hopkinson grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, attended college in Massachusetts and Hawaii, and lived in Hawaii for 19 years before settling in Walla Walla, Washington, where she currently is development director for Whitman College. The story idea for Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt began to form one morning when Hopkinson heard a story on National Public Radio about escape routes for slaves being sewn into quilts. Clearly aware that she was writing about a culture that was not her own, Hopkinson considers herself fortunate to have the book welcomed by children all over the country. "I think my experience of race was certainly affected by living in Honolulu, America's most multicultural city," she adds.

Hopkinson says she has "always, felt Sweet Clara was a gift. Whenever I worked on it, I could close my eyes and almost be there. At the time I wrote it, I hadn't even had one story appear in print. I was just this unknown aspiring writer in the middle of the Pacific Ocean." It took four years for the book to move from manuscript to published book. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt earned Hopkinson the 1994 International Reading Association's award for a first picture book.

James Ransome's full-page illustrations are the ultimate complement to Hopkinson's text, and his dedication provides the first clue to the connection he made with the story. "For Emma Ransom, the first slave of Pattie and General Matt W. Ransom, and all the other Ransom slaves on Verona Plantation." In the book, slaves from the Verona Plantation play an important part in the gathering of escape information. Hopkinson says, "Of course we put the Verona Plantation in to reflect the fact that his [Ransome's] family were slaves there. James researched the book's illustrations in part at Colonial Williamsburg's Carter's Grove Plantation, but he also traced down Verona."

When Deborah Hopkinson started writing, her daughter, Rebekah, was only three, and Deborah was reading many children's books. With her schedule at that time, writing something short seemed more realistic. Hopkinson says, "I guess my inspiration here is the Australian writer Patricia Wrightson, who wrote one of my favorite books, The Nargun and the Stars. Wrightson worked for years as a hospital administrator and raised two children as a single mom."

Hopkinson wrote for two years without selling anything. Finally, in January 1990, Cricket Magazine published her story, "Skate, Kirsten, Skate." The author has three more books coming out and notes that, "You can't think about pressure; you can only think about being true to the story." While the success of Sweet Clara will be difficult to match, Hopkinson is strongly committed to each of her current projects.

"Silversmith's Daughter," a story that appeared in Cricket, was written after Hopkinson was wandering the stacks at the University of Hawaii library one day and found a picture of the inkstand used to sign the Declaration of Independence. After reading a travel book about a lighthouse in Iceland, her research helped her develop the premise for Birdie's Lighthouse, which was nominated for the Maine Library Association's Lupine Award.

Hopkinson's Maria's Comet, which will be illustrated by Deborah Lanino and published in 1999, was written after Hopkinson discovered Maria Mitchell's name on an Internet calendar of women in history.

A Band of Angels, also scheduled for publication in 1999, tells the story of Ella Sheppard and the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, who in 1871 introduced the songs of slaves while on a fund-raising tour of America and Europe. Their tour raised enough money to save their school. A Band of Angels is being illustrated by Raul Colon.

Hopkinson's books and stories often feature strong female protagonists. Those come about, she says, because, "in a way I'm writing the stories I wanted to read as a child. But even more, as in the case of Ella Sheppard and Maria Mitchell, I find their stories so compelling. Writing about them is one way to share this excitement with others."

Deborah and her husband, artist Andy Thomas, are the parents of 13-year-old Rebekah and 11-year-old Dimitri. During her entire 10-plus-year writing career, Hopkinson has worked full-time. "I really don't have a regular schedule for writing," she notes. "When I am revising, I often stay up late several nights a week. I try to write when my kids are in bed." Hopkinson says her goal is "to write stories good enough, important enough, that if a library didn't have much money, they would still want to have them." In addition to the books scheduled for publication in 1999, Hopkinson has a story coming out in Cricket about the way pioneers brought seeds and plants with them when they came West. Her story about Fannie Farmer, titled Fannie in the Kitchen, illustrated by Nancy Carpentar, published in 2000 as was another title, Under the Quilt of the Night, which was illustrated by James Ransome.

Hopkinson's home page at provides more information about her work. Readers may find contact information on her website. She will make arrangements for student email projects or for school visits.  Hopkinson lives near Portland, Oregon, where she serves as Vice President for College Advancement for the Pacific Northwest College of Art.

Connections--Books by Deborah Hopkinson

Birdie's Lighthouse. Illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root. Atheneum, 1997.

Birdie chronicles the events on the lighthouse island during 1855 when a storm brings danger, and Birdie must guide the boats safely into the harbor.

  • Compare Birdie's responsibility and courage with that of Abbie Burgess whose story is told in Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie by Peter Roop and Carol Roop (Carolrhoda, 1995).
  • Compare the courage of either of these "lightkeepers' to that of Kate Shelley. In July 1881, a teenage Kate Shelley saved a trainload of people from a raging river. Her story is told in Kate Shelley: Bound for Legend by Robert San Souci (Dial, 1995). 


  • Learn about lighthouses and others. who were instrumental in keeping ships on the sea safe. Read Gail Gibbons's Beacons of Light: Lighthouses Morrow, 1990.
  • Locate additional information about Maine Lighthouses by visiting the Maine Lighthouse Museum website.

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. Illustrated by James Ransome. Knopf, 1993.

Clara earns a place as a house slave by developing her sewing skills. She uses those skills to piece together cloth scraps to create a quilt showing a path to freedom in the North.

Maria's Comet. Atheneum, 1999. Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) was a native of Nantucket Island during the first part of the 19th century. Her father taught her astronomy from the family home's rooftop. She became the first female astronomer, the first professor of astronomy at Vassar and the first American woman to discover a comet.

Read other published accounts of Mitchell's life:

  • Ashby, Ruth and Deborah Gore Ohm, editors. "Maria Mitchell" in Herstory: Women Who Changed the World. Viking, 1995.
  • Camp, Carole Ann. "Maria Mitchell" in American Astronomers: Searchers and Wonderers. Enslow, 1996.
  • McPherson, Stephanie Sammartino. Rooftop Astronomer: A Story About Maria Mitchell. Illustrated by Hetty Mitchell. Carolrhoda, 1990.
  • Merriam, Eve. "Maria Mitchell (1818-1889): Astronomer" in Growing Up Female in America: Ten Lives. Doubleday, 1971.
  • Stille, Darlene R. "Maria Mitchell" in Extraordinary Women Scientists. Children's Press, 1995. Visit Web sites that focus on Maria Mitchell and her life.
  • Maria Mitchell was the third of 10 children in a Quaker family. Excerpts from her diary provide a sense of the life of a single woman in the 19th century.  Article: Maria Mitchell by JoAnn Macdonald.  Unitarian Universalist Historical Society (UUHS). 1999-2011

A Band of Angels. Illustrated by Raul Colon. Atheneum, 1999. The Jubilee Singers and Ella Sheppard introduced the world to the spiritual as a musical genre. In the process, they raised funds that preserved their university and permitted construction of Jubilee Hall at Fisk University, the South's first permanent structure built for the education of black students. Together the Singers braved prejudice in 1871 and toured America and Europe singing the songs of slaves.

    • Learn more about Fisk University and the Jubilee Singers by visiting its Web page at and reading about the Jubilee Singers' beginning at
    • Ashley Bryan, author/illustrator of many picture books, set a goal of providing a record of the African-American spirituals and preserving those songs for the young to learn and sing. He collected many of the spirituals sung by the Jubilee Singers in a collection of songs: All Night, All Day (1991); I'm Going to Sing: Black American Spirituals, Vol. II (1982); and Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals (1974). All Atheneum.

UPDATE: Deborah Hopkinson is now a full-time writer and frequently visits schools and libraries. She and her husband, Andy live in the Portland, Oregon area. Their two children: Rebekah and Dimitri are grown. Hopkinson's latest books include a historical fiction novel, The Great Trouble (2013)—the story of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London is told through the eyes of a 13-year-old orphan, Eel; and a picture book, Knit Your Bit: A World War I Story (2013). A list of all of her books can be found on her website at


Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books.

This article first appeared in  Library Talk (first publication rights only) Copyright for all other uses copyright by Sharron L. McElmeel.  The contents of this article may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder`s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use. First appeared:  Library Talk, Nov/Dec98, Vol. 11 Issue 5, p20, 2p    Current Source:

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