Writing A Bandit’s Tale
by Deborah Hopkinson
My new historical fiction middle grade novel, A Bandit’s Tale, The Muddled Misadventures of Pickpocket, is set in 19th century New York City. Although the book deals with some serious themes, including poverty, child labor, and animal rights, I didn’t want the story to be depressing. So I decided to write the story as a rather light-hearted picaresque novel.
I’d never tried anything like it before, and I had so much fun doing it. As I researched the genre, I learned that the word “picaresque” comes from the Spanish “picaro,” which means “rogue” in English. The first picaresque novels were published around 1600 in Spain. One common characteristic of picaresque novels is that the protagonist is not well-born or aristocratic. Instead, like Rocco in A Bandit’s Tale, the hero is a poor individual forced at a young age to live by his or her wits in a hostile society. The story is often told in first person and has an episodic plot structure, as we follow our rogue from misadventure to misadventure.
One of the masters of the comic picaresque novel was Henry Fielding, who wrote The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) and Joseph Andrews, or the History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742). When I was writing Bandit, I often turned to the online versions of these books (available through the Gutenberg Project) for inspiration, and the chapter headings definitely reflect Fielding’s style. My favorite one is chapter nineteen, which takes place during the famous Blizzard of 1888: “Containing a storm so terrible that the reader cannot laugh even once through the entire chapter.” And it is a terrible storm, indeed.
In addition to having fun with history in the storytelling, I definitely wanted to provide factual background information. When I read historical fiction, I’m always curious to know what’s real and what’s invented. And though I’m sure not all young readers will take the time to peruse the Author’s Note (which is entitled “Containing a variety of facts and resources of possible interest to the reader, as well as information illuminating historical personages”), they might, perhaps, be interested in the 19th century pickpocket slang.
Since I visit schools all over the country, I’m always attentive to how books can complement curriculum or enhance STEM connections. Social reformer Jacob Riis appears as a character in A Bandit’s Tale. His arresting photographs brought attention to the deplorable living conditions for children and families in the tenements of the Lower East Side. Yet those photographs were only possible because of the invention of flash photography, which allowed the self-taught photojournalist to bring these problems to light. In A Bandit’s Tale, we have included several Riis photographs, which I hope will help illuminate the time period and setting for young readers.
When I speak in schools, students often ask if I plan to write a fantasy novel someday. The truth is, when I write about history I am always learning, and I can’t think of anything more exciting or rewarding. I hope that young readers will take a chance on historical fiction and nonfiction, and can’t wait to share A Bandit’s Tale with them.
Award-winning master of historical fiction for children Deborah Hopkinson takes readers back to nineteenth-century New York City in her new middle-grade novel: A BANDIT’S TALE: THE MUDDLED MISADVENTURES OF A PICKPOCKET (Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers | on sale April 5, 2016 | Ages 8–12 | $16.99).
“A strong chose for those who enjoy adventures about scrappy and resourceful kids.” —School Library Journal, Starred Review
“A dynamic historical novel ideal for both classroom studies and pleasure reading.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
P.S. - Here is Deborah's Office Assistant, Rue, and Rue hard at work.