Deborah Hopkinson is a bit of a romantic, and a huge fan of fairy tales. So that's why she wrote "Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred."
What was your inspiration behind your most recent book?
"Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred," brought to luscious life by Caldecott-winning illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky, tells the story of a put-upon field mouse who is reluctantly transformed by a grumpy fairy godmother into the horse who pulls Ella’s pumpkin coach to the ball. (It’s not a pleasant experience for either Ella or Fred.) But there is, after all, a happily ever after for Ella, who meets a young farmer and marries her.
I’ve published other picture books, mostly about historical topics, and never attempted a fairy tale spin-off before — or anything with talking animals. But like Ella in the story, I love to garden. And there’s even a bit of a historical aspect in this story, as it’s a fictional account of how the French heirloom variety Musquée de Provence, got its nickname as a fairy tale pumpkin.
I’ve illustrated fairy tales before: Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and Rumpelstiltskin, all with elaborate oil paintings mimicking European art from the Renaissance. Clearly this Cinderella was a horse of a different color, and I needed to look elsewhere. With guidance from our brilliant editor Anne Schwartz, I found inspiration in the same source as one of my first picture books (The Maid and the Mouse and the Odd-shaped House): the flat, ornamental, slightly abstract look of early American crewel or needlepoint. If that can be called an artistic style, I think it’s one of the funniest ones there is, and it has the right touch of antiquity for a Cinderella story.
What does "Reading Rainbow" mean to you?
All kids deserve to see themselves in books and feel proud of who they are. One of my adult kids is gay, and I wish that, years ago, our family had had access to more picture books, as well as middle grade fiction and nonfiction with diverse and LGBTQIA+ characters. I think for me, Reading Rainbow is to read widely and inclusively. Reading is a window to discover who we are and also to touch other lives and experiences.
As an author who visits schools around the country, I feel a responsibility to support, promote, and share books that nurture empathy, understanding, and self-discovery.
Deborah answered that very well. I have a grown daughter who’s gay, and so have a grandson with two mothers. He’ll soon be reading, and I hope he reads this book with pride!
Why do you feel representation of a variety of people is so important when it comes to writing books?
When I was a girl, I remember wanting to learn more about women’s history and ordinary people of the past. I wanted to dig into the snippets of real-life stories in the shaded boxes of those big old history textbooks.
In addition to picture books, many about women’s history, I also write longer nonfiction about natural disasters, World War II, and the Holocaust. I think of my role as akin to a museum curator whose job it is to bring together a wide range of historical voices and experiences, especially voices that have often been lost. And I also encourage my readers to tell their own stories and those of their families, because I’ve seen so many times that unless a story is shared, that history dies and we all lose.
The feeling of inclusion in a group is an important human need, so the feeling of being excluded is always going to sting. Why would children’s book writers and illustrators want to make any reader feel stung?
And by the same token, children of the majority who have always seen themselves in the words and pictures of their books, which have historically excluded all but their own group, need to grow up seeing a mix of people there.
Tell us a little more about the book and why you decided to write it.
I’m a bit of a romantic. I read Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre in middle school, I devoured Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte, and each December I watch my favorite Cinderella spin-off, Ever After. That film, of course, is set in rural France, the home of the beautiful French heirloom fairy tale pumpkins called Musquée de Provence, which look just right for a pumpkin coach.
Put all these things together and somehow, a story appeared, with thanks to the patience and guidance of my fabulous editor, Anne Schwartz. And though we wordsmithed multiple drafts, the bones of the story remained the same, from Ella’s uncomfortable glass high heels, to the unpleasant prince, to Fred’s itchy ears, to saving a pumpkin seed, and to the eventual fairy tale ending when Ella finds true love with a young woman who loves her just as she is.
Let’s hope I have as good luck as Ella and Fred do in my garden. Right now I’m trying to grow a fairy tale pumpkin.
Deborah, I hope to see that pumpkin growing on your website.
What can fans expect from your book?
I think kids will love Paul Zelinsky’s fabulous art. And I hope there’s enough humor that adults won’t mind reading the story more than once!
What I hope fans will get from this book is pleasure and amusement. Also, some coloring sheets that you can find on Deborah’s website. And in a more ridiculous vein, they can find fabric patterns that I created based on various pictures in the book, available not only for printing by the yard on a variety of fabrics, but even made into numerous useful items like tea towels, throw pillows, and even duvet covers and wallpaper!
I did this strictly for my own entertainment. I'm having a Cinderella-and-a-Horse-Called-Fred fabric shirt made for me, and a matching one for my grandson.
What's up next for you in the bookish world?
I have some fun books coming out this year and next, as well as one on a more serious topic. In 2024, Knopf will publish my picture book entitled Evidence! How Dr. John Snow Solved the Mystery of Cholera with debut illustrator Nik Henderson.
Also, I’m excited to be doing in-person school visits again, and can’t wait to share Cinderella and Fred with kids and families.
Like Deborah, I’m also hoping to get out and introduce children to this book, wearing my C.A.A.M.C.F. dress shirt, of course.
As to next books: having finished this fairy tale with a gay twist, I’m illustrating another funny text, which has no particular reference to identity. It’s called “Still Life,” written by my friend Alex London, and it’s about what belongs and what does not belong in a still life painting. Although now that I think about it, there’s a princess who is less charmed by a knight in armor than by the dragon he’s fighting, so maybe it is Cinderella all over again!