Why I Wrote The Great Trouble (Especially for Fourth Graders) by Deborah Hopkinson

Whenever I receive the schedule for an upcoming author visit, I always look first at when I’ll be speaking to fourth graders.  It’s great to start the day with them, or have them sandwiched between squirrelly first graders and scary sixth graders.  But the very best schedule is when fourth graders are last, because no matter how tired I am, I know it will all go well: when I speak to fourth graders, I feel like I’ve come home.

There’s something magical about this age.  It seems to be the time when many young readers put everything they’ve learned together and their love of reading simply takes off.  (One of my own kids was like that.)  And even if reading isn’t and never will be their favorite thing (my other kid), fourth graders are (at least to visiting authors) a joy to be around.

They’re curious, kind, they share my passion for dogs, and they like to laugh. They’re good companions and not afraid to show enthusiasm.  They ask wild questions and are willing to take a stab at anything I throw at them (“Describe a cell phone to someone who lived in 1854 using only words and concepts he or she would know.”) After a session with fourth graders, I always find myself wishing adults were more like them.

So when I set out to write The Great Trouble, a middle grade historical fiction book about Dr. John Snow and the 1854 London cholera epidemic, I kept my favorite grade in mind.  And though it has a serious core, my novel includes some special touches which I hope they’ll like.  There’s a nasty villain (Fisheye Bill Tyler), a silly dog (Dilly, found in Piccadilly Circus), some coffins, a character who’d be at home in a Dickens novel (Thumbless Jake, a mudlark), and, of course, a mystery (how can Eel and Dr. John Snow prove that cholera is spread by water?).

Finally, since I know from experience (and having written a book about a certain ship disaster) that fourth graders are as addicted to facts and research details as I am, I made sure to include sixteen pages of notes in the back, for those readers who want to add cholera to the long list of topics on which they are already experts (such as dinosaurs, horses, WWII, baseball, and, once again, that ship disaster).

Now, of course, as I write this no young readers, fourth graders or otherwise, have yet read The Great Trouble.  I could be terribly wrong that they’ll like it.  But I have hope,  based on some school visits last spring, when I had the chance to share Stephanie Dalton Cowan’s wonderful, image-rich cover with students.

The first question I asked them was: “What is the blue death?”  That was all it took: they were off on a spree of speculation.

I hope teachers will ask the same question as a way of introducing a topic that is still relevant today – access to clean water and the presence of deadly cholera epidemics in our world.  I’d love to hear what your students say.


Deborah Hopkinson is the author of more than 45 books for young readers including picture books, short fiction, and nonfiction.  Her historical fiction picture books often illuminate the lives of ordinary people or forgotten figures in history. She has won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for picture book text twice, and in 2013 received both a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction honor and a Robert F. Sibert Honor for Titanic, Voices from the Disaster

To learn more about Dr. John Snow and see his map visit The Great Trouble resources on Deborah’s website:  http://www.deborahhopkinson.com/New%20Books/trouble.html