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Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel

Written by Deborah Hopkinson

Published by Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, Random House, 2013
ISBN 978-0-375-84818-6
Grades 4-8
Book Review
Historical fiction as a genre can vary greatly. Some novels for children and young adults provide their readers with a window into a particular time and place. Some may include actual events or real people. But the very best historical novels for young people transport them into a past that is not merely a static backdrop, but the very fabric of the conflict, tension, and mood of the story. The Great Trouble is one of those novels that fully immerses the reader in a problematic moment in the past, in this case, London and the 1854 outbreak of cholera. Hopkinson brings to life a vivid cast of characters, a snapshot of the “haves” and “have nots” of Victorian London, and in particular, the dire circumstances faced by orphans and children of the working poor. Eel, the earnest and honest protagonist, is not simply the narrator, but a participant in all the action, with a powerful sense of agency that rings authentic given the brutal reality of 19th century urban life. This historical mystery introduces readers to scientific thinking, social class, urbanization and industrialization, some motifs from the 19th century novel, and the horrors of cholera. Eel’s voice is ripe for reading aloud, but students will appreciate the opportunity to dive into this book individually as well, in the context of social studies or language arts, or even in health class.
Teaching Ideas & Invitations
·      The Water of the Thames, 1850. Just a few years before the cholera epidemic depicted in The Great Trouble, the British magazine Punch published a humorous cartoon depicting what might be in asingle drop of water from the Thames River. Have your students examine this cartoon before reading the book, using it as an introduction to the opening chapters. When you finish the book, go back to the cartoon and see the different ways students are better able to understand the cartoonist’s goals.
·      Duet Reading. Using the Duet Model, have students read The Great Trouble and A Boy Called Dickens, Hopkinson’s picture book biography of Charles Dickens. Start with a read aloud of the picture book biography. Have students generate a list of things they learn about life in 19th century England in general, and about the lives of children in particular. As you read, have students use the background information they gleaned from the biography to better understand the novel, and vice versa. You may want to show students a sample of an installment of North and South, the Elizabeth Gaskell novel mentioned at the end of the book as being newly published by Dickens in 1854.
·      Comparing & Contrasting Victorian England. Show students a range of photographs from the time period, drawing from the digital resources included below, but particularly those from the British Library (NOTE: The British Library site has great slideshows of images) and English Heritage sites. Using the visual images, what kinds of comparisons and contrasts can the students make between the lives of different classes? You might print out the photographs and have students sort them in small groups in ways that highlight similarities and differences, put them in a slideshow in tablets, or simply project them in a whole class setting. Have students generate lists of what they think they know about the time period based just on the photographs. Next, have students in pairs explore the BBC’s interactive Victorian England site, to learn more before or during their reading of The Great Trouble.
·      Historical Fiction & Disease Genre Study. In small groups, have your students reading different historical novels that are set within a public health crisis or epidemic. In addition to The Great Trouble, you may want to have students read Fever 1793 (Anderson, 2000), A Time of Angels (Hesse, 1997), and Like the Willow (Lowry, 2011). As a class, generate questions about disease and epidemics. As each group progress through its novel, have students comparing and contrasting the developing answers (and new questions) within each group as well as across. What is the status of yellow fever, cholera, and the influenza today? Some of the digital resources below may be helpful in exploring current strategies used by the US Public Health Service for curbing communicable diseases. 
·      Historical Fiction & Victorian England. In small groups, have your students read other historical novels set in Victorian England, or nonfiction books about Victorian England. In addition to The Great Trouble, you may want to have students read the historical fantasy Splendors and Glooms (Schlitz, 2012), Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? (Updale, 2004), and/or biographies such as Charles Dickens: England’s Most Captivating Storyteller (Wells-Cole, 2011) and Dickens: His Work and World (Rosen, 2005). As students read, have them compare and contrast what they are learning about Victorian culture in range of categories (industrialization, science, the arts, class, etc.). You might even want bring in some fiction written during the Victorian Era. How was the time period depicted in the historical novels versus the novels that were penned during that time? Such novels could include the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett or Robert Louis Stevenson, both of whom wrote their books starting about twenty years after the cholera epidemic. What particular status do orphans have in these books, and why?
·      Making Predictions. Hopkinson’s book is layered with mystery, rooted in both the reality of Victorian London and the characters of her making. Why must Eel avoid Fisheye Bill Tyler? Why are people getting the Blue Death? Where did the cholera begin? What happened to Eel’s parents? Have your students track some of these big questions in their reading journals, and share their predictions as you move through the novel.
·      Public Health in Your Community. As Hopkinson shares in her back matter, Dr. Snow really did map the Broad Street neighborhood where the 1854 cholera outbreak took place, which you can find in a variety of places online. She also states that Dr. William Farr, who works in the General Register Office in the book, was also a real person, who collected medical statistics. He was known for “developing a national vital statistics system, which provided data to public-health officials and served as an example to other countries” (p. 214). What kinds of vital records does your community keep? What role does the US Public Health Service have in your community or state? Have students explore what information is available online, and have someone from your municipal government come in to talk about emergency management preparation, public health, evacuation routes, etc. What can digital maps do today that paper maps couldn’t do one hundred and fifty years ago? Have students contribute to a public health resource book that can be shared with their families. How is technology changing public health management? You might consider having students listen to Paul Conneally’s TED Talk “Digital Humanitarianism.”
·      Voices from Victorian London.The Great Trouble introduces readers to many different residents of London, from the mudlarks of the Thames, to tailors and brewers. Some  become full, developed characters like Flossie, Eel, and Reverend Whitehead. Others we have mere glimpses of, such as Mr. Griggs, the tailor, and Abel Cooper. Still others are just in the background, the men and women living in the vicinity of the Broad Street Pump. Have your students use the digital resources below as well as books available in your school and public library to research different members of Victorian society. If you began your exploration of the book with photographs, you may ask students to return to those photographs to select a group of people to research. Have students use their research to write first person portraits. You can create a class book with illustrations or perform them as monologues. As mentor texts for such work, look at: Lady Liberty: A Biography(Rappaport, 2008); Colonial Voices: Hear Them Speak (Winters, 2008); or Good Masters, Sweet Ladies: Voices from a Medieval Village (Schlitz, 2007). 

·      Deborah Hopkinson Micro-Author Study. Deborah Hopkinson has written a great range of books for children and young adults, from fiction and nonfiction picture books to chapter-length historical novels and nonfiction works. After reading The Great Trouble, have students read the extensive back matter that she provides. How does the back matter help them to better understand the story? How does it validate key events? What does it tell them about author’s craft and the art of researching and writing historical fiction? Compare the backmatter in this book to that of some of her other books, including her award-winning nonfiction books such as Titanic: Voice from the Disaster, Shutting Out the Sky, and Up Before Daybreak: The Story of Cotton and People in America. Start with the picture books since students can read them quickly and absorb the backmatter more readily, and then have them read just the author’s notes for the nonfiction books. Ideally, this could read to your own research project in which students choose to write historical fiction or nonfiction to share their research, but focus on the craft of writing backmatter to support their own reader’s understanding of their efforts and goals as researchers and writers.


Critical Literacy
·      Cholera Today. Cholera continues to be a disease that afflicts the poor while the rich and middle class manage to avoid it. Around the world, power and privilege often give access to clean water and sanitary living conditions. So where does cholera take place today, and why? Using the digital resources included below as well as other resources available in your school and public library, have students explore the connection between poverty and cholera. You might want to have students explore in particular the cholera epidemic that hit Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake, and the role of the United Nations in causing the outbreak. What responsibility does the United Nations have? What constitutes appropriate action right now? Who is advocating for the people of Haiti, who rank among the poorest in the world? Students can choose to write letters to the United Nations expressing their concern or to their Members of Congress Students might also choose to raise awareness by educating your school community and perhaps raising money to support those in Haiti still suffering, and to help stop the spread of the epidemic. Students will want to research the most effective organization to which they should donate any funds raised.
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Deborah Hopkinson’s Website (including book lists)
BBC: Children in Victorian England
British Library: Victorians
English Heritage: Victorian England Collection
UCLA Fielding School of Public Health on Dr. Snow
Dr. Snow’s Map on the UCLA Webpage
BBC on John Snow
Mayo Clinic on Cholera
Center for Disease Control (CDC) on Cholera
New York Times on Cholera in Haiti
NY Times October 2013 on Cholera in Haiti
U.S. Public Health Service

Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Literature Network

Robert Louis Stevenson: The Literature Network

Anderson, L.H. (2000). Fever 1793. New York: Simon and Shuster.
Hesse, K. (1997). A time of angels. New York: Disney-Hyperion.
Hopkinson, D. (2012). A boy called Dickens. Ill. by J. Hendrix. New York: Schwartz & Wade.
Lowry, L. (2011). Like the willow. New York: Scholastic.
Rappaport, D. (2008). Lady Liberty: A biography. Ill. by M. Tavares. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
Rosen, M. (2005). Dickens: His work and his world. Ill. by R. Ingpen. Cambridge MA: Candlewick Press.
Schlitz, L. A. (2007). Good masters, sweet ladies: Voices from a medieval village. Ill. by R. Byrd. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
Updale, E. (2004). Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman?. London: Orchard Books.
Wells-Cole, C. (2011). Charles Dickens: England’s most captivating storyteller. Sommerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Winters, K. (2008). Colonial voices: Hear them speak. Ill. by L. Day. New York: Dutton.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.


  1. Thank you! This is absolutely marvelous and far more than I could ever think of myself, that's for certain! I will definitely share with schools as they prepare for an author visit.