The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket

A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket
Written by Deborah Hopkinson
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-385-75499-6
Grades 4-8
Book Review
“These days, when anyone asks, I say I’m an American, New York City-born. And why not? Because, in a way, I was born here.” Rocco Zaccaro is ripped away from his family in Cavello, Italy when his father signs a contract with a padrone who promises to find him work in America. The challenges of his first year in America, and his responses to the abuse, starvation, and deprivation, form his identity and consciousness. In Deborah Hopkinson’s portrayal of Rocco, young readers experience a touch of the picaresque novel, reminiscent of Fielding and Dickens, with a dash of the rags to riches stories of 19th century dime novels, and a strong first-person narration that often speaks directly to the reader. While Hopkinson chronicles Rocco’s story, her readers gain an intricate entry point into late 19th century lower Manhattan and the forces that preyed on newly arrived immigrants, particularly children. Readers also witness the ways in which America was responding to these forces, such as the birth of the photo essay and investigative journalism, as well as the ASPCA. Jacob Reiss and other notable New Yorkers serve as characters, and readers accustomed to fairly precise weather forecasts get to experience the surprise that was the Great Blizzard of 1888. While Rocco’s story has a happy ending, it is a somewhat realistic one, tempered by his suffering. Ideal as an independent read, book club book, or whole class exploration, A Bandit’s Tale is ripe for integrated explorations in language arts and social studies that focus on immigration and poverty, child labor, advocacy, and the power of print and image to inform and shape public understanding and policy.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Exploring Rocco’s New York. Before reading The Bandit’s Tale, allow your students to explore Rocco’s New York using the Jacob Riis photographs online from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. As students view the photographs, ask them to list what they see in each. Next, have them write down questions they would like to ask the people they see in the photographs. Have students compare and contrast their observations and questions in small groups and then as a full class. What are some of their common assumptions about life in New York City for immigrant children during the late 19th century? As they read the novel, ask them to note moments in the book when the photographs help them to visualize what is happening.
Author Study.First, have the students explore a range of Hopkinson’s picture books, both historical fiction and nonfiction (see the author’s website for a complete list). What do the books have in common with one another? How do they differ? In small groups, have students read one of her three stand-alone historical novels: A Bandit’s Tale, The Great Trouble, and Into the Firestorm. What commonalities do they see in Hopkinson’s novels? How are her male protagonists similar and different from one another? What themes overlap? How do the themes and topics in her picture books connect with those in her novels? To cap off your exploration, have students research a time period of interest in order to write an original short story. Have students mine Hopkinson’s authors notes for information on her process of researching and writing. What kinds of sources does she use? What are some of the ways they can use Hopkinson’s work as a mentor text for their writing?
Newspapers and the Art and Craft of Printing. While at the House of Refuge, Rocco learns to read and write in English, and he studies the craft of printmaking. While free, he follows journalist Max Fischel, and ultimately, he realizes that the only way to make citizens aware of child abuse, such as the kind that he experienced at 45 Crosby Street, is to cover it in a newspaper article. What do your students know about print making and newspaper publication? What newspapers are they aware of? Using the resources below, allow your students to explore the history of print making, fonts, and the changing “face” of American newspapers. Bring in some local and national newspapers, in print form, to balance the exploration of historic newspapers online. How do the newspapers differ from one another in terms of the scope of coverage, the font and layout, the use of color versus black and white photographs? Explore different digital fonts available from resources like Have students in small groups create their own digital newspaper documenting events in your school and the larger community. When their papers are completed, make sure that they write a reflection that conveys their editorial decisions regarding font, format, and organization, as well as the content that they have covered.
Communities Over Time. After Rocco flees the House of Refuge the first time, or at the conclusion of the book when we discover he will be freed, provide your students with time to explore the Randall’s Island Park Alliance. How has the island changed over the years? Have your students explore the timeline available on the Alliance website, and trace the park’s history to the present day. How has the city of New York reconsidered the utility and value of the island over the years? How has it helped provide different resources to the city? What do they imagine the island could become in the future? What possible positive and negative futures could it face? Next, have students select different spots in your own community. How has that single spot (a school, library, town building, park, development) been used over time? Work with the local historical society and/or the reference section of your local library to create parallel interactive timelines, using the Randall’s Island Alliance timeline or the Tenement Museum’s interactive tour as mentor texts. Be sure to interview members of your community who have been involved with the site over the course of the 20th century.
Grades 6-8
Historical Fiction Genre Study. Both A Bandit’s Taleand The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli are set in New York City, just a few years apart. Each features a male protagonist who is taken against his will from Italy to New York City. Have half of your students read one book, half the other. Since setting is so critical to historical fiction, have students create a graphic organizer in which they can document the descriptions of New York City that appear in each book. What people and places are mentioned? What details seem important? What details about lower Manhattan during the late 19th century are consistent across the books? What details differ and how does that impact each story? Have students meet in their book club groups, but also provide opportunities for groups to jigsaw with one another to compare and contrast their books and the characters within. Finally, have students consider the themes at work in each book. What consistent themes do they see? How do the themes differ? Have students identify topics about this time and place that they would like to learn more about. Students can conduct research using some of the resources below, like the Tenement Museum, and then write their own original historical fiction.
Picaresque Novels.In her extensive author’s note, Hopkinson informs her readers that she wrote the novel in the picaresque style, and shares that the Spanish root “picaro” means “rogue” in English. These novels originated in 17th century Spain and are frequently told in the first person, through the voice of the protagonist. This protagonist is often a young man from humble means who struggles to survive in the world, relying on his own wits and luck. Hopkinson lists some of the most famous picaresque novels in her author’s note. While students are reading A Bandit’s Tale, give them the opportunity to explore the first chapter of some of these famous novels. What similarities and differences do the students notice between the earlier novels and Hopkinson’s, in terms of voice, characterization, conflict, and plot? Walk students through a close reading protocol to “mine” these literary elements from the evidence in the first chapters. The open-ended questions articulated by Nancy Boyles may be useful to you, as may the power point on close reading created by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. When students conclude the novel, ask them how knowing about the genre of the picaresque supported their overall reading. Have students explore the idea of a contemporary picaresque, and write original short stories, microfiction, or first-person monologues in the style.
Historical Fiction & Nonfiction Duet.  Deborah Hopkinson has written about the experiences of newly arrived immigrants in New York City before, in her middle grade nonfiction book Shutting Out the Sky. Have some students in class start off reading A Bandit’s Tale and other students read Shutting Out the Sky. Have the students keep reading journals where they track their thinking about what is happening in New York City and what they learn about a range of immigrants, conditions, and particular people and events. Have students meet in book groups to compare their notes. Next, have them read the other book, and continue to take notes in their reading journal. When they are finished, have them discuss their “paths” into the past. Who preferred nonfiction? Who preferred historical fiction? What similarities and differences did they find in Hopkinson’s writing in each? In conclusion, have students identify topics about this time and place that they would like to learn more about. Students can conduct research using some of the resources below, like the Tenement Museum, and then write their own original historical fiction or nonfiction.  Or, like Hopkinson, they may want to try both.
Critical Literacy
Who is Missing? Much of A Bandit’s Tale is set in lower Manhattan, south of 14th street, where thousands of European immigrant families were living in tenements after passing through Castle Garden (prior to the opening of Ellis Island). Ask your students to consider who else was living in New York City at the time, and where? Specifically, ask them to consider what the lives of poor, middle, and upper class African Americans like. After reading A Bandit’s Tale, you might want to have your students explore Marilyn Nelson’s verse novel My Seneca Village, comprised of vignettes detailed Seneca Village’s history in the first half of the 19th century. By the late 1850s, the village was destroyed in order to build Central Park. Where did those children and their families go? You might also have some students explore Tonya Bolden’s Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl. Where were African Americans living in Manhattan by the late 19th century? Next, you might want to have your students research the Black Gotham archive, the digital resources at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture, and the New York HistoricalSociety. Give your students some freedom in how they want to represent their research findings. The concept of portraits might be useful, drawing on the vignettes in My Seneca Village and some of the paintings and photographs they may uncover in their research. You might want to share Walter Dean Myers’s Brown Angels, a photo essay about residents of Harlem at the turn of the 20th century, as a mentor text as well. Students can write first person monologues from the perspective of one of the residents of New York they uncover, or a composite resident based on their research. Or, they could paint or draw a portrait of someone, and write a museum card providing that person’s story. Student monologues can be performed for students in other grades at your school, or community members, alongside an exhibit of the portraits.
Change and Advocacy in the 19th and 21st Centuries. The time in which Rocco lived was a time of great change in the United States. The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. European-Americans were moving inward from each coast, forcing Native Americans into smaller and smaller areas. Factories were being built. Immigrants were pouring in on both coasts, including Asian immigrants in the west.  In the late 19th century, we see new advocacy groups starting up to provide a network of support within the changing society. In A Bandit’s Tale,we witness the start of American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), an organization with which the students in your class may very well be familiar. The Children’s Aid Society started approximately twenty years earlier, while The Sierra Club, an organization devoted to conservation, started in 1892.  Have students consider, either while they are reading A Bandit’s Tale, or after, what problems our country currently faces. Who needs help? What problems do they see in their community? Students can identify a few topics to research in-depth in small groups. Have your students research these problems by talking with members of your local town and city government, both staff and elected, as well as state and national government representatives. What advocacy organizations does our current society need? What organizations exist and which ones should exist? Students can make culminating presentations to the community, perhaps at your local library, providing information on the problems they have researched, the organizations that are doing work on those problems, and the new organizations that might be needed to meet the complex demands of the 21st century.
Child Labor in the 19thand 21st Centuries. A Bandit’s Tale reveals some of the jobs that both native born and immigrant children were forced to do in the late 19th centuries. For many of those children, school was out of reach. Certainly Rocco was enslaved by his padrone, as were the other boys forced to live in squalor and work long hours in extreme conditions.  When Rocco dreams of bringing his family over, he considers the different jobs his parents and siblings can do upon arrival, and imagines the possibility of sending only his youngest brother to school. What about children today in America and around the world? Who might be working instead of attending school, despite national and international protections? After reading A Bandit’s Tale, have students read Boys Without Names, about boys stolen into slavery in India to make rugs. After completing the novel, and comparing and contrasting the boys’ situation in each, discuss what is being done about child slave labor today. Using the digital resources below, research child labor with your children. In particular, you might want use The Child Labor Coalition’s links to agricultural and industrial child labor, and have the students research the different areas listed within. As a culminating activity, students can present information on what they have learned to the school community. If they are so inspired, perhaps your students can fundraise on behalf of child laborers around the world, and contribute to an organization that they believe will best help efforts to eradicate child labor. Students may also choose to write to your members of Congress in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S.Senate, to express their concerns and their desire for action.
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Deborah Hopkinson’s Official Website
Immigration and Poverty
History of Poverty and Homeless in New York City, The Institute of Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
The Tenement Museum
Digital Collections of the New York Public Library
Library of Congress, Immigration Online Exhibit
Non-Profit Organizations
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
The Children’s Aid Society
The Sierra Club
Randall’s Island Park Alliance
Jacob Riis
Jacob Riis, New York Times Topic
Jacob Riis, Museum of the City of New York Photos
Jacob Riis Photographs, Museum of Modern Art, New York City
How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, Google Book
Michael Hallanan
Hallanan’s Blacksmith Building and the Hallanan Building, New York City
The Blizzard of 1888
New York Historical Society
New York Public Library
Learning Blog – Blizzard of 1888, The New York Times
Child Labor
Child Labor, New York Times Topic
The Child Labor Commission of the National Consumers League
Classroom Bookshelf Entry on Child Labor
History of Printing Timeline, American Printing History Association
History of Printmaking, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Fonts for Sale
“100 Years Ago Today,” Online Feature, Library of Congress
History of Fonts
African-Americans in New York City, 19thCentury
Black Gotham
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library
New York Historical Society
Bolden, T. (2005). Maritcha: A nineteenth-century American girl. New  York: Abrams.
Hopkinson, D. (2008). Into the firestorm: A novel of San Francisco, 1906. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Books.
Hopkinson, D. (2013). The great trouble: A mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a boy called Eel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Books.
Hopkinson, D. (2003). Shutting out the sky: Life in the tenements of New York, 1880-1924. New York: Orchard Books.
Murphy. J. (2000) Blizzard! The storm that changed America. New York: Scholastic.
Myers, W.D. (1996). Brown angels: An album of pictures and verse. New York: Harper Collins.
Napoli, D.J. (2005). The king of Mulberry Street. New York: Wendy Lamb Books.
Nelson, M. (2015). My Seneca village. Namelos.

Seth, K. (2010). Boys without names. New York: Balzar and Bray.
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. As always, I'm delighted when you choose to feature a JLG selection on your blog. I'm happy to include it on our Pinterest board and JLG Booktalks to Go Spring 2016 LiveBinder. We are all grateful for your work.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Deborah, and your support of the blog. We so appreciate it!