Talking to Hana Tooke about her debut novel, The Unadoptables

There are three Rules for Abandonment at the Little Tulip Orphanage in nineteenth-century Amsterdam. Babies must be wrapped in a cotton blanket, placed in a wicker basket and deposited on the topmost step. These orders have never been broken – until 1880, when no fewer than five orphans are abandoned in ways that are increasingly ill-judged. 

By the time a coffin-shaped basket has been wedged behind the chimney-stack and Milou arrives, clutching a cat-puppet “made from the softest Amsterdam cotton and dressed in fine Antwerp silk,” Matron Gassbeek is beside herself. The Little Tulip is anything but charitable. Her orphans generate cash from the clients who adopt them, but prospective parents prefer orderly children with conventional ways - which Milou, Fenna, Lotta, Egg and Sem are not. They were physically unusual as babies – Sem is particularly tall, Lotta has an extra finger on each hand – and all develop talents as they grow. But it isn’t just their differences that discourage would-be adopters. Milou is waiting for her birth family to reclaim her, and is perfecting the art of appearing unadoptable. 

The name sticks. After twelve years at the Little Tulip, not a single visitor has expressed an interest in Milou, Fenna, Lotta, Egg or Sem  – until the terrifying Rotman arrives, willing to pay handsomely for children to join him aboard his ship. He’ll show them the world, he says. But is he genuine? Or simply looking for expendable labour?
“No way! I didn’t see that coming! It’s driving me crazy, I really want to know what happens next….” 11-year-old Cast of Thousands reviewerBack in the 1700’s, Dutch orphans really were bought, taken aboard merchant ships and ‘lost’ at sea, as Hana Tooke discovered while researching her book. Luckily for the Unadoptables, Milou senses foul play and persuades her friends to flee as far from Rotman and the Little Tulip as they can. Their path takes them to a mysterious location where Milou believes her parents are waiting, but all they find is a decaying windmill full of puppets. 

How the children establish themselves at the Poppenmill, fool their neighbours with a life-size ‘Puppet-Papa’ and mount a theatrical spectacle to draw the attention of Milou’s long-lost family forms the substance of this book, but there are engaging subplots and the whole is spiced with memorable encounters with a host of quirky characters, from Edda Finkelstein the Clockwork Artisan to Rose Speelman, a gruesome Kinderbureau official intent on returning all five children to the orphanage. Plus Rotman, of course, whose skulduggery results in kidnap, fire and a tense encounter with a puppet that just won’t stay dead…

Personal experience, extensive research and a ready imagination feed into Hana Tooke's eccentric yet convincing settings, and the plot fizzes with excitement and suspense as it rattles through its unexpected twists and turns. But it’s the author's instinctive grasp of what matters in a story for this audience that transforms an entertaining narrative into something really special - a story with depth, integrity and heart in which her characters can really shine. It’s rare for debut middle-grade fiction to read like a classic and offer such consistent child-appeal, but this one pulls it off and will feature on many summer reading lists.

The Unadoptables is illustrated throughout with black-and-white line drawings by Ayesha Rubio.

We explored a pre-publication copy with young reviewers as part of our Cast of Thousands Lockdown Bookclub. 

The Unadoptables will be published by Puffin at the end of July, so we were delighted when Hana found the time to join us at Cast of Thousands to share insights about the story and her writing process. Many thanks to Hana - and a big shout-out to 11-year-old Lucy, who asked some of the questions!

Welcome to Cast of Thousands!  Where did the idea for The Unadoptables come from, and when did you start writing it? 

The idea for Milou’s story popped into my head one wintery morning. Throughout 2017 I’d been struggling through a first draft of a different book, but I think the idea for a gothic story set in Holland had been percolating in my subconscious for a while. Puppets, a windmill – those were vague ideas I had floating around, but I’d been ignoring them to focus on this other story. And then I woke up one morning with the entire plot and cast so vividly in my mind, it felt like the five of them had just crash-landed into my brain, waving their arms, demanding I pay them immediate attention. So, I did. In January 2018 I poured out a very rough first draft of The Unadoptables and was a little bit stunned at how easily it had come. 

Your story-world is really vivid and full of interesting details. How much research and world-building did you do before starting to write, and how much evolved as you went along?

In terms of setting, The Unadoptables is set very much in the same landscape (albeit different era) to my own childhood, so that aspect came quite naturally. I did a lot of drafts, adding details layer by layer. I think there were about eight drafts in total. The first draft didn’t have Rotman or Edda in it, for example. When they say writing is rewriting, I find that absolutely applies to how I write a book. 

Once I had the basic plot down, I was able to really think about world-building and character development in more detail, so it definitely evolved gradually. Researching is one of my favourite parts of writing and my google history has some very strange searches! 

I wrote quite a bit of the final draft in Amsterdam – visiting windmills, canal houses, and an old orphanage – to make sure I could get even more detail and authenticity into my descriptions. Rotman’s character came from reading an article on how orphans might have been ‘employed’ by merchants to work in dangerous and gruelling conditions during the time of the Dutch East India Company. Although this would have happened a good hundred years or more before my story is set, I could imagine a vile, avaricious man who looks back at the “golden age” of Dutch imperialism and feels entitled to try to reclaim a bit of it for himself, by whatever nefarious means he can. 

Which character did you enjoy writing about the most, and why? Which character surprised you the most? Which was the most challenging to write about?

Edda appeared quite late into the process (draft three or four, I think), as I was struggling with the ‘soggy middle’ of my story. I knew I needed something/someone new when the orphans arrive at Poppenmill, but for a long while I couldn’t work out what/who exactly. A bit like the original seed of the story, when Edda did finally arrive, she was as clear as day, arms crossed and raising that eyebrow at me as if to say: ‘it’s about time you finally spotted me, now let’s get on with it shall we?’ Edda completely transformed the story, not just in terms of plot but the effect she had on the orphans’ vividness, especially Milou and Lotta. So, in that respect, I think she was probably the most surprising AND the most enjoyable character to write.  

Egg was certainly the most challenging, as his experience is one which I (as a white European) can barely even begin to comprehend. The nineteenth century was an awful time for impoverished children as it was. Add to that is the fact that, in this time period, immigration in the Netherlands was relatively low and being a different ethnicity would have really made him stand out. Although I don’t write from his perspective, I wanted to address the sense of isolation and confusion he must have felt about living in a place where no one he knows looks like him. 


Milou’s ‘sense’ is an intriguing talent and one that plays a big role in the story. Can you tell us a little more about it? Is it like intuition? Or does it have a supernatural element?

Milou’s ‘sense’ is something she’s had her entire life. It guides her through physical means: tingling ears when there’s danger looming, shadowy shapes that lead her towards answers, and even a whispered, faraway voice when her life is threatened. It could be a magical power she has, a sensitivity to some yet-unknown force, or perhaps even a ghost who follows her everywhere she goes. Or it could just be that Milou is just very intuitive to her surroundings, through the necessity of having to navigate an unstable environment. 

The thing I love about this era is the way science and mysticism were both growing alongside one another, unlike today, where our science explains away the paranormal. Despite many believing mysticism was a sham, a still significant number of prominent scientists and other major figures of that era (e.g. the writer Arthur Conan-Doyle) truly believed that there were supernatural forces at play in the universe. I’m fascinated with what this must have been like to live through; in the midst of such rapid scientific discovery, but with so much still unexplained and so many opposing opinions.  

Today, what Milou experiences would probably be explained away as intuition and her attributing these signs to an external source, rather than an innate one. But back then, it must have felt like anything was possible. I think if I’d had Milou’s Sense, in that time, I might be inclined to believe it was something phenomenal. I’ve kept her Sense ambiguous for precisely that reason: it’s up to readers to decide whether they believe it is real or not.

Why do you think there are so many orphans in children’s books? What made you want to write about an orphanage?

“I didn’t set out to write a story about orphans as such. I suppose the main thing I really wanted to write about was a group of ‘misfits’ who refuse to conform to what society deems acceptable or normal…. a group of children who empower each other, see their own worth, and carve out their own story rather than be forced to conform to someone else’s. I also wanted something that united them with an unbreakable bond, and I guess this is where the orphan trope came in. And given the time period I was writing about, it seemed logical to write them in this way. In the absence of a guiding adult figure, they had to navigate this journey themselves...” 

“No way did I see that coming!"  "The epilogue is driving me crazy, I really want to know what happens next!” - comments from one of our Cast of Thousands readers, age 11  

How does a writer get that kind of reaction? Is it something that just happens, or does it take a lot of care and craft? 

It takes a lot of trial and error! Going back to the point I made earlier - that writing is rewriting - it took so many drafts to get it right, a lot of revising to make sure the twists and revelations landed correctly. A lot of this comes from having other people read the book and feed back on these elements, so I can’t claim all the credit for it. I owe much to my editors, agent, and early readers for pointing out what worked and what didn’t. With the epilogue, I wanted to show some resolution to Milou’s search for answers, whilst leaving it open to reader’s imagination as to what happens next. 

Can you drop any hints about what does happen next? Will there be a sequel? Are you going to write a book for each character?

Oh dear, I’m getting asked this a lot, which I didn’t envision! At the moment, I have no plans to write a direct sequel to this story. To me, the journey that the five of them went through together came to a resolution when they realized their place in the world was together. And although the story only follows Milou’s perspective, it is very much a story in which all of them manage to make steps towards getting the answers or aspirations they’ve always wanted. I think there’s magic in leaving a little window open that leaves reader’s thinking about the characters and what comes next, long after the final page, without having to spell it out for them. They (the orphans) themselves have opened the world up to endless possibility and I think at this point they would all be looking to the future, rather than the past. Milou was the only one who was truly ever concerned with where she came from, the others were more concerned with securing a life in which they had control over their own fate. However, if inspiration did strike for a story featuring one of the other orphans, that I felt would hold its own, I would certainly consider writing it. 

That said, this is certainly not the last you’ll see of this world. My second book is an ‘equal’, in a way. It is set in the same universe and features a main character that you’ve already met before in The Unadoptables. It’s in a different European city, delving slightly deeper into that science vs mysticism dynamic I mentioned earlier. 

Writing stories in the same universe, but from new/unexpected characters might be the way I can give readers a future glimpse into what becomes of Milou, Egg, Lotta, Sem, and Fenna; albeit indirectly rather than directly. Sorry if that comes across cryptic, it’s such an early stage at this point that I’m not a hundred percent sure what I’ll do beyond my first two books. 

Illustration copyright Ayesha Rubio for Puffin

The experience of reading The Unadoptables feels very visual. Did you ‘see’ it as you were writing? Have films and TV dramas had any impact on your book?

I’m a very visual writer and I tend to ‘see’ my characters rather than ‘hear’ them. I also do watch a lot of historical films/shows, so I think that probably helped me significantly in terms of showing what it would have looked like back then. 

Which books did you love as a child? What influence have they had on The Unadoptables

I wasn’t the most prolific reader as a child, but I did love spooky stories, especially the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. I think that very much shows in my writing now. I love the thrill of being slightly scared. As a young adult, I read a lot of Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman and really fell in love with stories that are set in worlds that are like our own, but not.  

Which books would you recommend for children who love The Unadoptables? What could they read next?

If you want to read more whimsical spookiness, I’d highly recommend The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner which is about a girl who is made of dust, bone and imagination. It’s not too scary, but it is dark, whimsical, gothic, and full of heart. 

I’ve also recently read (and loved) a book called Sweep: A Girl and her Monster by Jonathan Auxier which is about a girl who works as a chimney sweep in Victorian London. It’s very Dickensian, but with a hint of magic and lots of charm. 

Thank you so much for talking to us, Hana, it’s been really interesting and we wish you all the best of luck!


Find out more...

To read about Hana Tooke and her work visit hanatooke.com here


Here's a video of Hana making a puppet theatre in a box for Puffin's Festival of Big Dreams 2020



If you'd like to read more about the 'orphan trope' in children's books, try anartfulsequenceofwords.com or this article at lithub.com

Take a look at 12,000 years of objects from Amsterdam's history at www.belowthesurface.amsterdam
The website presents objects discovered during excavations as part of an interactive timeline, and it's great!



Copyright: Cast of Thousands 2020 All rights reserved.
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