Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Boy Called Dickens

Thanks to the Muppets, multitudes of children and adults have been introduced to A Christmas Carol. I suspect far fewer have been properly introduced to the author, Charles Dickens—who is not, after all, Gonzo.

A Boy Called Dickens, by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by John Hendrix, is an excellent avenue into the life of this famous author and his work.

"Come along, now. We are here to search for a boy called Dickens. He won't be easy to find. The fog has crept in, silent as a ghost, to fold the city in cold, gray arms." --Hopkinson

Dickens at the blacking warehouse. By Fred Bernard
The book opens, dear reader, with a chase through the icy streets of London as we attempt to follow the lonely, ragged, and elusive 12-year old Dickens. He leads us to Warren's Blacking factory, where he works 10 hours a day packaging bottles of shoe polish. 

Dickens' only relief to the drudgery is the stories he makes up. Today, Charles tells his friend Bob Fagin about a boy named David who runs away from the cruelty of factory work. His tale is cut short when the boss enters, demanding silence and work.

The ghosts of Dickens' stories come alive through Hendrix's illustrations as they follow Charles through the soot-choked fog of 19th century London. 

"Then Dickens walks on, surrounded by pickpockets; ladies with shattered hopes; a miserly old man; a young gentleman with great expectations; a proud, heartless girl. There are lawyers, clerks, convicts, and keepers of old curiosity shops. There are even ghosts and spirits. And children like Dickens, trying to hold on to a dream.

"All these characters and their stories swirl about the boy like the fog."

It is not until the mid-point that we discover why Dickens is in this cold, miserable, and isolated state. His father is in debtor's prison. Dickens is working to survive. 

When his father is released, things begin to look up for the Dickens family, but Charles is still sent to work, though his family does not need his income. Here, in poetic brilliance, Hendrix illustrates Dickens turned away from us, on a blank white page. 

Dickens' father finally ends this wretched period of Charles' life and sends him back to school. Spring has turned to summer. Sunlight streams through clean windows onto a warm classroom cluttered with books, boys, and even a few mice. 

We leave Dickens as a grown up, still walking the streets of London but no longer followed by his ghosts, which we must assume, found a home in his books. 

The impact of this episode on the life of Charles Dickens must have been profound. We see it in his advocacy for social reform, and we read it in his books. Was it the birthplace of Ebeneezer Scrooge? We can only guess. 

"Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping , clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster." A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

My copy, purchased at Blackwells in Oxford, UK.

 Parents, Teachers, and Librarians:

I found A Boy Called Dickens in the children's fiction of my local library (3rd to 8th grades). I find picture books in this section are sadly neglected. Rescue this one and give it some exercise.

  • Create a Dickens' display including: A Boy Called Dickens, biographies, and children's versions of Dickens' stories. Parents may enjoy these versions as, let's face it, the original works are a hard slog for even the most devoted English major.  (Thank you Kat, for pointing that out.)
  • The Christmas season is a great time for a Dickens-themed display. Host a storytime featuring "Stave One" of A Christmas Carol (an awesome read-aloud. Try it!). You might follow with a showing of one of the many versions of A Christmas Carol, or to guarantee a crowd, The Muppet Christmas Carol. Steer everyone to the display and include books on London. Usborne has a great book. If possible, include food such as Christmas pudding, mince pies, and hot spiced cider.
  • For older students, discuss the impact they think Dickens' early life might have had on his later work. Discuss the wretched things that happen to people in our time. Imagine a different world and how that might be brought about. 

"and it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"
--A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.

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  1. The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series, middle grade novels, have Charles Dickens as a secondary character. Quite fictionalized, of course, but it has some real details from his life, and that of other real people, when they were kids. Not exactly historical, but fun. I listened to one on tape during a long drive.

  2. I'll have to read this. Thanks for the tip, Chris!

  3. Thank you! Especially this time of year, with so many versions of The Christmas Carol on television, it's great to reflect on the origins of Dickens's interest in social justice.

  4. I will look for this book as I love the books Deborah Hopkinson writes.

  5. Thanks for putting me on to Deborah Hopkinson and the Wollstonecraft series. I must check for those next time I'm in downtown Montreal, or Burlington, Vt.