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A Boy Called Dickens Hardcover – January 10, 2012
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*Starred Review* Looking for a picture-book biography of Dickens to celebrate his 200th birthday in 2012? Look elsewhere, as this isn’t so much a biography as it is a slice of life, and a revealing one at that. This fictionalized account is set during the time 12-year-old Dickens toiled away in a blacking factory while the rest of his family lived in debtors’ prison. To help ease the boredom and stave off hunger, the boy dreams up stories, including a rudimentary seedling of a tale that would become David Copperfield. Even when his family pays off its debt and returns home, the boy who loves books and reading toils away for six shillings a day until shame prompts his father to finally send the boy back to school. Any story of Charles Dickens is also the story of one of the great atmospheres in literary history, and a central spread of the boy walking home after a grueling work day could well serve as a visual definition of the word Dickensian. In this bustling, grimy scene, Dickens threads his way through “pickpockets; ladies with shattered hopes; a miserly old man; a young gentleman with great expectations; a proud, heartless girl; and keepers of old curiosity shops.” Dancing through wide-angled perspectives and tight close-ups, Hendrix’s cleanly inked figures are aptly set against cityscapes covered in sooty charcoals. A fine introduction to the writer, and a terrific, completely unpreachy departure point for discussions of child labor and social reform. Grades 3-5. --Ian Chipman
Booklist Best Children's Book of 2012
Starred Review, School Library Journal, January 1, 2012:
“Hopkinson’s engaging text invites readers to experience the story with her…. full of well-crafted description and detail.”
Starred Review, Booklist, December 15, 2011:
“A fine introduction to the writer, and a terrific, completely un-preachy departure point for discussions of child labor and social reform.”
Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2011:
"Both accessible and rich in simile and metaphor, this fictionalized biography concerns the budding novelist’s coming of age, as he ekes out a living (during his family’s stint in debtors’ prison) and pursues his dream."
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Thus I will try again. Having taught Dickens at the college level for a couple of dozen years, I am enthusiastic about efforts to interest young readers in his own young life--which might later lead to an interest in his extraordinary, and very adult, novels. The text and illustrations are clever and captivating--although the Dickens boy does look a little goofy--and should transport the reader to another time and place, a valiant and valuable thing in this world of short views and unlasting moments. My overall inpression is favorable, and I hope the child to whom I gave the book agrees and might eventually read one of Dickens's masterpieces.
3 stars for the writing
”THIS IS OLD LONDON, on a winter morning long ago. 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.
“Maybe the boy is down by the river—the thick, black Thames. There are ragged children here, to be sure, scrambling for bits of copper and wood to sell.”
What makes this worth checking out are the illustrations. This says for pre-school to 3rd grade, but I think the story might not be appreciated by too young of an audience, and potentially frightening to a pre-school aged child.
While the story reads, well, like a poverty-stricken character out of a Dickens novel, the pen and acrylic illustrations are really quite lovely, even when sharing the bleakness and poverty of the location and time.
At the still somewhat tender age of twelve years old, Dickens was working in a blacking factory, wrapping the bottles of blacking for sale. He worked long hours, ten-hour days, and walked to and from work back to a tiny, attic room. Alone. His father was in debtor’s prison, and his family, young Charles aside, was there with him, in prison. Food was scarce, and his life was not easy, clearly.
I had been searching my library for some holiday “cheer” and this one came up in my search. There’s little about this that is cheery, but if you’re looking for a book that describes the impoverished life of the Dickens family, or perhaps how Dickens was inspired with some of his characters by events in his own life, then this is a good book to check out. I would only consider it a holiday book in the sense that it is about a man who wrote a famous novel about Christmas.
I enjoyed the illustrations more than I did the writing, but this is meant to appeal as more of a “picture book,” but that being said, I think the writing, overall, sometimes felt a bit detached for me, making it feel a little too “just the facts, ma’am” to me. As a children’s book, I would say this might appeal to 2nd, 3rd & 4th graders.
Many thanks, once again, to the Public Library system, and the many Librarians that manage, organize and keep it running, for the loan of this book!
My boys loved A Boy Called Dickens. In fact NPR mentioned Dickens on the radio Wednesday and Kile (just turned six) piped up and said, "Dickens' family was in jail and he worked in a factory. He grew up and wrote lots of books." I was amazed and glad that he was retaining what we had read. He did pick the book to read each night last week so it must have intrigued him.
The boys really loved the artwork by John Hendrix, which goes perfectly with the story. Daniel is sure that one of the story creations of Dickens is a pirate from his hat and I went with it. They really like the beginning where the story asks where young Dickens is. They like to look at the picture and find him. They feel sad for him that he can't go to school, but also think it is very cool that he is able to write his own stories and grows up to become a famous author. In other words, the boys found the story interesting, relatable, and educational. Or maybe I found it educational, and they just happened to learn from it! I liked how the tale ends happily and the note about Dickens' life at the end.
Overall, A Boy Called Dickens is a children's historical fiction picture book that is sure to delight both children and adults.
This review was first published on my blog, Laura's Reviews.