Deborah Hopkinson is the kind of writer who puts the accent on the “story” part of the word “history.” If you look back at her work for young readers, from picture books to middle grade nonfiction, you’ll find she uses this approach carefully and in a way that brings the reader right into the time and story. Even if the reader had little interest in the topic at the beginning, she or he finds this new place or time or person just as fascinating as Hopkinson does. It’s a special gift.
This time, as we near the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, she tells the fictionalized tale of Charles Dickens’ childhood in A Boy Called Dickens. And what a childhood it was, downright . . . Dickensian. Told in the first person, there is a sense of mysterious immediacy that draws the reader right into the story.
“We are here to search for a boy called Dickens. . . . There are ragged children here, to be sure, scrambling for bits of copper and wood to sell.” The reader finds Dickens and he is not on his way to school (he has long since sold his books) but on his way to work—10 hours a day at a blackening factory, where he and other boys make shoe polish. And if this isn’t enough, he spends his weekend visiting his family in debtor’s prison. When his family is released and no longer needs his income, “Charles is still sent off to work ten hours a day, six days a week.” And how, reader, does Dickens keep going? He tells stories to the other boys and writes them down, filling them with “pickpockets; a miserly old man; a young gentleman with great expectations; a proud heartless girl.”
Adding to the feel of the place—the old London of child laborers, squeaking rats and debtor’s prisons—are John Hendrix’s atmospheric mixed-media illustrations. Using pen and ink, acrylics and charcoal, it’s the charcoal that lets the reader know what life was like for everyone, even children, in Dickens’ time. The soot and smog serve as indicators that things were far from easy for Dickens and his fellow workers. When Charles’ father is shamed into letting Charles quit his job, the tone of the illustrations lightens considerably, a visual cue that things will get better for this little boy with big stories and an even bigger dream of becoming a writer.
This fascinating slice of life will allow young children to understand the life that inspired A Christmas Carol and Oliver, stories they are likely to know. And if they don’t know these stories, Hopkinson’s fine book (with a very interesting author’s note) will certainly pique their interest.
A second grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Robin Smith served on the 2011 Caldecott Committee.