Title: A Boy Called Dickens
Author: Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrator: John Hendrix
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Concepts: child schooling and work, poverty, scarcity, wants/needs
Review: In this picture book, Deborah Hopkinson mixes fact and fiction while weaving a story about the childhood of Charles Dickens, author of such classics as A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations. Hopkinson’s tale begins with a 12-year-old Dickens who longs to go to school but has to work 10-hour shifts at a factory. Here he entertains his co-worker and friend Bob Fagin by inventing captivating stories that later become his novels. Meanwhile, his family lives in Marshalsea prison because of debts his father owes. If this childhood story is starting too sound too bleak even for the author of Bleak House, never fear. Eventually, the family’s debts are paid off and young Charles is able to return again to school.
A Boy Called Dickens concludes with an author’s note explaining how Charles Dickens’s early experiences in poverty shaped his literary works and his advocacy for social reform. John Hendrix’s atmospheric illustrations evoke Victorian London realistically while also flirting with the supernatural domain by including “spirits” of Dickens’s fictional characters following him about as he goes through everyday life.
While being rich in imagination and creativity, Dickens’s early life was one of hard work and scarcity. Hopkinson touches upon these issues not only in the big picture plot of A Boy Called Dickens but also in the little details. When we follow the young Dickens home after his long work days, his sparse victuals and bare surroundings reinforce the direness of his situation and are as telling of his family’s poverty as his visits to debtors’ prison to see his parents and siblings. In comparing Dickens’s living conditions with their own, the concept of wants versus needs will be brightly highlighted for children.
For more detailed information about Dickens’s life and quest to better the lives of others, this book could be paired with Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren. Or, a different route could be taken and an adapted version of Oliver Twist could be used to illustrate how Dickens took these early experiences of child labor and financial hardship and crafted lasting stories from them.
Review by: Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children