Title: Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London
Author: Andrea Warren
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Concepts: child schooling and work, economic role of government, inequality, poverty, scarcity, social justice
Review: Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London is a biography with a goal. The book does not just tell a straightforward story of Dickens’s life from birth to death, but instead looks at the famed author’s relationship with childhood labor and poverty. To that end, the author does indeed begin at the beginning, to paraphrase Dickens’s introduction to his novel David Copperfield. The reader sees Dickens grow up in a middle-income family, only to be brought down by family debt. With his father in debtors’ prison, Dickens is forced to become a child laborer, spending 10 hours a day, six days a week pasting labels onto bottles at a blacking factory. Andrea Warren shows how these early experiences provided a trajectory for Dickens’s adult life. As an author, he wrote about the problems he saw in the country – including the treatment of children as laborers, in workhouses, and on the streets. When his books made him famous, he used his clout to push for social reforms, advocating for things like compulsory education for children, stricter child labor laws, sanitary improvements in the slums, and affordable housing.
The book ends with additional background information on Queen Victoria and England’s workhouses (and their American counterpart, the poor farms). It also gives a brief glimpse at street children and child labor issues that remain today while providing readers with tools for how to make a difference in their world, including ideas like sponsoring a child or volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Finally, the book concludes with a bibliography and webliography regarding Charles Dickens and his times in addition to an index.
Throughout the book, there are many, many lessons on economics for children to glean. Warren does not just point out the obvious consequences of poverty such as lack of spending money for wants but also the far-reaching effects, including poor living conditions, sickness, pollution, and low life expectancy rates. To illustrate certain points, she often includes Dickens’s own words about his life or quotes from his books, bringing to life his many creations, including Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Hard Times, and Bleak House, by describing the real-life conditions that these works sought to expose. By concluding the book with sections describing the issues of child labor and street children today, Warren lets young readers know that this isn’t just a story about something that happened long ago – and she may help set many future reformers on their own path toward justice.
Review by: Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children