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Counting and Colors The BabyLit Classics Way

Today Karen B. Estrada weighs in on the incredibly cool BabyLit board book series from Gibbs Smith ($9.99, ages 1 and up).

As an English teacher, I was excited when I saw the BabyLit series and happened upon the Little Master Stoker and Little Master Dickens books. I was not sure quite what to expect from these durable cardboard baby books which purport to introduce young children to classic literature; to be honest, I was skeptical. But when the books arrived, I was instantly delighted.

In Little Master Stoker’s Dracula: A BabyLit Counting Primer  and Little Master Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: A BabyLit Colors Primer, author Jennifer Adams and artist Alison Oliver creatively summarize key elements of two classic works of literature. The “art” in these books is just that—scenes that go beyond simple illustration. In Dracula, edgy double-page spreads

utilizing a red, purple, black, gray, and white color palate make the 19th century classic seem contemporary and fresh. The story begins with “1 castle” and moves through counting up to 10 using relevant and important aspects of the actual novel. While the book does not really tell the story of Dracula—not that it is a story you’d want to read to your infant or toddler anyway—it offers enough details to familiarize them somewhat with elements of the story. When your child comes across Dracula again as a teen or an adult, perhaps he will recall the 1 castle and 2 friends who read 7 letters and diaries in the Little Master Stoker book he read as a child.

In A Christmas Carol: A BabyLit Colors Primer, equally punchy illustrations depict an image in which the color of an object tells the story. While I felt Dracula more closely related to the actual novel, the images and colors in A Christmas Carol will nonetheless provide your child with the same familiarity of this classic work of literature. Share the story now with your  youngster to foster an appreciation for Dickens’ complete version in the future. In other words, if you are looking for some wonderful, timeless holiday reading that is appropriate for your child who is just learning numbers and colors, check out the Baby Lit Little Masters series by Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver. Like the original novels, these books should be on your shelves!

 

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A Boy Called Dickens

From Rags to Riches: The Hard Knocks Life of Young Charles Dickens

In A Boy Called Dickens  by Deborah Hopkinson with illustrations by John Hendrix ($17.99, Schwartz & Wade, ages 4-8) school-aged children will be transported back to the foggy, crime-riddled streets of Victorian London to get a taste of what life was like for this very famous author who moved there at age 10. I can just picture a school librarian reading out this story to students who sit in amazement as she turns the pages slowly for impact, maybe even dimming the lights and feigning a cockney accent. Do kids today realize how over one hundred years ago and even more recently than that, many families sent their young children out to work? And that even those who did take on employment could barely scrape together a decent living, let alone a healthy and safe one?

Readers will learn from A Boy Called Dickens that from an early age Dickens loved books but they often had to be sold to make ends meet.  At age 12, to help out his struggling family, he worked at a blacking factory where they made shoe polish. There author Hopkinson imagines him spinning tales to his friend Bob Fagin and perhaps sowing the seeds for his later literary life.  Sadly, Dickens’ family was sent to Marshalsea Prison (aka debtors prison) in London because of his father’s inability to pay back money owed to a bakery.  I never knew that after Mr. Dickens was able to settle his debt and was freed from prison, he came into an inheritance. Inheritances feature prominently in so many of Dickens’ classic novels that it’s no surprise he had a wealth of material to write about as he approached manhood. So rather than keep young Charles working at Warren’s and causing him shame, the now more prosperous Mr. Dickens decides to send his bright son to school in Camden Town for a proper, more middle class education. Ironically it took Dickens years to be able to write about his own childhood poverty, yet he could poignantly portray so many others’ including ill-fated  Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.

This book is a fantastic introduction to Charles Dickens and events that served as lifelong inspiration for him.  In the end page Hopkinson explains more about Dickens’ life and what led her to write the story. Hendrix’s illustrations further complement the story, capturing the scruffy feel of the period and the general darkness and harshness that dominated every day life for the poor in 19th century London.

 

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Please Sir, I Want More

I must begin by saying that titles such as these are reason enough to keep printing books the old-fashioned way. The sturdy, meaty volumes are superior in quality in every way. There are envelopes to opens, flaps to flip, sidebars to read and gloriously detailed old-world illustrations to study. The experience a middle grade reader (or middle aged reader, like yours truly) gets from holding this physical book and savoring its contents simply cannot be obtained on a computer.  And no one can talk me into believing it can.

As an English major myself who once visited Dickens’ home in England and who played the small role of Charlotte at age 10, in the play Oliver Twist, I can totally appreciate learning about the author’s life and struggles and how that inspired his writing. Dickens is known for his portrayals of difficult Victorian family life, and writes with a great deal of honesty and insight. His writing was so prolific, that at one time, he was considered the most successful novelist in the world. He often worked on numerous novels at a time.

Several fulfilling hours are needed to read Charles Dickens: England’s Most Captivating Storyteller, open all the letters and flaps and delight in all the tidbits and illustrations. Readers will discover facts about Dicken’s: family life; rise to fame; education; interest in writing about crime; fixation on workhouses; orphan characters; settings for his books; interest in changing industry and technology; love of theater; Christmas themes; social life, visits to America and his legacy.

Did you know that Charles Dickens had 10 children with his wife, Catherine, but that they separated  in 1858? Separation was practically unheard of during the Victorian era. 

This biography celebrates the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth. And with the holidays coming up, I cannot think of a better gift for a middle grade reader or any child who enjoys reading, writing or history. I only wish books like these were available when I was growing up.  This one is indeed a keeper.

CHARLES DICKENS: ENGLAND’S MOST CAPTIVATING STORYTELLER. Text & design copyright © 2011 by The Templar Company Limited. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Ian Andrew, Caroline Anstey, Nick Spender and Diz Wallis. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
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