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.