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Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Boy Called Dickens, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by John Hendrix. Schwartz & Wade, Random House. 2012. $19.99 ages 6 and up

"Then Dickens walks on, surrounded by pickpockets; ladies with shattered hopes; a miserly old man; a young gentleman with great expectations; a proud, heartless girl. There are lawyers, clerks, convicts, and keepers of old curiosity shops."

It's always interesting and often enlightening when a special anniversary date is near. There have been a number of new and inspiring books about the Titanic as we approach the hundredth anniversary of its sinking. As well, as we near what would be Charles Dickens' 200th birthday, authors and artists are working to tell his story for a new generation.

The first book I received was this picture book invitation to understand the world at the time of his birth. He was born in Portsmouth, England in 1812 and life in his large family was successful. He loved books and reading and his parents could afford school for him while living there. The move to London in 1822 changed that life dramatically. This story begins in London on a cold, winter morning. Charles is twelve:

"...that skinny twelve-year-old, huddled in a doorway, wearing a worn, patched jacket. He is watching the schoolboys with hungry eyes. But though he'd like something to eat, he longs for their books even more. Almost all of his own books, which he loved so well, were lugged to the pawnshop long ago."

He is a factory worker who spends ten hours a day wrapping bottles of blacking to prepare them for sale. He loves to tell stories for the other young boys who work those same long hours in harsh, bleak conditions. At the end of each day he goes home alone to a tiny, barren room. His father has gone to prison, unable to pay his debts. Because his mother and siblings have no means of support, they live there with him. The young Charles is the only wage earner in the Dickens family.

His father's release allows Charles a new lease on life...and he embraces it. While working he gave his imagination free rein with characters and storytelling while trying to overcome the drudgery and monotony of his factory work. Now, at school, he is able to read the books he loves and work toward the man he will become.

The illustrrations that  John Hendrix has created in graphite, pen-and-ink and acrylics clearly evoke the bleak and dim world that is the London that young Dickens experienced. But, there is more to it. As we encounter this world we can see that it has a great influence on Charles Dickens' writing and the books so beloved by readers around the world.  The design changes from the dusty drabness of the city to the characters who people his world, and then to the bits of light that ignite a young boy's imagination. While it is a fictional account, it has a close connection to the truth of the life that he lived.

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