Reviewed by Sara Hodon
A Boy Called Dickens
by Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrated By John Hendrix
Schwartz & Wade
Hardcover: 40 pages, January 10, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0375867323
No matter how humble your beginnings, it’s always possible to make something of yourself. This could easily be the message of A Boy Called Dickens, a fictional tale inspired by real-life events that shaped the early life of writer Charles Dickens.
Author Deborah Hopkinson focuses on a grim period of the author’s life—a period Dickens himself kept a secret for many years. One of eight children, Dickens grew up poor on the dirty streets of London; his father served some time in a debtors’ prison, and as a young boy Dickens was forced to work in a factory that made shoe polish. Despite a difficult home life and being forced to work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, Dickens always harbored a dream of becoming a successful writer. Although he would not formally attend school until he was 12 years old, he read voraciously when he could get his hands on books. These early experiences would leave a lasting impact on Dickens well into adulthood. Not only would he grow to become one of England’s most celebrated writers, he would become an advocate for many social causes, including better working conditions for the poor and child labor laws. And as literature devotees know, much of Dickens’ material came from his own experiences, as many of his books focused on the poverty-stricken and downtrodden—some who rose above their station in life, others who did not. Some real people from Dickens’ life made appearances in his novels, such as the pickpocket Fagin from Oliver Twist, loosely based on one of Dickens’ young factory co-workers.
A Boy Called Dickens is not a book you merely read—it’s a lively tale you experience. Hopkinson adopts the seldom-used second person point of view to include the reader in the story—rather than sit back as a passive observer, the reader really does get to follow young Dickens down the dirty London streets, and gets to peer into the window of the bootblack factory. Hopkinson’s inclusive style of writing lures the reader in, but it’s John Hendrix’s vibrant illustrations that keep them engaged. The illustrations are not only detailed and colorful, but they are just short of being essentially 3D, filling the entire page and giving the reader something new to discover each time. Hendrix brilliantly executes both sweeping cityscapes and tiny details. On one page, it would seem as though the reader is to concentrate on the great shadowy London skyline in all of its sooty glory, but rather, the eye is drawn to a tiny, shivering little boy huddled in a doorway—a scrawny figure who somehow manages to stand out from the rest of the crowd. This illustration seems to sum up the little boy’s life perfectly—this is a boy who would come from the filth and poverty of London and grow into a well-respected literary figure and social advocate.
At the end of the book, Hopkinson explains which of the events and characters in the story are real and which are fictional, which provides helpful background information. She does an admirable job of presenting the facts of Dickens’ life in such a way that the targeted readers—ages 4 to 9—will be engaged with the story but also captivated with what happens to this little boy with such great dreams for himself. A Boy Called Dickens is a great primer to get children interested in what did happen to this little boy, and to read the works of the famed Charles Dickens, who proved that anything is possible through hard work and never giving up on your dream.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com