A Boy Called Dickens

What It Is

This fictionalized biography inspired by the life of Charles Dickens was published in honor of the 200th anniversary of this literary giant’s birth earlier this year. The setting is “old London” and like many of the characters of Dickens’ stories, young Charles was forced to work in deplorable factory conditions for very low wages to support his family, who has been imprisoned for failure to pay taxes. By day, Charles entertains his peers with fantastic stories. And at night, he escapes his dreary reality by writing until he can no longer keep his eyes open. Eventually, his family is released from prison and his father wises up, realizing that Charles has great potential. He pulls Charles out of the factory and sends him off to school where he learns to hone is craft and become one of the greatest writers of all time.

Why It’s Fun

Biographical picture books are definitely a trend in children’s literature, as evidenced by the many we’ve picked for “Book of the Week.” While each of the individuals depicted in these selected works have made very different achievements, there’s been a consistent message — when children are enabled to follow their dreams, the sky’s the limit.

Deborah Hopkinson’s prose is wonderfully descriptive, making it all the more fun to read aloud. The illustrations evoke the feeling that you are viewing frames from animated versions of Dickens’ stories. For instance, the scene where young Charles walks home from work looks like a screen grab of A Christmas Carol. The story ends rather abruptly, and we don’t learn about Charles’ first published works or major success, which one would think are important details.

However, I’m told by a reliable source that true fans of Dickens may be horrified at the fictionalization and romanticizing of his youth, which inspired many of the themes in his great novels. For instance, Dickens’ father was imprisoned for debt, which was common at the time. Also, Dickens was not known as a storyteller in his youth and his first jobs were as a court reporter. His parents pulled him out of school so he could work in a factory, but he never went back. Throughout his life Dickens lamented his lack of a formal education.

Who’s Going To Love It

It’s likely that most kids in the publisher’s recommended age group haven’t had much experience with Dickens. In fact, I’m embarrassed to say the only tales I could relay with any confidence are Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, which I did read as well as see in various movie versions. However, this book is a great story on its own and, though fictionalized, a nice introduction to a man who’s works continue to resonate deeply today. As children get older and are able to retain plot details from one reading to another, Dickens’ works make great read-alouds that keep the family reading together long after independent chapter books are introduced.

Reading Time

About 7-8 minutes

Read-It-Again Points

8 out of 10

Book Information

Written by: Deborah Hopkinson; Illustrated by John Hendrix
Published by: Schwartz & Wade Books (2012)
Approximate retail price: $10.99/17.99 (e-book/hardcover)
Publisher’s recommended ages: 4-9


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