200 Years Ago: The Boyhood of Charles Dickens

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

A Boy Called Dickens
Imagining the Boyhood of A Legendary Author

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Though Dickens never published an account of his life, and didn’t speak of his childhood until he was in his 30’s, a new picture book imagines what a slice of his youth might have been like. A Boy Called Dickens written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by John Hendrix, tells a fictionalized story based on real incidents from Dickens’ life.

The story takes place shortly after Dickens’ twelfth birthday, about 1824, when his family lived in Old London. Life for young Charles was difficult. At this time, his parents and younger siblings lived in a debtors’ prison and Dickens worked ten hours a day in a blacking factory, earning the few shillings per week on which his family depended.

From the very first page we are invited right into Dickens’ world. We look down upon the brown and gray rooftops of the city, smoke puffing from chimneys fills the air. “This is Old London, on a winter morning long ago. Come along, now. We are here to search for a boy named Dickens.”

We find him “huddled in a doorway, wearing a worn, patched jacket” and “watching the schoolboys with hungry eyes,” longing for their books even more than food.

And then suddenly he is gone, running through the dreary streets to a “run-down, rickety house by the river,” where he wraps bottles of polish all day while rats squeak from the rafters. We meet his friend Bob Fagin and hear Dickens tell a story before the foreman yells for quiet.

The details in both words and pictures give a real sense of time and place. Readers can see, feel, hear, even taste the Old London of young Charles Dickens. The illustrations, in shades of browns and grays are rendered in graphite, pen-and-ink, and acrylics, and work with the text to set an authentic stage for the characters, who are crisply drawn and stand out against the sooty background.

A two-page spread of Old London shows a classic Dickensonian setting.  The streets brimming with people and carts, shouts from food vendors, children running, and there’s Dickens on his way to a rooming house, eating bread, cheese and a “four-penny plate of beef ” surrounded by “pickpockets; ladies with shattered hopes; a miserly old man; a young gentleman with great expectations; a proud, heartless girl.”

Characters from his life come alive in his imagination. We see the first hints of David Copperfield, when late after work, he takes out “his most prized possessions – a pencil and slate” and writes about a young runaway and his Aunt Betsey. Despite the squalor and nearly hopeless situation of his existence, Dickens holds fast to his love of story and his dream of becoming a writer.

Towards the end of the book, the Dickens’ family’s luck does change. They move out of debtors’ prison, an inheritance provides financial relief, and eventually, young Charles Dickens leaves work at the blacking factory. We see him on a sunny morning, wearing tattered clothing and a smile, a book in hand, walking to school.

The book fast-forwards then, and leaves us with a picture of an adult Charles Dickens, striding down a London street, wearing a fine coat and polished shoes, tipping his hat to passerbys, a book and pencil in hand, his dream of being a writer come true.

  • A Boy Called Dickens written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by John Hendrix. Published by Schwartz & Wade Books of Random House Children’s Books, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-375-86732-3


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

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