In a note to the reader at the end of A Boy Called Dickens, the author explains that while the story she wrote is based on Dickens's life, she has fictionalized dialog and certain situations. In doing so, she has brought to life a part of his history that few are aware of, and made it delightfully accessible to younger readers. This also helps to explain why Dickens's novels tended to focus on the plight of England's poor: he had first-hand experience as a child.
The author invites the reader to peer through the fog with her in a quiet observation of a young Charles watcing enviously from a distance as boys crowd into a school with their books. He has a different destination. The reader may be surprised to see that Dickens winds up at a shop where he and other poor boys spend 10 hours a day labeling bottles of bootblack. When the foreman isn't around, he spins stories for the amusement of his youthful co-workers. At the end of a long day the 12-year-old works his way home through the busy London streets, his head filling with the characters he encounters there. Home for Dickens is a tiny attic he rents cheaply.
The reader must wait until Sunday to discover why a boy so young is living on his own. Sunday is his day off, when he visits his family in debtor's prison. His meager income is their only means of support. Sadly, his situation was not uncommon at the time
. John Hendrix's full-page illustrations in muted colors reflect the smoggy London of the Industrial Revolution, yet lend a dreamy quality to Dickens's otherwise shabby life. It is his dreams, after all, that will eventually lift him out of his dreary life.
The final page leaves the reader with an important thought: “For years Dickens kept the story of his own childhood a secret. Yet it is a story worth telling. For it helps us remember how much we all might lose when a child's dreams don't come true.” This book is a beautiful tribute to Charles Dickens's 200th birthday.
Highly recommended. Reviewed by Jane Behrens, Librarian, Johnston Iowa USA