Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren

Lynn: One of the best – and most humbling – benefits of being a book reviewer is the constant collision with new knowledge.  As an adult I’ve come to appreciate Dickens’ writing much more than I did in my high school years when we painfully dissected his novels in class.  I knew only a little about his life and assumed when Warren’s book arrived that Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London (Houghton 2011) would be a standard biography highlighting Dickens’ literary accomplishments.  When will I learn not to jump to conclusions?

Warren’s accessible book of less than 150 pages is an eye-opening gem.  I had smugly assumed I knew a lot about this time period but I learned so much and the learning process was truly fascinating.  The book’s structure is intriguing too, opening with an overview of the frightful conditions in the London of 1835 and then revealing the difficult childhood that the successful writer kept a secret even from his wife and family – a childhood that formed him as a writer and a person.  Dickens’ father’s bankruptcy forced his mother to make a painful choice:  join her husband in debtor’s prison or go to the workhouse.  She chose prison as the better of the two conditions and young Charles became a bootblack boy in a factory at the tender age of twelve living in a boarding house, sharing a room with two other boys and walking over three miles to work.  This experience influenced Dickens’ life and work, not only as a writer but also motivated him to become as Warren says, ” as one of history’s greatest reformers.”

It is this focus that sets Warren’s fascinating book apart for me.  She moves from the biographical chapters to examine the horrific social conditions, the treatment of the poor and to Dickens’ energetic efforts to make changes.  His great popularity as an author brought these conditions to light and more importantly, made people of authority and power take notice.  Dickens changed the popular assumptions about the poor and made reform possible as readers fell in love with his characters, giving the poor, especially children, a voice.  But he also worked directly for reform, writing articles to newspapers, giving speeches, donating money to causes, raising money with public readings and talks and working for the poor.

One of my measures of the effectiveness of a nonfiction book is how often I want to share parts of it, how often I say, “Oh my gosh, listen to this!”  This book ranked really high on my informal scale and I think young readers with less background knowledge will find the book both astonishing and captivating.   The Victorian philosophy of making the workhouse conditions horrific in order to ensure that no one chose to go there unless they had no other choice has a startling similarity to the current efforts to limit public assistance to prevent “laziness”  – oops did I just stray into politics?  Well, I leave you all to draw your own conclusions on that subject.  That this book is outstanding is not debatable.  Wonderfully researched with extensive back matter, this book will be an excellent addition to elementary, middle and high school collections.

Check out other Nonfiction Monday books at Practically Paradise.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

1 Comment on "Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren"

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  1. I am a huge Dickens fan and so far I have not seen any picture book biographies of him, nor something like the one that you have just described with such joy and pleasure. I like it that the zeitgeist of the time seems to have been captured because it does contribute a great deal to how a person’s character is formed/shaped. Thanks for sharing this one.

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