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Nonfiction Monday: A Boy Called Dickens by Deborah Hopkinson

A Boy Called Dickens
By Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrated by John Hendrix

Schwartz & Wade (Random House)

ISBN: 9780375867323
Grades 2-5
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It seems like most picture books on famous subjects go one of two ways – a cradle-to-grave overview, or a sliver of life that might incite further investigation. Both have their place. Hitting shelves just in time for the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the author/illustrator combination that brought us Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek set their sights on another beloved institution. Rather than provide a life-spanning biography, the pair successfully bring another larger-than-life figure down to a size (and scope) that young readers can take in.

As a poor 12-year-old living in London, Charles Dickens scrapes together an existence. His father and family trapped in debtors prison, Charles works long hours while dreaming up characters and stories he hopes to share with the world. After his father is released and sees his son working in a blacking factory, the elder Dickens sends the boy back to school. A move that allowed Charles to one day share his talent with the world.

Those familiar with Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek will recognize that A Boy Called Dickens has a similar sort of conversational narration. More than bring the subject down from a pedestal, this technique removes a layer of formality, engaging readers. The author’s note mentions that although this book draws closely from real events, it is fictionalized.

The graphite, pen and ink, and fluid acrylic art is signature Hendrix, with fine, clear lines and occasional hand-lettering adding interest. Where this book differs from the illustrator’s past work is in how backgrounds are rendered. Where Abe Lincoln‘s scenery is crisp, the cityscapes of Dickens have a hazy cast. This darker, sooty treatment fits with the tone and location of the tale.

A well-executed introduction to a literary giant, A Boy Called Dickens sheds light on a childhood young readers should know about.

Review copy from publisher

Be sure to check out the Nonfiction Monday roundup at The Swimmer Writer.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.