Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
Culture Children's Books
A Boy Called Dickens
Charles Dickens’ bleak childhood prompts this book’s question: “Are we brave enough to follow him?” On cold London streets readers meet a skinny 12-year-old who longs for books more than food. He works 10-hour days in a rat-infested blacking factory and on Sundays visits his family in a debtors prison. But Dickens’ imagination flourishes, portrayed in the book with swirling blue figures amid a dark-hued cityscape and bright-eyed caricatures. Hopkinson’s lively writing introduces kids to Dickens’ harsh surroundings—“ladies with shattered hopes; an old miserly man; a young gentleman with great expectations”—that later become scenes, characters, and plotlines in his best-known stories. (Ages 4-8)
Charles Dickens and Friends
With small, sepia-toned comic-strip scenes bursting with animated characters, this retelling of five of Dickens’ beloved melodramas is sure to entertain readers meeting Pip, Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes, and Scrooge for the first time. Williams takes creative liberty with comical character renderings, but the stories use Dickens’ chosen narrative voice and contain snippets of original dialogue, such as Oliver Twist’s famous plea, “Please, sir, I want some more.” Some might find its convoluted style unappealing, but it is perfect for fidgety boys and graphic-novel fans who are still years away from tackling the English author’s original works. (Ages 8-12)
Usborne Illustrated Stories from Dickens
Adapted by Mary Sebag-Montefiore
Full of plotlines involving villains, orphans, pickpockets, and convicts, this book gives early readers a simplified retelling of five of Dickens’ beloved tales—Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield. Like Sebag-Montefiore’s other popular retellings, it introduces Dickens’ timeless stories and whets a reader’s appetite for later appreciation of his thick volumes. Parents will like its lighthearted illustrations and overcoming heroes that mute for younger audiences the murder, workhouses, guillotines, and loss in Dickens’ tales. A short biography covers Dickens’ early years, family, charity, and life in Victorian London. (Ages 7-10)
The Magic Fishbone
Charles Dickens, illus. by Louis Slobodkin
An impoverished king meets a richly clad fairy “Grandmarina,” who tells him his daughter will discover a magic fishbone in her salmon dinner that night. Princess Alicia, the eldest of 19 children, must “dry it … rub it, and … polish it till it shines” and it will grant her one wish, “provided she wishes … at the right time.” Illness, misfortune, and accidents ensue, but to her father’s chagrin, Alicia resourcefully cares for her siblings and mother without using her magic wish. When the right time comes, a whirlwind of fairy-tale excitement unfolds. (Ages 6-10)
Kids whose interest in Dickens is piqued by abridged versions of his classic tales might want to dig deeper into his life and times.
Presuming some familiarity, Michael Rosen’s Dickens: His Work and His World (Candlewick Press, 2005) provides an easy-reading biographical sketch with an emphasis on the novelist’s vivid imagination, his love for reading and theater, his family’s hard times, and the way his stories changed hearts. Robert Ingpen’s watercolor illustrations provide a compelling compliment in their portrayal of 19th-century Victorian London landscapes and characters.
Another noteworthy mention: Andrea Warren’s Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London (Houghton Mifflin, 2011) focuses on the social ills Dickens observed, experienced, and sought to change with his stories. She paints a portrait of the novelist as a social reformer and advocate who “gave the lower classes a voice and made them human and likable.” —M.J.