Review: A Boy Called Dickens by Deborah Hopkinson

boy called dickens

A Boy Called Dickens by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by John Hendrix

Enter the world of Charles Dickens’ childhood in this picture book.  The fog and cold of London will enfold you, along with the smoking chimneys and the dankness of the Thames.  Twelve-year-old Dickens worked in Warren’s blacking factory, wrapping bottles of blacking for sale.  He entertained the boy next to him with his stories when they could get away with it.  Dickens worked ten hour days and when work is finally completed, he headed home to his tiny attic room where he lived alone.  His family was in the debtors’ prison with only Dickens bringing in any money at all.  When his father and family is released from prison, Dickens’ life changes and he is finally allowed to go to school.  This book celebrates the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth in a way that will resonate with children.

Hopkinson’s story begins with an invitation into London and into understanding the world at that time better.  It is actually like entering a novel by the great writer.  Readers will chase after the fast-moving Dickens until they figure out where he is headed.  There is an element of play and fun from the get-go, even though the subject here is very serious. 

Hendrix’s illustrations show the gritty world that Dickens grew up in.  Yet all is not fog and work, there is the beauty of story, the world of imagination.  It’s an impressive mix of historical accuracy and a more whimsical take on creativity. 

Picture book biographies of historical figures can be tricky, since so much information needs to be shared.  Here the balance of story telling and imagery is deftly done, creating a book that is noteworthy.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

fault in our stars

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Hazel has known she is terminal since she was diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at age 12.  But then a drug that worked on only a small percentage of the population actually worked on her and her tumors shrunk.  At age 16, she’s still not healthy: her lungs need to be drained regularly and she has to cart around an oxygen tank.  She also doesn’t attend high school, having gotten her GED.  Hazel spends her days watching trashy TV and reading books, forced out of the house only to go to a support group for teens with cancer.  It’s there that she meets Augustus Waters, a boy whose leg was lost to cancer.  The two form a bond almost immediately, but Hazel doesn’t want to get close to anyone who could be hurt by her death.  However, Augustus is not the type of person to be ignored easily and Hazel may just have a lot more life to lead than she ever imagined.

Green manages to write a book with characters who have cancer that is not a “cancer book.”  It bears absolutely no resemblance to those teary paperbacks filled with maudlin sentimentality.  Instead it is a purely John Green book, filled with witty remarks, complex characters, and a vast intelligence.  Both Hazel and Augustus are characters who are breathtakingly rendered, whole people, who just happen to come fully to life when together.

Green’s writing is incredible here.  His phrasing is beautiful and inventive, creating new imagery as he builds this amazing romance and human story.  One of my favorite sentences in the book comes on page 25, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”  Throughout the book, there are profound moments of insight, things that give pause, make you think, and create beauty from the ordinary.

Intensely personal, vibrantly romantic, and wildly successful, this book may just be the best that John Green has written.  Get this into the hands of teens and adults, perhaps with a tissue or two.  It is simply incredible.  Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from library copy.