Dear Mr. Dickens by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe

Dear Mr. Dickens by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe. Albert Whitman, 2021. 9780807515303

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3

Format: ARC (10/21 pub date)

What did you like about the book? A little known (at least by me) episode in the life of Charles Dickens is brought to life in this account of the epistolary relationship between the author and Eliza Davis, who began writing to Dickens in 1863. She was a fan of his work, and admired how he brought up the issues of poverty and child workers to his readers. However, Davis, who was Jewish, felt Dickens needed to be taken to task for his tendency to stereotype Jewish characters in his writings as dishonest, selfish, cruel and ugly, especially in Oliver Twist. It took several letters to get the writer to respond, but eventually the words “the Jew,” which had been repeated over and over in Oliver Twist, was changed to “Fagin” in the reprinting. And in his next novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens wrote a kind, generous and loyal character in, in the character of Mr. Riah.

I really appreciate bringing this to light to young readers. The portrayal of Davis is wonderful: “Eliza wasn’t famous or powerful. But she had the same three things that Charles Dickens had: a pen, paper, and something to say.” It’s great to read of the many forms that activism can take, and to consider the risks Davis was taking at a time when the words of women and Jews were often discounted. A wonderful note at the end amplifies the story as well as providing background to the treatment of Jews in Europe throughout history. A photograph of Eliza Davis is also at the end.

Anything you didn’t like about it? It didn’t feel that the art added much to the story, mostly focusing on portraying Davis at home. I also question whether a picture book format makes sense to tell the story, as Dickens will be known to older children. I think an expanded version of this story with photographs and facsimiles of the correspondence would be better suited to reach upper elementary and older readers who would know of Dickens.

To whom would you recommend this book? Publisher information states that the book is intended for ages 4-8. The story could be a jumping off point for discussions of antisemitism in literature.

Who should buy this book? Elementary and public libraries

Where would you shelve it ? I’m not sure – 800’s?

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Maybe

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City and State: Stephanie Tournas, Robbins Library, Arlington, MA

Date of review: August 17, 2021

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