Review: Dear Mr. Dickens
Dear Mr. Dickens
by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe
Albert Whitman & Co.
Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Karin Fisher-Golton
Dear Mr. Dickens, written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, is an engaging and inspiring tribute to the power of the written word. In the world of this picture book, which is based on a true story, 19th-century author Charles Dickens captivates readers with his stories and inspires positive social change. But his portrayal of an outlaw Jewish character has one of his readers, Eliza Davis, concerned that the depiction could aggravate the already difficult situation for Jews in England in the 1860s. Churnin poignantly shows how upsetting it can be to read such a portrayal as she describes Eliza reading Oliver Twist: “The [criminal] character’s name was Fagin, but over and over Dickens wrote the Jew, the Jew, the Jew. Each time the word hurt like a hammer on Eliza’s heart.”
Eliza writes to Dickens, effectively formulating her arguments in ways that may be instructive to young readers. It takes multiple letters for Dickens to accept Eliza’s point. As a result, Dickens features a positive Jewish character in his next series of stories, Our Mutual Friend, and changes future editions of Oliver Twist to replace instances of “the Jew” with the character’s name. He also writes a letter of appreciation to Eliza.
Churnin and Stancliffe do a beautiful job depicting what is clearly another time in a way that is relatable today. Churnin effectively employs questions to engage readers further.
An author’s note in the back describes Jewish history in England as well as the historical basis of the story. It reveals that Eliza Davis was around fifty years old at the time of the correspondence, and Charles Dickens just a few years older. My only quibble with the book is that Eliza Davis is depicted—both in the illustrations and by the use of her first name—as much younger than Mr. Dickens, so much so that it comes as a surprise several pages in to discover that she has a small child. At the time the story takes place, the little boy would be the youngest of her ten children. This seems to me to be a missed opportunity to show that women can be powerful throughout their lifetimes.
Dear Mr. Dickens meets all criteria for the Sydney Taylor Book Award. Though we don’t see much of Eliza Davis’s personal Jewish life, this is the rare picture book that gives readers a window into antisemitism in 19th century England, while also presenting a way that a Jewish woman was able to effect change. Dear Mr. Dickens should be considered for an award or honor.
Are you interested in reviewing books for The Sydney Taylor Shmooze? Click here!