Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Who the Dickens Was He?: Resources

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Who the Dickens Was He?: Resources

Article excerpt

The author's bicentenary is a great excuse to explore ways of introducing children to classic texts, says J.D. Sharpe.

It seems that you cannot turn on the radio, switch on a television or open a newspaper without encountering Charles Dickens - not surprising, perhaps, given that the bicentenary of his birth is now just a couple of weeks away.

But why is Dickens still so appealing? Why do we have countless adaptations of his work and why have his stories survived when those of so many of his contemporaries have been lost?

The answer lies in the fact that Dickens is not only an honest documenter of our history, helping us to understand societies of the past, but also that he holds a mirror up to the unchanging human condition. His themes are universal and he fearlessly turns them inside out so that no element is left hidden. And despite the physical differences between his time and ours, the lives that play out across the pages of his novels could easily be our own in both their glories and their failures.

A Christmas Carol is set in a period of economic uncertainty, such as we are experiencing today, and highlights human greed. Little Dorrit, written between 1855 and 57, deals with social justice, the concept of individual responsibility, and governmental bureaucracy and accountability. Through reading Dickens, we can grasp what has changed and what has not in the past 200 years. His writing also offers an opportunity for readers to test their own moral compass against some of the adversities faced by his characters.

But how do we make Dickens more appealing to young readers, and how do we make them realise his continued relevance today?

One thing to focus on, perhaps, is that children are not invisible in Dickens' novels, unlike in many other books of the age. From Oliver Twist to Pip in Great Expectations and Esther and Jo in Bleak House, we are plunged into the world of Victorian children, providing the perfect opportunity to discuss what it meant to be a child then and how different it is now.

And it is important for the young reader to understand that Dickens wrote about the mistreatment of children from his own experience. In 1824, when Dickens was 12, his father was imprisoned, along with the rest of his family, because of debt. Young Charles was sent to work in London at a blacking factory - a warehouse for the manufacture and packaging of shoe polish.

Working 12-hour days, he received only a slice of pudding for his labour and an equally lean "salary" of six shillings a week, which he used to support his family. It was a life lesson he never forgot and this period plays a material role in many of his novels.

But Dickens also explores the fact that many children were deprived of education due to their social status. Oliver, Pip and Jo all receive no education in the early stages of their lives.

It is true that the size of a Dickens novel can be a barrier for some young readers, but there are real opportunities to use imagination and reinvention as a way into the heart of classic texts.

In my own small way, I hope I have added to that legacy as an author who has taken Oliver Twist and added dark elements such as demons, warlocks and werewolves to create a new work called Oliver Twisted. It is not a new tactic, but it can assist in drawing children to his stories.

Such combinations often highlight the themes that exist in the original text and can provide a useful framework to discuss these themes in a fresh way. They grab the reader's attention and provide an entry point that might be funny or terrifying, but will ultimately be unique and thought- provoking. …

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