Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Charles Dickens for children- on the bicentenary of his birth

Two books that I have read over and over again- 'A Tale of Two Cities' and 'Oliver Twist' - by a well loved writer, Charles Dickens.

Charles Dickens was born on 7th February, 1812, in Portsmouth, England. Which makes today, the bicentenary of the birth of this writer who is held second only to the Bard in English literature- his contribution to the language in terms of words and phrases is that great. We often use terms coined by these literary greats as a matter of course, without even realising their origin.

The images that come to my mind when Dickens is mentioned is Victorian England, with the verdant countryside, the dirty, squalid, grimy, overcrowded back-streets of London, the romance and dangers of the French revolution, dry British humour, which comes across wonderfully in The Pickwick Papers and Bleak House, extending even to many of the characters- for instance, the characters from David Copperfield are more of caricatures. And of course, Christmas!

So of course I wanted to introduce the works of Dickens to A. And why not start early? IMO, the works of Dickens that can be read and appreciated in the original by children as young as 10 years are some of his Christmas stories, and the best known of them, 'A Christmas Carol'. But I was greedy- and impatient to introduce her to his works. Looking around for simplified versions, I found a few that had retained the original flavour of the stories. Some even for a reader as young as 5 yrs old.

image courtesy librarything
image courtesy librarything

I found two- Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, from the Ladybird publication, Ladybird Classics.
Ages: 4-8yrs.

Absolutely great for this age group, a great introduction to these classics. Full page illustrations, with very simple, bare text, yet telling the tale wonderfully well. A loved them, and many other classics in these series.

When A was a bit older, I looked around for something more juicy, something she could really get her teeth into. Not the sundry abridged versions one encounters, but something really worthwhile. That is when I came across this one.
Image courtesy librarything

Illustrated Stories from Dickens
Illustrated by Barry Albett
Published by Usborne illustrated classics
Ages 8-12 yrs.

Meatier than the Ladybird books, these retold stories include five of Dickens' works, Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield.

There is also a short biography of Charles Dickens, introducing children to his life and times. How he wrote many of his books from his experience of poverty, and of the grime in Victorian London.

And then there is the incomparable graphic novel by Marcia Williams. This is available under two titles, featuring the same stories- Oliver Twist and Other Great Dickens Stories by Walker Books and Charles Dickens and Friends, also by Walker Books,  by Candlewick Press, and by Pan Macmillan India.
Ages 8+

Image courtesy walker books

Image courtesy amazon

This, in my opinion, is the best retelling of Dickens' stories that I have come across. Considering that I am generally not a fan of graphic novels, that is saying quite a lot.

Five of Dickens' stories are retold and illustrated in graphic novel form by Marcia Williams in her inimitable style, the illustrations bringing alive the various backdrops of his stories. While the retelling has text in her words, the lines mouthed by the characters are in Dickens' original words.

So we have the Artful Dodger informing Oliver (Oliver Twist) - "I know a 'spectable old genelman...wot'll give you lodgings for nothink".

Joe advising Pip (Great Expectations) - "Well, Pip, you must be a common scholar afore you can be a oncommon one".

Sidney Carter thinking to himself (A Tale of Two Cities) at the guillotine -"I see the lives for which I lay down my life...It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done".

Miss Betsy Trotwood and Mr Dick in consultation over David (David Copperfield) - " 'What shall I do with him?' 'I should wash him.' "

The ghost of old Marley, his dead business partner, explaining the heavy, clanking chains that bind him, to Scrooge (A Christmas Carol) - "I wear the chain I forged in life...I made it link by link, and yard by yard."

Marcia Williams says in her foreword, "When I was a child, I liked short books with lots of pictures. So, I don't think I would ever have read Dickens, if it hadn't been for one teacher...I was always a fidget - except when she read Dickens aloud. My desk would fade from sight and I would be in Victorian England..."

Next- the originals.



We also have Artnavy sharing an experience of reading Dickens with her 6-yr-old.

The 6 year old reader in the Artnavy household was introduced to 'A Christmas Carol' (abridged) last Christmas.

Since she was studying tense at school, she immediately grasped the essense of the Spirits from the Past, Present and Future. A beautiful tale, a bit threatening in terms of the consequence of greed, it brings home the message.

When I discussed the story with Anushka, she mentioned that the fact that it is never too late to make amends, also comes through in the story.

She took this book to school to share in their Show-and-Tell session. Proof of how much she enjoyed it. I hope she cherishes all of Dickens' works as she grows up and reads unabridged versions of some of my all time favourite books.


Choxbox said...

This is such a treat to read S.

We had a totally pathetic version of Great Expectations as the novel to study in middle school at some point. That sort of scared me off any 'abridged/modified' versions - so the ones culled and certified by you will be of great help for the younger child. Off to flipkart to hunt it down.

Love the stuff along the edges of the pages in the Marcia Williams version :)

Vibha said...

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post Sandhya :)

Praba Ram said...

Second Chox and Vibha! An invaluable compilation, which I am sure a lot of us will be revisiting. Thank you, S! Would love to start with the Ladybird classics, for the home library.

Like Chox, I have bad memories reading David Copperfield. Recall yawning/snoring through one boring version. :(

Will pick these up - thanks to your stamp of approval! :)

Happy Birthday, Dickens!

Interesting stuff here - his views on fairy tales and to think this was 150 years ago, amazing!

"The imaginative space of fairy tales, and of art in general, is worth defending against the suffocating desire of parents to protect their children from untoward thoughts."


Suni said...

Commenting here for the first time. This is indeed a very good compilation. will definitely bookmark it for my little one! Thank you Sandhya! :)

sandhya said...

Thanks, all.

@Choxbox- You may borrow the ladybird books from me. The Usborne book was a friend's.

@Suni: Welcome here, and thanks.:)

@Prabha: Fairy tales have been told traditionally as cautionary tales, and even the comparatively gruesome ones that are featured in the Grimm brothers' collection have been considerably censored from the originals that they obtained from folk sources. So in a way, they were not meant for children alone.

Then again, childhood as we conceive of in today's times, has been a fairly recent concept in the western world. Just around the time that Dickens lived, the Victorian times. Children normally were considered babies until they were about 7 years of age, after which they would more or less be treated as miniature versions of grown-ups: what we consider as child labour during the industrial revolution (potrayed wonderfully well in all dickens' books) was normal and a matter of course in the economically less priviledged and agrarian parts of society. The idea of setting childhood aside for getting an education was a new-fangled one, and only for the very priviledged class.

Another idea- of the innocence of childhood- came around the same time- propounded by Rousseau. It slowly translated into a social acceptance of affection for a child. Until then, a child's supposed waywardness was supposed to kept in control by an excess of discipline. All of which seems horrendous to our modern sensibilities.

Hence the opinion of Dickens on the propensity of parents keeping fairy-tales away from children!

Sorry for the thesis!

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