on Dickens and school reading

Here’s a good article, it made me want to run out immediately and get Nicholas Nickleby to read to my five-year-old. Hmm, perhaps better to work our way up to it…

“Let’s give our children great expectations” by Allison Pearson in The Telegraph

I’ve jotted down a couple of her suggestions for younger-age introductions to Dickens, namely:

The Muppet Christmas Carol – “admittedly a great work in its own right, but slightly lacking the moral heft of, say, Bleak House” – This is a lighter, funny presentation of the classic story that, nonetheless, doesn’t omit any of the hard stuff… the frightening appearance of the last ghost, Scrooge’s visions of his own death … And Michael Caine holds his own amidst a host of fuzzy muppets.

Oliver! – of course, the lively, fantastic musical by Lionel Bart brought to the screen in full splendour by Richard Lester.

“Gill Tavner’s excellent condensed Dickens Real Reads” – will definitely look these up. (Here’s an amazon search.)

And now that I’m at it, here are a few more suggestions off the top of my head:

A Christmas Carol movie – look up the more classic versions of it, if you don’t want to “muppet” it up. The story is gripping enough to keep young viewers engaged throughout, even without Kermit. Perhaps the most famous is the Alastair Sim version from 1951 (aka Scrooge), though there are many others. (Be aware that the 2009 film with Jim Carrey I’ve heard described as terrifying, so other versions may be better for young ones.)

Christmas Carol readings – once they know the basic plot, going to a live reading of the original may be fun. (Plus it’s usually for charity.) I took my four-year-old to one a couple Christmases ago. She only lasted halfway through, but seemed to get the drift, and enjoyed the acting and language of it all.

The Magic Fishbone – a children’s story by Dickens. Funny and odd.

A Tale of Two Cities – if you’re child goes crazy for adventure stories, don’t forget about this one! Also a fascinating introduction to the history of the French Revolution.

It just so happens I’ve been reading a book about children’s literature and culture that had the following to say about Dickens:

Like many other books written expressly for adults, these biographical novels [David Cooperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist] became children’s classics, prescribed on children’s school curriculum because of the lucidity and sensitivity with which Dickens treated problems of youth. His writing seemed to dredge from the collective depths of youthful memory a way of characterizing early experience that contained a new sympathy for the child’s struggle to achieve understanding and control unruly feelings. In Dickens’s time this was a radical point of view.

– Kline, Stephen. Out of the Garden: Toys and Children’s Culture in the Age of TV Marketing. (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1993), p. 94

Dickens’ novels provide a perfect entry point for the study of other historical times. What child wouldn’t be interested in finding out how children used to live, ie. working in mines and factories? What child wouldn’t be immediately sympathetic to Oliver Twist and his plight?

As Allison Pearson points out, we often forget that in his day Dickens wrote what was regarded as rather “trashy” reads – cliffhanging, melodramatic serials. The strength of his books are the bare-bones of the stories, the wildly gripping plots, and this is what makes them so loved by so many after all these years. How fantastic it would be to introduce our children to his books in the year of the 200th anniversary of his birth!





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