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DEAR MR. DICKENS by Nancy Churnin


by Nancy Churnin ; illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-8075-1530-3
Publisher: Whitman

Eliza Davis was a strong, intelligent woman and a great admirer of Charles Dickens.

Dickens’ enormously popular works portraying the social ills of his day had the power to inspire reforms. But Eliza was Jewish, and she was greatly disturbed when she read Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Dickens’ use of pejorative language in describing the character of Fagin was intensely hurtful. He was described as “dishonest, selfish, cruel, and ugly”; instead of his name, he was nearly always just called “the Jew.” So Eliza wrote to the author asking him to right the wrong he perpetrated. His answer was unfeeling, blaming Jewish readers for any hurt, but Eliza did not give up. She wrote again, reminding him that his Jewish characters did not represent reality and, most importantly, that readers would judge him for his prejudices. Dickens finally paid attention. His later work Our Mutual Friend notably included a positive, sympathetic Jewish character; he took measures to reedit new editions of Oliver Twist; and he wrote essays decrying antisemitism. Churnin presents this well-researched, little-known episode to young readers in simple, direct language that both conveys Eliza’s pain and her determination to right a wrong and provides them with a thoughtful comparison to their own time. Stancliffe’s deeply hued illustrations sympathetically depict Eliza in accurate mid-19th-century surroundings, with Dickens looking as he appears in contemporary portraits. All characters have pale skin. Inclusion of line-drawn scenes from Ivanhoe and Dickens’ books adds gravitas to Eliza’s viewpoint.

A fascinating bit of history and much food for thought.

(author’s note, source note, acknowledgements) (Informational picture book. 5-9)