Dear Mr. Dickens

Nan­cy Churnin, Bethany Stan­cliffe (Illus­tra­tor)

By – January 17, 2022

Read­ers today are well aware of age-old con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing insen­si­tive por­tray­als of racial or eth­nic groups in books. In Dear Mr. Dick­ens, Nan­cy Churnin and Bethany Stan­cliffe tell the sto­ry of one Jew­ish read­er, Eliza Davis, who was a fan of nov­el­ist Charles Dick­ens but not of his anti­se­mit­ic car­i­ca­ture in Oliv­er Twist. Davis felt that the char­ac­ter of Fagin rep­re­sent­ed a dan­ger­ous­ly mis­lead­ing por­tray­al of her peo­ple, so she wrote to Dick­ens in hopes of a response. The small dra­ma of this inter­ac­tion between a famous author and a woman seek­ing change makes for an inspir­ing story.

Many chil­dren might not be famil­iar with Dick­ens, but Churnin intro­duces the basic facts of his career with sen­si­tiv­i­ty and accu­ra­cy. He is the most famous writer of Eliza’s time,” and read­ers eager­ly await install­ments of his sto­ries in pop­u­lar mag­a­zines. Selec­tive facts about the era and about Dick­ens’ work, includ­ing his com­mit­ment to expos­ing social evils, set the stage for Eliza’s deci­sion. The implic­it hypocrisy of the novelist’s com­pas­sion for Oliv­er Twist, a poor orphan, angers Davis; young read­ers will eas­i­ly under­stand the idea that adults may fail to live up to their own ideals. Churnin care­ful­ly explains the dif­fer­ence between a char­ac­ter and a stereo­type through Davis’s rea­son­ing. Fagin is repeat­ed­ly iden­ti­fied as the Jew,sug­gest­ing that his hor­ri­ble traits are endem­ic to the Jew­ish people.

Part of Eliza Davis’s appeal lies in her per­sis­tence. When her favorite author sends a defen­sive reply to her let­ter, she refus­es to give up. Her sec­ond let­ter pro­vides a les­son in both courage and calm rea­son­ing and also includes more his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion about British his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture. Davis brings up Dickens’s own Ebenez­er Scrooge, as well as Rebec­ca of York from Sir Wal­ter Scott’s Ivan­hoe. Churnin mix­es spe­cif­ic peri­od details with broad­er issues of per­son­al courage and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty to cre­ate a mean­ing­ful narrative.

Stancliffe’s pic­tures rep­re­sent nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Eng­land as both dis­tant and famil­iar. The expres­sions on char­ac­ters’ faces reflect the uni­ver­sal nature of their feel­ings. Davis is angry and frus­trat­ed, and lat­er she is filled with grat­i­tude at Dickens’s abil­i­ty to change. Her young son appears in many scenes, reach­ing up to place her let­ter in a mail­box and read­ing a book while his moth­er reads her letter.

Dick­ens him­self is both an icon and a real per­son, resent­ful of Davis’s accu­sa­tions as he stern­ly reads her first let­ter, but he is ulti­mate­ly moti­vat­ed to change. Stan­cliffe shows him active­ly involved in revis­ing and reprint­ing a new ver­sion of Oliv­er Twist. The illus­tra­tions fea­ture jew­el-toned col­ors, with black-and-white inset pic­tures from Dickens’s works and oth­er books pro­vid­ing con­trast. Lit­er­a­ture and life are indi­vis­i­ble in this sto­ry of an author and his read­er, prov­ing that words mat­ter, espe­cial­ly when they are part of a dialogue.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed pic­ture book includes an author’s note, with fur­ther his­tor­i­cal information.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

A charm­ing, civ­i­lized pic­ture book star­tles read­ers with a nasty sub­ject deliv­ered with­out sug­ar coat­ing. This rare sto­ry of an ordi­nary moth­er con­fronting a world famous author about his bla­tant anti­semitism is stun­ning. Eliza Davis, a British wife and moth­er, is upset by Charles Dickens’s descrip­tion of Fagin in his best sell­er Oliv­er Twist, in which the author refers to Fagin not by name, but only by Jew,” sug­gest­ing that all Jews are crim­i­nals. How can she right this wrong? She pens a let­ter to Dick­ens explain­ing her dis­tress; he responds by refut­ing her argu­ments. She writes again. His response is a new book about a kind­ly Jew; he edits Oliv­er Twist to refer to Fagin by name, not reli­gion. She thanks him for his essays prais­ing Jew­ish friends and decry­ing prej­u­dice against them. A gen­tle­woman pre­vails in her per­sis­tence to stop a wrong. Dick­ens atones. Read­ers right­ful­ly afraid of anti­semitism will observe it peace­ful­ly and respect­ful­ly resist­ed. Love­ly fam­i­ly-cen­tered illus­tra­tions sup­port the text, which quotes direct­ly from their nine­teenth cen­tu­ry cor­re­spon­dence to con­front a prob­lem still potent today.