I'm following my own advice, "If you want to write, READ!" Since I'm exploring writing picture book biographies, I recently read several of Nancy Churnin's excellent picture book biographies. When I saw that she had a new book coming out, I requested a review copy from Albert Whitman. Dear Mr. Dickens is illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe and a great curriculum resource for 4-8 year-old readers.
The year was 1863 when Eliza Davis decided to write to Charles Dickens. She was a Jewish reader, who like many of her fellow Englishmen, paid two pence for his weekly magazine, All the Year Round.
Eliza admired Mr. Dickens stories because they were filled with compassion.
.... he used the power of his pen to help others. When he wrote about children forced to labor in workhouses, people demanded change. When his readers were moved to tears by tales of families struggling in desperate, dirty conditions, they gave what they could to charities. As did Eliza.
Eliza loved his stories until she read Oliver Twist and read about Fagin, the "old shriveled Jew," who taught Oliver to steal. Each time Eliza read Dickens' reference to the Jew, "the word heart hurt like a hammer" on her heart.
|"England was already a difficult place for Jewish people in the 1860s...Eliza wasn't famous or powerful. But she had the same things that Charles Dickens had: A pen, paper, and something to say."|
Eliza feared her letter would make things worse. In spite of her fears, she wrote that his portrayal encouraged a "vial prejudice" and that he needed to "atone for a great wrong."
What would the great Mr. Dickens think?
|"He frowned as he picked up his pen and began his response."|
Eliza wrote back to him. In her second letter she wrote about his past, present, and future.
Months passed and Eliza didn't receive a response. Was Mr. Dickens angry?
Finally, chapters of his new novel, Our Mutual Friend, began to appear at newsstands. Eliza "thumbed through the pages, shaking when she realized he had indeed created another Jewish character. Had her fears come true?"
In fact, it was the opposite. Mr. Dickens created a Jewish character and named him Mr. Riah, after the Hebrew word, re'a which meant generous and loyal.
Eliza read the part where Lizzie Hexam, a young woman Mr. Riah helps, says of the Jews:
"I think there cannot be kinder people in the world."
Eliza's eyes filled with tears.
She sat down at her writing table and thanked Mr. Dickens for his great compliment to her and her people.
Eliza's letters had a profound impact on Charles Dickens. He published essays protesting prejudice and during Oliver Twist's reprinting he told his printer to substitute "Fagin" where he had written "the Jew"
In their last correspondence, Eliza sent him an English-Hebrew Bible and praised him for making amends. Dickens wrote back that he was glad she'd spoken up to make things right.
"Eliza was glad she'd spoken up too."
BACK MATTER and MORE INFORMATION
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Congratulations to Susan Rice who won THE MEANS THAT MAKES US STRANGERS from last week's blog. Funny thing--her daughter graduated with Christine Kindberg too!