Author(s): Gill Tavner
In the dark, dangerous streets of Victorian London Oliver enters the world of people so poor and desperate that they will take any risk and know no mercy. Relentlessly pursued by the menacing criminal world, who should Oliver trust? Are his true friends strong enough to resist the determined plotting of desperate villains? In this gripping tale of kidnapping, shooting and murder, Charles Dickens shows the threats to a vulnerable boy's existence and asks the eternal question: which is more powerful, good or evil?
At a recent department meeting, it became evident that Dickens is an author who can divide a room. 'Let's teach some Dickens at key stage three,' some argued. 'I can't imagine anything worse,' others said. 'Too difficult', 'too wordy', 'enough to put anyone off'. 'But the stories are great,' I argued. It's easy to see both sides of the argument. As someone who has dipped in and out of Dickens over the years, I have always been delighted by the actual reading of the novel, but sometimes it has taken a considerable effort of will to start the thing. Many are long, all are complex, and there is some truth in the assertion that they are too difficult-not for all, certainly, but for some children at key stage three, Dickens could sound the death knell for reading pleasure. There is a case, then, for a differentiated Dickens, and here, as with other literary classics, Real Reads provides a helpful solution. The series currently includes nine of the major novels: Bleak House, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Hard Times, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, The Old Curiosity Shop, A Tale of Two Cities and Little Dorrit. All follow the same format-a couple of pages introducing the characters with some delightful illustrations by Karen Donnelly, forty-seven pages of narrative and a 'Taking Things Further' section at the back. Like other Real Reads, too, the novels are not designed to replace the originals, but to complement them. The publisher's hope is that for some readers, the Real Reads are a springboard into the original texts; for others it is to broaden their range of cultural experience and introduce them to a world of wonderful plots and characters. What makes these retellings particularly appealing from a classroom point of view is that significant attention is paid to the language use characteristic of the authors. The novels are retold with some integrity to the original-that is that some of the cadence of Dickens is retained; that some of the vocabulary remains authentic, and that some of those seminal passages remain relatively unaltered. Take the opening of A Tale of Two Cities as an example, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the season of wealth, it was the season of poverty. In short, it was a time very much like the present.' In short, it is very much like the original. The retellings go some way to preserving Dickens's characters and while there are of course casualties, the characters that remain are rounded and engaging. For Oliver we feel pity as he pleads with Sikes 'P-p-p-please don't make me steal,' in the face of Sikes terrifying whisper 'Quiet, vermin'. We long for Nancy to be saved by Mrs Maylie and feel the poignancy of her departure: 'You must take Oliver to safety. I must return to my life.' We sense the justice in Fagin's wait for death 'his face so distorted and pale, his eyes so bloodshot, that he already looked more dead than alive as he awaited his punishment.' Of course, we also feel the delight and relief as 'Oliver and Mr Brownlow walked hand in hand to their carriage.' Some of Dickens's humour is preserved: Mrs Joe is to be found bringing Pip up by hand and at the birth of David Copperfield, Peggotty's 'bosom swelled with such joy and pride that two buttons popped from her bodice and flew across the room.' The heartbreak remains too: 'As he wasted away over the next few days, Little Dorrit didn't leave her father's side. His spirit was like a maimed bird, able to think only of the place that had broken its wings. Finally, his spirit broke free of all earthly concerns. Little Dorrit wept bitterly. The 'Filling in the Spaces' section at the back of each book provides a helpful resource for teachers. Elements of the plot that have been omitted in order to contain the retelling in such a thin volume are listed here and can provide a useful point of departure to read some of the original text. There is some contextual material pertinent to the text, so for Little Dorrit we learn that Dickens's father was sent to Marshalsea Prison when Dickens was twelve and for Hard Times we can read about the rise of steam power and the way in which machinery in factories gave rise to mass migration to cities. There is also a two-page section called 'Food for thought' that provides points for discussion, themes, style and symbols and would neatly help shape classroom discussion and activity. In The Old Curiosity Shop, for example, 'Oscar Wilde said that Nell's death makes the reader laugh, whereas critics in Dickens' time were usually overcome by grief. Which is closer to your own reaction? Why?' would lend itself very well to paired, group or whole-class debate. Thinking about how the symbols of fog, hands, light and shadow and city and countryside match the action in Bleak House immediately suggests ways in which pupils might track language against action as they read. At the lower end of the price range for class readers, the excellent and durable quality of the books presents a good investment at GBP4.99 RRP for individual texts. -- Jane Campion English in Use