What the Dickens? Making the Classics accessible to Young Readers – Guest Post by Catherine Bruton

I will never forget the first time I saw a teacher cry. I think it shaped the writer I became. And it is certainly at the heart of the book I’ve just written – ‘Another Twist in the Tale’, a sequel to Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ set in Victorian London and featuring Oliver’s long lost twin sister…. a book I hope will get young readers hooked on the classics!

The teacher was Mrs Jennifer Barratt – one of the world’s greatest English teachers and it was a grey November day in 1990 in a portacabin at Lymm High School. We were studying ‘Bleak House’, and as she read the extract where Jo dies in Tom-All-Alones. I looked up and saw tears flooding down Mrs Barratt’s cheeks. It was a shock to realise that a writer had reached out across a gulf of over 150 years and tugged on her heart strings, that the death of a fictional child could move a teacher to tears in front of a room of grumpy, sceptical schoolkids. In that moment lots of dots joined in my head – that was the moment I realised the absolute power of storytelling.

And I think it shaped my own mission as a writer. In many of my novels for children and young adults I have been inspired by Dickens’ example – his ability to use stories to open readers’ eyes to complex issues. I have written about terrorism, the refugee crisis, race riots, child poverty – and I have tried to make young readers ask big questions through stories that I hope are hilarious, heart-breaking and hopeful.  But what Dickens teaches us is that the message only gets across if the story is really, really good! The characters need to be so brilliant that you are rooting for them to win (or lose!), the cliff-hangers so nail-bitingly tense you can’t stop reading, the plots and adventures so breath-taking you are swept along and caught up in the magic until it seeps into your heart and changes the colour of your very soul.

No pressure trying to write a sequel then!  

When I’m not writing stories, I am an English and Drama  teacher and  I have had the great privilege of teaching many of Dickens’ novels (I even co-directed a production of ‘Oliver!’ featuring a future Olympian!) But I’m not gonna lie, many 21st Century school children initially find Dickens inaccessible – the language can seem alien and impenetrable, the sentences too long, the syntax too complex and convoluted. It’s usually the characters that get them!  Those amazingly weird and wonderful names – Mr Pumblechook, Magwitch, The Artful Dodger, Mr Ebenezer Scrooge, The Aged P, Tiny Tim, Martin Chuzzlewit and Pip Pirrip – names that are as grotesque and glorious and funny and absurd and sad and brilliant as Dickens’ incredible cast of characters themselves.  Once young readers meet Dickens’ characters, they never really forget them – and that’s usually how you get them hooked!

So as a writer the chance to  tell a story that included some of my old favourites, including the Artful Dodger and Fagin and even Oliver Twist himself – and to invent a host of fantastic new Dickensian heroes and villains – Baggage Jones, Mrs Spank, the monstrous Madame Manzoni and Miss Twill Twist – was just too wonderful to resist. And I love the idea that my Twill might introduce young readers to Nancy and Bill Sykes, to  Pip and Magwitch, to Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim and many more of  the glorious characters and unforgettable adventures created by the inimitable Charles Dickens! Because that’s my real hope with this novel – that it will prove to be a ‘gateway’ to the classics for young readers, encourage them  to check out this Dickens guy for themselves, and when they do, not to be intimidated by that dense Dickensian prose but uncover the treasure trove of stories within!

Because of course the best thing about Dickens are his stories! He published his novels chapter-by-chapter in weekly magazines which meant every instalment left the reader desperate to know more – so they just had to buy next week’s edition!  In ‘Another Twist in the Tale’ I tried to do the same, introducing another twist in every chapter, ending each episode on a cliff-hanger so tantalising that you just have to keep reading, keep turning the pages, following every twist and turn – even if it’s  late at night, way past your bedtime, with a torch under the duvet – till the final  thrilling twist on the very last page! 

I hope that ‘Another Twist in the Tale’ combines the world of Dickens, his glorious language, his amazing plots and characters, with the energy of modern story-tellers like Katherine Rundell, Phillip Pullman, Eva Ibbotson, Fleur Hitchcock and Thomas Taylor. And I think there’s a bit of trademark Catherine Bruton (via Mrs Barratt c.1990) in there too… Because although this is a very different story to ‘No Ballet Shoes in Syria’ and I really hope it WON’T make you cry, I do  hope it is a tale with a heart – yes, a rip-roaring adventure that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but also a story that will make you think, and maybe even leave a mark on your heart!

Another Twist in the Tale by Catherine Bruton was published by Nosy Crow on 5th November 2020, £6.99 paperback. 

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