February 02, 2012


A Boy Called Dickens. By Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrated by John Hendrix. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Steve Jobs: American Genius. By Amanda Ziller. Collins. $5.99.

     Charles Dickens’ terrible preteen years were formative for his writing, giving him the empathy with London’s poor and downtrodden that he used as fodder for his novels for the rest of his life. It was not a time of which Dickens was proud: for many years, he would not discuss it at all, and even when he was famous as an adult and made his well-known walks around London, he avoided the location where the blacking factory where he had worked had once stood. Deborah Hopkinson, a sensitive writer for whom Dickens has a strong attraction, has turned this dismal period of Dickens’ life into a charming work designed to teach modern children to hold onto and pursue their dreams, never giving up even when life throws reverses at them. Like Dickens’ own novels, A Boy Called Dickens is overly sentimental; but unlike them, it is not filled with cliffhangers or repetitious passages resulting from serialization, nor is it packed with the series of unlikely coincidences that were a Dickens trademark and that, along with his Victorian style, can be difficult for modern readers to swallow. Hopkinson’s book takes the form of a search for young Dickens and a kind of benevolent spying on his life – as he walks the London streets, wishing he could go to school but being forced by his family’s straitened circumstances to work; as he spins stories to fellow workers, including one named Bob Fagin (who in real life helped him, but whose name Dickens used for an evil character in Oliver Twist); as he imagines the characters from his later novels following him like ghosts. John Hendrix’s illustration of Hopkinson’s invented “ghost parade” is especially well done, but all the pictures fit the story very well – although they, like the text, err a bit on the side of sentimentality, for example by making young Charles attractively dirty (a bit like Mary Poppins in the Disney movie) rather than grittily filthy, as he would have been because of his work. What Hendrix does best is show the darkness of London: many of the illustrations are almost monochromatic, giving an overall feeling of dull brown buildings and a sky turned permanently and depressingly grey by smoke from factories and homes’ chimneys. This is a short book, and it does simplify matters that modern readers may find puzzling. For example, Dickens’ mother and his siblings lived with his father in jail, where his father was sent for not paying a debt, and Hopkinson does not explain why (in fact, jail accommodations were better and more humane than anything else the family could afford at the time). But young readers who wonder about this point and others can find more in-depth information elsewhere – and hopefully A Boy Called Dickens will inspire them to do just that.

     Even those who admire Dickens are usually willing to admit that his works have narrative and structural flaws. But nothing comparable is being said about Steve Jobs, the adulation for whom has gone well beyond hero worship and turned into a sort of secular canonization. Jobs was inarguably brilliant, but was not invariably right in his ideas and not always easy for others to deal with – which simply means he was driven, determined and quite human. You would not know that, though, from many of the quickie biographies churned out since Jobs’ death last October 5. Steve Jobs: American Genius is a typical piece of hagiography, an easy-to-read biography for young readers in which Jobs comes across as practically messianic in his commitment to changing the way people and technology interact. In some ways, this unmodulated praise for a nerdy business leader is a wonderful thing, giving young readers a far better role model than do the biographies of meaningless celebrities and grotesquely overpaid, frequently unintelligent sports figures. But it is possible to take even a good thing too far, and that is what Amanda Ziller does. “As Jobs had demonstrated before, he had a sharp knack for seeing how technology could help people. He was also great at reading people.” “Certain details of the house…showed how in tune Jobs was at that time with artistic pursuits.” “One example of how this very free period of his life proved invaluable later on…” “Jobs realized that in addition to having a great product, they also needed a great, appealing package.” The litany of praise becomes tiresome after a while, and when Ziller deals with some of the difficult times in Jobs’ life, her tendency to downplay them (while failing to explain what went wrong) can be frustrating to read. For example: “Jobs was clashing more and more with [Apple] president and CEO [John] Sculley. He’d brought Sculley on and they’d worked well together for years, but Jobs couldn’t share power for long.” A possible character flaw? Oh, no – Ziller continues, “He started to feel like [sic] Sculley didn’t know computers and didn’t care enough about making a great product.” But it was Sculley, not Jobs, whom the Board of Directors backed – why? No answers here. Certainly Steve Jobs: American Genius adequately explains who Jobs was, how he worked and why he and his approach to technology were important and ultimately successful (although by no means always so). The book gets a (+++) rating for these positive elements. But by failing to place Jobs’ work and personality in any sort of perspective, it ends up reading more like a work of public relations than like one exploring the life and career of a very important and frequently visionary business executive.

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