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Book Review: What-the-Dickens


What-the-Dickens
by Gregory Maguire

What-the-Dickens is a 2007 Cybils nominee.

The food is gone, there’s no power in the house, their parents are gone, and a terrible storm rages outside. But Dinah, Zeke, and little Rebecca Ruth are in good hands with twenty-one-year-old cousin Gage to take care of them. It’s not that Gage is any good in a disaster – he can’t start the generator or find food. But what he can do is tell a story to pass the time. And such a story! Gage tells the three children a story about an orphan skibbereen named What-the-Dickens.

Skibbereen are usually hatched in large groups, so when What-the-Dickens hatches alone in an old tuna fish can, he has no one to teach him the language or the ways of the skibbereen. He doesn’t know that skibbereen are tooth fairies, or that they never allow themselves to be seen. What-the-Dickens sets off into the wide world to find a place where he belongs. One adventure leads to another, as he encounters a human, a cat, a bengal tiger, a family of birds, and an old woman. He learns a little more from each encounter, until finally he meets a colony of skibbereen. But his experiences have led him to grow in ways that make him different. Is there a place in the rigidly hierarchical skibbereen society for a free thinker?

I really didn’t think I was going to like this book. “The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy,” the cover proclaims. Tooth fairy? The idea just didn’t seem all that interesting to me. Boy was I wrong. This is so much more than a book about a tooth fairy. It’s about love and home and finding your place in the world. It’s about non-conformity and free thinking and imagination. It’s about belief and faith and magic and miracles. It’s about the power of Story (with a capital ‘S’). It’s a book that grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go.

What-the-Dickens’ early adventures reminded me of the little bird in P.D. Eastman’s classic Are You My Mother?, so when What-the-Dickens finally arrives at the skibbereen colony and he asks an older skibbereen, “Are you my mother,” I was delighted. The whole book is packed with references like that, to everything from A Wrinkle in Time to Gone with the Wind. While the references were fun, I’m not sure that that the 10- to 13-year-olds who are the target audience for this book will pick up on many of them. (Many will probably pick up on some of them, such as the Wrinkle in Time reference, but how many preteens today have read Gone with the Wind?)

One of the best things about the books is the characters, from ten-year-old Dinah, conflicted between her parents’ strict teachings and her own sense of wonder, to What-the-Dickens himself, whose childlike innocence makes him appealing, but who, like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, is a lot more intelligent than people give him credit for.

My one complaint about this book is the stereotyped portrayal of homeschoolers. Why must homeschoolers in fiction always be strict evangelical Christians trying to shelter their children from the world? We homeschool, and none of the homeschoolers we know are even remotely like the stereotype. I have no doubt that there are homeschoolers like that out there, but if you were to believe the portrayal of homeschoolers in fiction, all homeschoolers would be reactionaries hiding from the world.

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