a brief break from science fiction: Coram Boy


Having had the opportunity to read more modern young adult and children’s literature in the past six months than I had in any given five year span since I moved to Michigan, I was about to conclude ruefully that I didn’t like the genre/reading level as much as I thought I did–a real problem if I wanted to switch over to working as a children’s or youth services librarian. Fortunately, I’ve found one recent1 example that I do like; I suppose all this just goes to prove the basic precept of readers advisory: not everybody likes everything, and similar book descriptions in Novelist do not guarantee that any given individual reader will like the books so described. In short: don’t give up, just keep reading.

Jamila Gavin’s Coram Boy is a historical novel set in eighteenth century England; it is primarily about a pair of the many orphans raised at the Foundling Hospital, in this case one white and one black, who befriend each other. (The prologue of sorts describes how these two boys came to the hospital in the first place; bear with it. Everything comes together in the end.) Gavin was inspired by the very real Thomas Coram, who set up what modern readers would call an orphanage combined with a training school–remember, this is prior to universal education, and children without families needed not only a home but a way of earning a living once they grew too old for the orphanage.

She combines fiction with fact smoothly, although as it was written by an English2 author with presumably an English audience in mind, kids in the U.S. might appreciate the book more if they had a bit of historical background prior to reading the book themselves; just as an example, why does Otis sell boys to the navy? Even I, as an adult reader, wouldn’t have minded a bit more background: how did Hogarth and Handel specifically come to be so closely tied with the school? Overall, it’s worth reading, and by a wide range of ages as well. I’m of the impression that the age of the protagonist(s) is an indicator of the age of the intended audience; in this case, there are two sets–the first pair in their mid-teens and the second, a ‘generation’ later, about eight or nine. Judging by the ages of the reviewers on the Reading Matters web site, it’s probably best for 10-14.

What to read next? Joan Aiken springs to mind; her Wolves books also deal with children on their own in London, and the treatment of children, though they’re set about fifty years after Coram Boy.

References:
Book reviews, written by kids
Biography of Thomas Coram
Description of the foundling hospital

1in a manner of speaking: the book was published in 2000
2well, half English half Indian: Gavin has a series about Indian children that I may eventually track down

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