Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster by Jonathan Auxier
Genres: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Maturity Level: 3 (Content Warning: Child Abuse)
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For nearly a century, Victorian London relied on “climbing boys”–orphans owned by chimney sweeps–to clean flues and protect homes from fire. The work was hard, thankless and brutally dangerous. Eleven-year-old Nan Sparrow is quite possibly the best climber who ever lived–and a girl. With her wits and will, she’s managed to beat the deadly odds time and time again.
But when Nan gets stuck in a deadly chimney fire, she fears her time has come. Instead, she wakes to find herself in an abandoned attic. And she is not alone. Huddled in the corner is a mysterious creature–a golem–made from ash and coal. This is the creature that saved her from the fire.
Sweep is historical fiction set in Victorian London with just a touch of magic. This is not a happy story, but is brutal in its honesty. While I didn’t find it particularly inspiring or touching, it’s impossible to deny the power of the story.
On a historical level, this book is well researched and paints a picture of being a London chimney sweep in all it’s horror. Students may be unaware that children were once forced to work for pennies a day, often abused and put in the way of bodily harm. Nan is a great narrator for this tale because she is clever enough to understand what is going on and why it is wrong. Her empathy helps the reader to understand how unjust systems persisted. There’s a lot to be learned from this book.
Yet it holds modern relevance as well. The rich responding to a protest not with outrage at the death of children, but annoyance that their party was ruined, is strongly reminiscent of resistance to the Black Lives Matter movement. Though children would likely need help to make these connections. This might make a nice companion read to The Watsons Go to Birmingham, One Crazy Summer, Ghost Boys, or other books about the Civil Rights movement.
The writing was excellent. Very descriptive, Auxier always paints a picture. His charcaters were complex and fully fleshed out. That I didn’t connect with this book might say more about me than it.
I don’t know that kids will be eager for Sweep. It’s not the most exciting concept, and it doesn’t hook you right away. Reluctant readers might find the length and complexity daunting. But I think if you can get them to read it, this will be a book kids enjoy. Recommended for fans of Newsies, Oliver Twist, or Crenshaw.