Janie, Hayley, and Betsy team up to (virtually) discuss Sweep by Jonathan Auxier: does it have what it takes to win a Newbery? We discuss themes, setting, characters, and more!
Sweep is one of those titles that the three of us (Hayley, Janie, and Betsy) read within a week or two of each other; we had to discuss who was going to review it! When a book comes out by an author we like, we jump. And it’s a natural fit for our Newbery Buzz discussions because those in the “regular” kidlit world like Auxier’s work, too.
Betsy: Set in Victorian England, Sweep is about a young chimney sweep named Nan who lives in Dickensian conditions with her fellow poor sweeps. Mortality rates for sweeps are high, and it’s an every-girl-for-herself existence. Auxier is an expert storyteller, particularly when it comes to setting the mood. Hayley and Janie, what did you think about the mood and setting of this story? Does it work for 21st century young readers? Is it too dark and depressing?
Hayley: I think Auxier did a great job tackling a hard topic and time, without making it depressing. Yes, you feel the cold and the soot and the grit. But that’s not how the story begins. It begins with hope and a little bit of wonder, “There are all sorts of wonderful things a person might see very early in the morning . . . if you are very, very lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the girl and her Sweep.” With flashbacks like this and memories woven into the story, readers soon realize there is much more going on than Nan realizes. At its core, this is a story about love —and love doesn’t need a beautiful clean background to flourish. (At this time of year, I instantly think of a dirty Bethlehem stable!)
And the story and setting are “real” enough to capture a 21st century reader’s interest. I think Auxier does a great job of not just telling us about Nan’s London, but creating and showing it to readers. What do you think, Janie?
Janie: I like your thoughts about the hope at the beginning, Hayley—very true! I find some of Auxier’s books a bit hard to get into, and can’t exactly say why. He’s a great writer, but his “writerliness” may be a little off-putting for me. I didn’t get that sense with Sweep, though—the story got right off the ground with a protagonist I could identify with, even though she lives in another country and time. I will credit his worldbuilding with some of that: as you mentioned, Hayley, you can feel the cold and soot and grit. Like the best historical novels, the setting is both familiar and strange—relatable in the details, but we’re so far from Industrial-age London that the real-life world of a chimney sweep seems like grimmest sort of fantasy. But the promise of hope pulls it back from the brink of despair, and the appearance of “Charlie” changes the game. He’s the main fantasy element, a “monster” made of soot. What purpose do you think he serves in the story, ladies?
Betsy: Charlie is indeed the “monster” of the subtitle, a Golem straight out of Jewish tradition, but it’s hard to view him as a monster. We “meet” him first through Nan’s eyes and with her own knowledge of her background, something no one else around her in the story is privy to. We know, for instance, that Charlie was a gift from the sweep who cared for her in the beginning and who is part of her memories unfolding in the book. Charlie serves several purposes in the story, the most prosaic being the fantasy element that keeps this from being a sentimental historical fiction story about a chimney sweep. His thematic purposes are far more profound—ladies, I’ll let you chime in on those. It’s not too small a thing to say Charlie makes the story.
Janie: I think he brings two important aspects to the story. First, his roots in Jewish tradition. Great Britain at this time had a rather ambivalent attitude toward Jews. On the one hand, Jews throughout English history have occupied important positions of influence, such as Benjamin Disraeli, one of Queen Victoria’s Prime Ministers. But by and large, anti-Semitism was as prevalent on the island as it was in Europe. The Jewish characters we meet in Sweep are sympathetic and supportive, while many of the “Christians” are hypocritical and harsh. This may seem off-putting at first, but it’s unfortunately true to the record (hypocritical Christians, that is). The author may be reminding us that Jesus was a Jew, and Charlie will show Christlike actions in the last few chapters.
The other side of Charlie’s character is his innocence. In his afterward, Jonathan Auxier suggests that his own Down syndrome child was a major influence on Charlie’s personality. How did that angle strike you, Hayley?
Hayley: You know, I’ve been thinking about that. (My brother Joshua, 19, has Down syndrome.) And at first I thought, oh, Charlie isn’t really like that! But the more I thought about it, I definitely saw the influence. Charlie is so sweet, yet he is also stubborn. (Classic Down syndrome traits!) His attempts to be sneaky are usually quite transparent. His trustingness and general amiability —his empathy— all these make sense in the lens of Down syndrome. (So also does his knack of taking facts at face value. . . . He is Charlie; how can he be a monster? Why do people think he is? It doesn’t make sense to him.) The one thing that doesn’t fit are the traits that also make him a golem —his anger, when it comes, is so alarming because it does NOT fit the rest of his character. And even that, if you’ve been around someone with Downs, can make sense. My brother is rarely sad, but when he is, it is alarming because it clashes with his usual character. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I appreciate how Auxier crafted Charlie with echoes and shadows of Down syndrome, yet gave him a unique individuality.
Betsy: I didn’t even think of Downs when I first read the book, but I’m glad to see/note the connections. In some ways, making Charlie’s character a Golem instead of a person with Downs makes his story more universal, bigger than one syndrome or trait. As Christians, it’s not hard to see Charlie as a Christ figure: he loves those around him (such as Nan) even when they are selfish. He is compassionate, yet he has a deeply rooted sense of right and wrong. He mimics several of the descriptions of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, and the end of his story certainly brings that full circle.
We could keep “discussing” this book more–there’s a lot packed into it. We hope we’ve whetted your appetite for both reading it and talking about it with your kids. All in all, this is a book we each enjoyed! If it wins some ALA Youth Media love (such as a Newbery), we’ll be thrilled.
Don’t miss the others in our 2019 Newbery Buzz series!