Sweep

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Sweep book coverWhat the Book is About:

Eleven-year-old Nan Sparrow is the best chimney sweep in Victorian London. After her beloved mentor disappears and she is almost killed in a fire, Nan’s only protection against the evil master sweep Wilkie Crudd is Charlie, a golem figure made of soot and ash, and the friends she makes among the city’s other sweeps and outsiders.
 
Sweep is a beautifully written adventure in the tradition of classic children’s literature, with a Dickensian atmosphere, resourceful orphans, larger-than-life villains, and magical touches, as well as allusions to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and social reformer William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. This choice is suitable for older readers in the program because it has challenging vocabulary and emotionally mature content. Sweep is a captivating story with a rich emotional range, offering children (and parents!) much to discuss and think about long after the book is finished.
 
2018 National Jewish Book Award Finalist
2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner

Jewish Content and Values

  • Nan tries to find out what kind of creature her soot companion actually is, and through research she discovers that he is a golem. Miss Bloom tells Nan the story of the creation and function of the first golem as a protector of persecuted Jews, and there are several references to the golem as a Jewish legend. Miss Bloom gives Nan a copy of Frankenstein, comparing the monster to a misunderstood golem.
  • Miss Bloom is estranged from her family and feels ambivalent about her Jewish heritage, but on Hanukkah she takes out her siddur (Hebrew prayer book), and she appreciates it when Nan gives her a menorah (nine-branched candelabra lit during the holiday). On Passover (Pesach), Miss Bloom makes a small seder for herself and Nan, with traditional foods including charoset, maror, chicken soup, and boiled egg. She also gives Nan a summary of the Passover story.
  • Nan’s friend Toby is Jewish and has been the victim of anti-Semitism.

Positive Role Models

  • Nan is resourceful and loyal. She is determined to discover what Charlie really is and then to rescue him, and she is also determined to escape from the clutches of Wilkie Crudd and make a better life for herself. She and the other children march through London demonstrating against the terrible working conditions for child chimney sweeps and help to get child labor laws changed.
  • Miss Bloom sees beyond Nan’s unkempt exterior and lack of formal education; she realizes that Nan is very intelligent and deserves more in life than being a chimney sweep. She becomes a mentor to Nan, lending her books, offering advice, and eventually helping Nan and the other children go to school.
  • The Sweep stands up for those who are even more powerless than he is, rescuing Toby when a gang of boys beat him up because he is Jewish. When he knows he is dying, the Sweep makes the soot golem so that Nan will have someone to protect her for as long as she needs it.

Content Advisory

Although this is an adventure, it is set in a period of history when there were no child labor laws, and working-class children were treated cruelly and endured harsh conditions. Wilkie Crudd, the master sweep, often threatens and physically beats his child workers, who frequently go hungry as they risk their lives daily as chimney sweeps.  A sweet, six-year-old orphan boy falls down the chimney and dies, the Sweep and Charlie also die in bittersweet and poignant scenes, and Nan nearly dies in a chimney fire. Parents, this book isn’t for every child: there are some scary and disturbing scenes, as well as some sad ones, but more mature kids will love Sweep.

Talk it Over

During the May Day march, Nan decides to stand up in front of the crowd and sing in order to get them to understand how the children are being treated. The evil Wilkie Crudd has been hunting Nan down, and Toby warns her that Crudd will see her if she stands up and sings, but she does it anyway. What would you have done in her position, and why?

More for You

Sweep is set in London in 1875, just a few years before the start of the period of immigration that brought more than 100,000 Jews to England fleeing from persecution in Eastern Europe. Most of these Jews settled in east London, in the Brick Lane area of Spitalfields where Miss Bloom is from. By 1900, 95% of the population of this very poor and overcrowded area was Jewish. The school in that area, then called the Jews’ Free School, had 4,000 pupils and was the largest school in Europe. Today, although there are still a few bagel bakeries in Brick Lane, most of the Jewish community of London now lives in more suburban areas such as Golders Green, and much of Spitalfields has been gentrified.

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