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What is a classic?

To show the timeless message of the work of Charles Dickens.

by Janice Ross

Suitable for Key Stage 3


To show the timeless message of the work of Charles Dickens.

Preparation and materials

  • Criteria for classic literature from
  • The background information is taken from an article by Carol Lee in The Times, 10 June 2006.


  1. Ask what might make a book a classic.

    This year we celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Little did he know that future generations would call his books classics.
  2. One definition of a ‘classic’ is this: The book must have universal appeal. The themes must be understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds.

    Listen to this story about Oliver Twist and the effect it had in South Africa in the 1970s. Judge whether you would agree that according to this definition, Oliver Twist is a classic.
  3. In 1976 black children took to the streets of Soweto, a township in South Africa, to protest about schooling under the apartheid regime in that country at that time.

    Black people, who had suffered many insults and separations under this regime, were now being told that lessons were to be taught in Afrikaans, a form of Dutch spoken by some white rulers. It was the last straw for many black Africans, who had withstood too many insults to their colour and were made to feel inferior. They thought that this edict would deprive them of their last remaining freedom, which was the freedom to use their minds and language.

    Many books had been banned under the apartheid system but for some reason the classics of English literature had not been banned, and these books were read avidly in the schools.

    In Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist pupils read of a frail, courageous boy called Oliver. Here was a boy who was orphaned, treated cruelly in a workhouse and then found himself in the bad company of a thief. Oliver knew hunger and loneliness, and was wrongly blamed for a crime he had not committed.

    The Soweto pupils saw themselves in this Oliver. The fact that oppression of children had also happened in England was a revelation to them. They were amazed that these books had not been banned! The book gave them courage to stand against the apartheid system.

    The books came to Soweto in charity parcels. Young people would gather together in a home and read by candlelight, passing the books round in a circle and taking turns to read. At one school there were 1,500 pupils and only three copies of Oliver Twist. Many pupils had to wait months for their turn to read the book.

    At Lovedale, one of the country’s leading black colleges, students took up Oliver’s plea in the workhouse for ‘more’ gruel, and asked for ‘more food, more lessons and more and better books’.

    They were charged with public violence! Some were expelled and some jailed as a result. But Oliver Twist and similar books continued to be a comfort to them. Wasn’t this just what Oliver had faced at the hands of Mrs Sowerberry and Fagin? Charles Dickens understood their plight completely. He was on their side.

    By the following year Afrikaans had been withdrawn from the classrooms as unworkable. It had cost many young black people a great deal to stand against apartheid. Many paid with their lives.

    An author, dead for more than a hundred years, had inspired thousands of schoolchildren and, in the case of Soweto, taught them that ‘suffering is the same everywhere’.
  4. What was the theme that so inspired these black children in Soweto thirty years ago and for which they were willing to die?

    Would you agree that Oliver Twist is a classic?

Time for reflection

A mark of a great author is that the author’s theme touches the lives of many people in many places at many different times.

Have you read a book that has spoken to you in a particular way? Think about passing this on to friends. The book may well speak to them too.

Almighty God,
thank you for the power of words to inspire,
to bring truth and courage and comfort.
Thank you for the gift of writing.


Play, ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’ by Paul Simon (widely available to download).

Publication date: May 2012   (Vol.14 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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