June 2003

A young boy’s Dickensian journey

By Brian Selznick & Tor Seidler
Review by
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A strange old man with a wicker basket approaches the Carbuncles’ house in New England. In the basket are two baby boys and a beautiful dulcimer. Wanting to appear charitable to the neighbors, blustery Eustace Carbuncle takes in the lads, the children of his wife's sister, and proceeds to make life miserable for them. Eventually, the boys William and Jules are consigned to the cold attic, left to their own devices and sorely neglected in favor of Eustace's own obnoxious son, Morris. Jules, strangely silent and withdrawn, begins to waste away, while William learns the dulcimer, discovering that he has a strange affinity for playing and singing. Thus begins Tor Seidler’s The Dulcimer Boy.

Originally published in 1979, it's the book that marked this beloved author’s debut as a novelist. Reissued this month in a deluxe new edition, this enchanting tale is just right for summer reading. The plot thickens when the Carbuncles’ fortunes begin to decline, and they call in an auctioneer to appraise their antiques collection. After the auctioneer notes the value of the dulcimer, it is promptly taken from William and locked away in the family's prize mahogany secretary. When William breaks into the secretary and takes back the dulcimer, he is caught by Mrs. Carbuncle and chased out of the house, his shirttails flapping like the wings of an angel. Finding himself alone and hungry in the city, William goes to an inn and plays and sings for his supper. He is such a sensation that soon the bakers, bankers, musicians, ladies and gentleman of the city are in enthusiastic attendance at the inn, and William is playing to standing-room-only crowds. Unfortunately, though, he is tricked into signing a year-long contract, and playing at The Tumble Inn soon becomes more drudgery than pleasure.

Events take an unexpected twist when a drunken sailor named Mr. Drake, who turns out to be a key figure from William's past, appears in the audience one evening. He leads the boy home through boggy regions and over stagnant rivers, followed all the while by a strange flock of dark and white birds. But the Carbuncles, as it turns out, no longer live at the house. A further decline in their prospects forced them to move to a shack on a dismal, slimy lane, and that is where William is reunited with his hateful foster family and with Jules, now slaving away as a chimney sweep a fate soon to be William's as well.

Young readers will eagerly follow the boys on this unforgettable journey, which eventually leads the pair into an unexpected encounter with the mayor of New York City. Seidler concludes the story with a satisfying resolution, as William embarks on a new journey, and Jules receives the reward he so richly deserves.

The Dulcimer Boy is a beautiful, atmospheric story of a boy with a mysterious gift. Enigmatic and haunting, a narrative with archetypal elements helpless orphans, cruel relatives, unscrupulous characters and odd coincidences as well as a distinct Dickensian flavor, it is a precursor to later classics from Seidler, including A Rat’s Tale and Mean Margaret. Precise and radiant, the wonderfully detailed black-and-white illustrations by award-winning artist Brian Selznick are a perfect match for the text of this handsome, lavishly designed volume.


Dean Schneider is a middle school English teacher in Nashville, Tennessee.

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The Dulcimer Boy

The Dulcimer Boy

By Brian Selznick & Tor Seidler
ISBN 9780066236094

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