Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (May 5, 2020) written by Jonathan Auxier is one of those remarkable, read-aloud books for all ages. Sarah Mackenzie, the host of the Read-Aloud Revival described Sweep as having “won a place in my all-time tippy top favorite books” and rightly so. She described it thus,
“He’s large and lovable and Nan, our heroine will raise him almost like her own child. He is in the end, her protector. Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster is a book by Jonathan Auxier… It’s a Charles Dickens-like adventure about the everlasting gifts of friendship and wonder. The deep moments reflect the reality and nature of parenting and the wonder we experience when we see the world through the wonder of our child’s eyes.”
Mackenzie’s description, her incredible taste in good books, and the interview with the author pushed this book to the top of my list. I immediately reserved it at the library. The Saturday after it came, we settled down in the living room ready for me to read aloud. I have read only one other chapter book to my children, the name of which escapes me because I yawned through it and disliked the ending so much. It was not the ending it should have had, not the one the story led up to, and so it cheapened the emotions the author drew out of the reader.
Sweep does not do this at all.
The ending is joyful but did not come cheaply or without difficult things happening without which it never would have been possible.
C.S Lewis wrote
“To love is to be vulnerable.”
So all love will come with some sacrifice, some pain.
Auxier knows this and the vulnerability of love, for which one gives of himself or herself, is at the heart of this book. He writes, through his characters,
“We save ourselves by saving others.”
This is the gift of self through which we can truly find who we are, as Pope Paul VI wrote about in “Guadium et Spes.”
We can try to hold onto what we love by asking them to promise never to help others, never to give of themselves, but this is wrong. It is wrong to desire others to not sacrifice themselves because you want to see them preserved at all costs.
It means a great deal to me when an author will not shy away from the full nature of love.
In an interview, poet Dana Gioia told Russ Roberts,
“’There is no holiday without ghosts.’ And, I think that’s true. As you get older and you lose people, every joy you have is qualified by your losses. But, in a weird way, that amplifies your joy and makes your memory bearable.”
It isn’t the darkness of the book that matters to me. It is the willingness of the author to allow loss to amplify joy. This is when I find real life on the pages. And I found that realness of life in Sweep.
Indeed, in the end notes, the author wrote his daughter has down syndrome and was born with a congenital heart defect that required open heart surgery,
“I had to make a choice to love someone who I knew could very likely break my heart beyond repair.”
And so we read Sweep aloud.
While the above reflections span the deep, we laughed a lot during the book.
Every scene counts. The structure is perfect. We read chapters that represent “before” and my daughter points out to me that these always come following a chapter end in which she goes to sleep. These are her dreams, they are not merely flashbacks inserted here and there.
The book is divided into two parts, “Innocence” and “Experience,” taken from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and draws in Blake’s work through two poems both titled, “The Chimney Sweeper.”
The last chapters of the book perfectly recall the past, where we have been through all these chapters. Reading aloud brought out the impact of this.
The dialogue and language throughout are wonderful. The dialogue offers some regional subtleties that are there for those with ears to hear, but not so much that it distracts us. The characters are utterly consistent and true to their nature.
The villain is real. For the secondary villain, we are given a glimpse of how one can actually become a monster. We are allowed to see how Charlie could become a monster. Auxier references Frankenstein here – the novel – which addresses this lesson exactly. The man and monster formed in his custody, the lessons taught to the naïve monster, the question of who is the real monster. Roger is in Crudd’s custody. Charlie is in Nan’s.
Busy hands stopped to listen as I read on and we bonded in the discovery of what came next.
Sweep is recommended for ages 8-12 years old but this is a mere measure of literacy. As a read-aloud, I found my husband, children, ages 6-12 years, and myself captivated.