Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

Jun 27, 2020

Have you ever read a book and, upon finishing it, thought, Where is all the praise for this book? Why has no one been talking about it? Why has it not won any awards?

That's how I felt after reading this book. It was so beautifully written, well-researched, and brilliantly crafted that it seemed like it must have somehow been tragically overlooked the year it was published.

I personally took notice of it, not because anyone else had mentioned it, but simply because it was written by Jonathan Auxier, and I have been a major fan of his ever since reading Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes several years ago.

But even with this selling point, it still took me over a year to pick up a copy because the title didn't interest me. I didn't think I had much use for a book about monsters.

Little did I know that the "monster" was only one to those who didn't know him. To Nan, he was a golem, birthed from a little piece of glowing char she'd had in her possession for a long time.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Nan is a climber in 1875 London. She works for Mr. Wilkie Crudd, better known as "The Clean Sweep." Her job is to clean people's chimneys, not by pushing a broom up into them à la Mary Poppins, but by pushing herself up into them. Because of her small frame, she can go where no adult can--small shafts that are literally no bigger than a 9-inch square (I feel a little ill just writing that out).

Nan hasn't always worked for Wilkie Crudd. When she was very young, she moved around London with her Sweep. He was tall and thin and quietly protective. He told stories and invented possibilities and made even bad things seem exciting. Under his hand, she learned to read and think for herself. But one day he disappeared, leaving behind only his hat and a warm piece of char.

Nan keeps thinking her Sweep will come back, but in the meantime, her only option is to climb chimneys and collect soot.

But then one day, the unthinkable happens. While Nan is crawling through a tiny tunnel in a school for young ladies, she gets distracted by a conversation going on in one of the rooms below. She doesn't pay attention to her position, and she gets stuck. When a climber gets stuck, there are only a few options, and none of them are pleasant.

The one that Nan's rival, Roger, decides to try is called the Devil's Nudge, and it involves lighting a fire in the hearth under her. The idea is that with the right motivation, Nan will do anything, including breaking her own bones, to free herself.

But something happens when Nan is stuck inside that flue--something that Nan can't explain or even figure out for herself. The little piece of char she has carried in her pocket for years ignites and blasts her out of the chimney, and when she regains consciousness, she realizes that everyone thinks she's dead, and her char has turned into a little baby golem she affectionately names Charlie.

Together, they hide away and make an unusual, but very pleasant, life for themselves. No one but Nan's friend, Toby, knows about Charlie, and that's probably for the best since it only takes a few weeks before Charlie is no longer the size of a pebble but a big and lumbering (but just so naively adorable) golem.

But of course things don't stay happy and comfortable. Nan finds out that Wilkie Crudd doesn't believe for an instant that she died in that fire ("Nan Sparrow, felled by the Devil's Nudge? Maybe another climber, but not [her]"). And as she attempts to hide from and outsmart him, she learns more about golems. Miss Bloom, a teacher from the young ladies' seminary, tells Nan that golems are created for a purpose and that "once a golem has fulfilled its purpose, it must die."

This story was the perfect mix of history, fantasy, and emotion. If one of those elements had been removed, it wouldn't have worked, but blended together, they were a magic combination.

I learned so much about the tragic life that was the reality of so many children during the Industrial Revolution.  At the back of the book, Jonathan Auxier shared a few historical facts and said, "By some estimates, the average life span of a climber was just five years." Five years. He talked about how horrific this was, especially given the fact that a mechanical brush had been invented almost a century before, but many homeowners didn't want sweeps to use it, "claiming that the brushes did not do as thorough a job as young climbers."

These dire facts might have overwhelmed the story if not for the fantasy aspect. Charlie lightened up the story considerably. Not only were his little questions and statements so innocent and funny ("Oh yes, you are doing privacy"), but knowing that he would protect Nan at all costs made it seem like the story would somehow turn out right. It was also fascinating to learn about the history of golems within the Jewish tradition.

But what really made this story jump up to the next level was that it had this undercurrent of love and compassion and hope. By the end, I cared deeply for Nan and Toby and Miss Bloom and Newt and, of course, Charlie.

At one point, Nan and Toby were eating amaretto ice on top of a roof (yes, there were still some very idyllic moments, in spite of the hardship). Nan confided her fears regarding Charlie: "I'm afraid . . . What if I can't protect him?" Toby answered, "That's what it is to care for a person. If you're not afraid, you're not doing it right."

I read this book out loud to my kids, and although it was a little bit difficult for 6-year-old Clark to follow, it was a completely immersive experience for the rest of us. We were wrapped up in Nan and Charlie's adventures, and as we got to the climax, we literally could not pull ourselves away from the story.

During one particularly tender moment, I couldn't keep the tears from leaking. Maxwell looked at me and said, "You're crying. You're actually crying." I've cried at the end of many other books, but for some reason, he seemed to take more notice of it this time. He has brought it up a couple of times since then ("Mom actually cried at the end of that book"), and I think it was maybe the first time he realized the power of a good story and how much it can make you feel.

Toby told Nan, "We save ourselves by saving others," and that was true for so many relationships in this book: the Sweep to Nan, Nan to Charlie, Miss Bloom to Nan . . . as well as one beautifully unexpected one that I won't spoil by sharing. But if there's one lesson I hope my kids took away from Nan's story, it was exactly that: We save ourselves by saving others. Isn't that so completely true?


  1. I was sobbing at the end of that book. I read it aloud to my kids and we also loved it.

  2. Hey, I was on the team that put in on the Cybils finalists list that year. I loved it.

    My mom cried so much reading A Day No Pigs Would Die to a fifth grade class that she had to hand the book to my sister to finish reading it. It was a big disappointment to me that none of my kids teachers handed off read-alouds to parent volunteers.

    1. I'm so glad the Cybils judges recognized it! It was just so good.

      And yes, it would be nice if teachers let parents read aloud to the class. In our school, the parents could volunteer to do an author study (highlighting a specific author's works), but I would have much preferred reading aloud. 


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