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Sir Charlie ChaplinSir Charlie Chaplin by Sid Fleischman

Sid Fleischman wrote some of the most entertaining biographies I’ve read – The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West and Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini were both highly entertaining, managing to get me interesting in people I didn’t realize I would find fascinating – and he continues in the same vein here with Charlie Chaplin. I know I saw a few Chaplin films as a kid, but I only have a vague memory of them and know Chaplin more for his Little Tramp image than anything else. Fleischman’s style is as entertaining as ever, and Chaplin certainly had a full, messy life that gives plenty of material to a biographer. I thought the strongest points in the book were those covering his childhood and rise to stardom – after that, there was more a sense of the material being edited to suit the audience. While that’s certainly appropriate, I found the material covering his adult life enlivened more by Fleischman’s style than by the details of Chaplin’s life.

I’m always pressing Fleischman’s other biographies on kids who need one for a school project, and I’ll throw this one into the mix, but I still think the Mark Twain bio is the best of the bunch.

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The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West by Sid Fleischman

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m not a big Twain fan, so I was a little unsure going into this one. But let me tell you – this is a great story on its own merits. Sure, i think it would help going in to know what a famous literary figure Twain turned into, but I don’t buy the argument that kids won’t read it because it’s about a dead writer they don’t care about. Fleischman does a fantastic job of showing the tragedy, humor and adventure in Twain’s life, using a chatty, over-the-top style that’s perfectly suited to his subject matter. I wasn’t quite sold on Fleischman’s biography of Houdini, but here he’s found his subject, and he does it justice. He also discusses how tricky it is to figure out what was real and what was a tall tale in Twain’s life. We get the flaws and the glory, the debt and the successful river boat captain, the Wild West and the cramped stagecoach, the duels and the tree-climbing buffalo.

I would definitely recommend this both for fun and for those pesky biography assignments. It fits the bill at over 100 pages, with plenty of content and no dry passages, and splendid references at the end. There’s a timeline, index, bibiography, a note on distinguishing fact from fiction, and commendably thorough references on quotations and pictures. But don’t let this sit on the shelf until someone needs a biography for a class project – this is an entertaining story in its own right, and should appeal to kids with an interest in adventure, history, travel, the Wild West, and so forth.

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And a comment from the Peanut Gallery on this here title winning out over The Graveyard Book in The Battle of the Books – with the caveat that I finished reading Trouble after it had already been victorious.   They are both fantastic titles that each deserve an audience.  Some commenters have decried Judge Scieszka for choosing a book that’s not kid friendly.  And while I suspect that Mr. “Let the Trouble Begin Now” Scieszka knew he’d catch some flak for dumping a popular, Newbery-winning favorite in round one, I wouldn’t have anticipated the “an adult picking a book for adults” comments.

According to the intro post over at SLJ, “with each judge determining his or her own criteria, we will be as surprised and delighted as everyone else with their decisions.”  So there is no obligation to be kid-friendly, although I don’t any of the judges would ignore that aspect completely – come on, this is Jon Scieszka, not some stuffy fuddy-duddy who’s never interacted with children.

But even though the judges aren’t choosing based on child appeal alone, I think The Trouble Begins at 8 could hold its own on those merits.  There are kids out there who don’t go ga-ga over fantasy.  There are kids who like a good, funny, mostly-true story.  Maybe there are fewer of them than the fantasy types, but don’t they deserve good books, too?  And what’s wrong with shining a little light on this kind of story?

As Twain’s publicity announced, “A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA is in town, but has not been engaged.  Also, A DEN OF FEROCIOUS WILD BEASTS will be on Exhibition in the next Block.  MAGNIFICENT FIREWORKS were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned.  A GRAND TORCHLIGHT PROCESSION may be expected; in fact, the public are privileged to expect whatever they please.”  The Graveyard Book is like the splendid orchestra or the magnificent fireworks – perfectly appealing, but sometimes you’re in the mood for a “Lecture on the Sandwich Islands” and a little Trouble.

October 2021

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