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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Sir Charlie

Fleischman Sir CharlieSTYLE

I think the most salient feature of SIR CHARLIE is the strong narrative voice: lively, opinionated, sympathetic, and engaging.  Fleischman has lots of tricks in his narrative bag, but one of my favorites is his strong use of imagery throughout.  Consider these similies and metaphors from the first three pages of the Introduction alone.

A dark-eyed man came swaying down the street like a tightrope walker.

You couldn’t miss his yellow-checked suit or the angle of his bowler hat, as insolent as a cannonball.

Around the corner, in the evening shadows, often stood an undersized kid as bony as a bicycle.

Like Houdini freeing himself from a straitjacket, he escaped his ordained captivity in the London slums.

With the sorcery of a Dr. Frankenstein, he assembled another human being.

It was only when he turned his feet outward so that each angled off like the opposite hands of a clock, at ten past ten, that the shambling walk strolled him into immortality.

He glued on a postage stamp of a black moustache and voila! the Little Tramp was born.

He became as rich as a king, but a whole lot funnier.

We’ve talked a lot about voice on this blog–the arch, somewhat intrusive voices of THE KNEEBONE BOY and A TALE DARK AND GRIMM, the quirky, disabled voices of MOCKINGBIRD and OUT OF MY MIND, the Southern-inflected voices of KEEPER and COUNTDOWN, and the strong voice of ONE CRAZY SUMMER.  I don’t know that SIR CHARLIE takes a back seat to any of them.

THEME

The parent-child relationship seems to play a prominent role in many of our books this year, and we’ve already commented about this aspect of THE KNEEBONE BOY, TURTLE IN PARADISE, KEEPER, WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET, and ONE CRAZY SUMMER which all focus on the maternal relationship, but A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS and THE DREAMER also have paternal issues.  Thus, I find it interesting to compare and contrast Chaplin’s relationship with his parents and his children and, in turn, to compare and contrast these to the books we’ve mentioned above.  Once again, I do not find SIR CHARLIE lacking.

The other prominent theme I find developed throughout the text is how Chaplin realizes his creative and artistic genius through performance and film.  That Fleischman is able to capture in words (with just a modest assortment of illustrations) what is essentially a visual medium is a testament to his own skill.  A couple of things to further contemplate.  First, how did Chaplin’s creative drive impact his family life (i.e. how does it intersect with the aforementioned theme)?  And second, how does Chaplin collaborate in his artistic endeavors (here the book makes for good comparison and contrast with BALLET FOR MARTHA)?

PLOT, CHARACTER, and SETTING

Chaplin comes to life as a fully realized human being and he grows and changes over the course of the book.  Of course, this a particular strength of the genre of biography, and we would expect nothing less from an excellent one.  We might quibble about the secondary characters, but I think Chaplin himself is marvelously realized, especially through the use of quotes and anecdotes.  I really like how Chaplin is the star of this book–not the films, not the birth of Hollywood, not the early twentieth century.  These are all important, but remain in the background.  I’m really impressed by the balance between his life, art, and times.

IN RESPONSE TO ERIC

I think you have to remember that not only has the publisher designated this a juvenile biography (so it will not have some of the sophistication and complexity of one aimed at young adults or grown-ups), but just as ONE CRAZY SUMMER cannot be the definitive book on Black Panthers, and MOCKINGBIRD cannot be the definitive book on Asperger’s Syndrome, so, too, SIR CHARLIE cannot be the definitive word on Chaplin.  It would be unrealistic to expect it to be such.  I find that many of your comments, Eric, do not have to do with inaccuracy as much as they have to do with interpretation, and thus we head back into the same territory we navigated last year with ALMOST ASTRONAUTS.  Addressing some of your specific points . . .

1.  Fleischman does note the young ages of the women in Chaplin’s love life (Mildred Harris, for example, is mentioned on page 119 and 120 as being seventeen while Chaplin was twenty-nine), but aside from noting that “some women’s groups were tireless in their bombast aimed at his marriages to such young women,” he does not dwell on this, and I think that is entirely appropriate for a children’s biography, as Wendy mentioned.

2.  It sounds like KING OF NEW YORK and A WOMAN IN PARIS would be of more interest to the die-hard Chaplin fan or students of cinematic history rather than your average middle grade student with little to no knowledge of either.  Fleischman notes that the selection of films in the back are those which he personally values.  I don’t think he makes any pretense to the list being definitive or complete, and, in fact, he actually refers the “profoundly smitten” to more comprehensive filmographies.

3. In the American consciousness, Chaplin is first and foremost an actor, and will always be viewed as one regardless of how this or any other biography portrays him.  But I do acknowledge your concern for his multiple roles as director (which does come across in Fleischman’s narrative, if not in discussion of A WOMAN IN PARIS) and studio founder (this, too, is present, but very slight) also being recognized.

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Jonathan, link for Eric’s comments you’re responding to? Thanks! I thought the age thing was handled well for the book; but for what its worth, wikipedia (I know) puts the womens ages as lower than the book says/implies.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Oops. Eric’s comments, which can be found in the “In Search of a Young Newbery” thread are posted below . . . Off to read the Wikipedia link.

    My issues with Sir Charlie perhaps stem from my expertise in film history (the field in which I earned my BA and first MA, so about 6 years of my life devoted to classic hollywood cinema including viewing every Chaplin short and feature multiple times). Fleischman’s account of Chaplin’s life has some major omissions and I believe he makes some errors in critical judgement throughout.

    First off the biggest omission in Sir Charlie is that the book carelessly notes that his many brides were “teenage” or “former child stars” but not that they were 16 and 17 years old and that many of Chaplin’s non-martial relationships also involved minors. This is a pretty major aspect of Chaplin’s life but the book negligence in this area makes light of this serious character flaw.

    In the last quarter of the book Fleischman makes Chaplin’s reactions to his decline in popularity because of alleged communist sympathies (not that there is anything wrong with that) into a pretty big deal, and to be fair they were at the time. What Fleischman fails to do however is to view KING OF NEW YORK as Chaplin’s response to these allegations. Instead he simply calls it a “very bad film”. The film is in fact quite interesting and in no way bad just not as funny as one expects from Chaplin.
    In a much more skilled analysis Andrew Sarris (1960s village voice critic, and most influential american film critic of the 1960s) writes of KING OF NEW YORK “a film widely misunderstood as an anti-American tract. For Chaplin, however, America is like Dawn Addams [actress/love interest in KoNY], a fantasy and a delusion, a marvelous world that he may yet revisit but that he will never reconquer.”

    Similarly forgot in Fleischman biography is Chaplin’s 1923 feature A WOMAN OF PARIS the first of two feature films Chaplin directed but did not act (except for a small cameo). This is an important film in Chaplin’s oeuvre for a number of reasons not only does the film immediately precede THE GOLD RUSH, a era in which Fleischman spends considerable pages. The lack of attention to A WOMAN OF PARIS is extremely noticeable. In fact Fleischman only mentioned the film once in the course of the book and out of chronological order at that. The one time the film is mentioned is in reference to Chaplin’s treatment of actors with his countless retakes.
    To make matters worse the film is not noted at all in the lightly annotated “Selection of Chaplin Films” at the end of the book. I can understand the omission of many of the Chaplin’s 1 and 2 reel shorts from this filmography section but not the omission of a film consider to be the best American feature of 1923.
    Why Fleischman would not take the time to mention the film in its correct temporal order and make note of Chaplin’s decision not to feature himself in the film of curious. I fear that readers will think of Chaplin first as a actor and second as a filmmaker because of Fleischman’s omission of this discussion.

    I also thought the founding of United Artists by Chaplin, Griffith, Pickford and Fairbanks was not fully explored. United Artist and their business model might be Chaplin’s biggest or at least longest lasting contribution to the motion picture industry. The concept of a studio acting as the distributor of independently produced films was created by UA and is now the current norm in Hollywood.

    All this said I did mostly enjoy reading Sir Charlie, and especially appreciated Fleischman’s handling of Chaplin’s life prior to Hollywood. As I read the book however I wondered if my enjoyment of Fleischman’s Twain bio was predicated on my general lack of knowledge about Twain’s life and works other than Tom and Huck.

    How does the committee handle accuracy in nonfiction titles? Do committee members do their own research or do they elicit opinions from scholars in the field? It is probably not too difficult to check facts and figures in a nonfiction title but errors of omission would likely require more than source checking.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The Wikipedia article gives Mildred’s age as 16 instead of 17. Is it possible they met when she was 16, but married when 17? I don’t know.

    Lita Grey’s age is also listed as 16 whereas her specific age is not given in SIR CHARLIE. Since her mother is along as a chaperone, it’s implied that she is very young.

    Oona O’Neill is listed as 17 when they met and 18 when they married (which is what the book claims).

    I don’t think the Wikipedia article actually lists any of the other ages (and some of those people are dating relationships or alleged affairs, anyway, which the book does not cover). The article implies that some of them are very young, but SIR CHARLIE says that Paulette was divorced and in her early twenties. Edna Purviance was twenty when they met, I think. Still a big gap in their ages.

    I’m not making excuses for Chaplin. I think the text makes it clear that Chaplin was attracted to very young women; it just doesn’t dwell on–or criticize–the fact. You might even say Fleischman has a slightly defensive posture on the issue.

  4. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Jonathan, a lot of fascinating things to talk about, both within the context of the book, the selection of the subject matter, and then how that factors into awards (if at all.)

    After reading this I watched the Robert Downey Jr film and that really downplayed the age / consent issue. And yes, it was Mildred & Lita being 16 that I was thinking of.

    Anyway, thanks for pointing out the prior conversation. Off to read it!

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think before you answer the question of whether Fleischman did right by this issue, you first have to ask yourself a broader question: To what degree are we comfortable with a frank discussion and analysis of the romantic and sexual lives of the subject of a children’s biography. Is it appropriate to discuss extramarital affairs? To discuss rumors (or scholarly speculation) of sexual identity? To discuss unusua, atypical, or socially unacceptable practices? There is a place for these in books for young readers, but I think for most people, they would be an indication of a young adult book rather than a children’s book.

  6. Having been a Little Fellow fanatic forever and now researching and working on a book him I had to get past what I wanted in a Chaplin book for kids and look at what Fleischman did. I have read the bio several times and agree with Eric that the omissions are startling if you know something about Chaplin, especially A KING IN NEW YORK.

  7. FWIW, I thought the lack of ages was just fine. It was clear that they were young and that seems appropriate for this audience. If those ages were given I suspect it would make that a bigger aspect of his life than it should be (IMHO).

  8. Mark Flowers says:

    I was actually relieved that Fleischman did not dwell on the age of Chaplin’s wives and lovers – not only because it is a children’s book, but also because it is ground that has been very well (in fact, too well) covered in other venues.

    That said, I have to agree with the main thrust of Eric’s complaints about this book.

    1) The fact that Chaplin is seen primarily as an actor in the public consciousness is *precisely* the reason to highlight the other aspects of his career. I come back to this theme again and again, but I simply do not believe that a nonfiction book for children needs to offer a more “simple” account – it just needs to be told more simply.

    2) Jonathan comments:

    “It sounds like KING OF NEW YORK and A WOMAN IN PARIS would be of more interest to the die-hard Chaplin fan or students of cinematic history rather than your average middle grade student with little to no knowledge of either”

    I think it needs to be pointed out that the vast vast majority of middle grade students (not to mention adults) has “little to no knowledge” of *any* of Chaplin’s films. Many (most) people are aware of him, but have not actually seen the films. In fact, I think more than anything else, what this bio has going for it is the simple fact of introducing Chaplin to an audience who has probably never seen one of his films. As great a service as that is, I don’t think Fleischman does a good enough job to be discussed for Newbery contention, and the current topic is a great example. I don’t see Jonathan’s argument as a good reason to omit these two important films. Indeed – I don’t have the text with me, so I can’t remember exactly – but I seem to remember Fleischman specfically mentioning that Countess From Hong Kong was the first Chaplin film that he didn’t act in, which just makes Fleischman’s omission of A Woman of Paris all the more egregious.

    3) Probably the biggest problem I have with this book is that it never gives you any sense of why anyone should care about Chaplin. Fleischman does an admirable job of hyping Chaplin’s movies as funny and poignant (at least, those films that he likes), but he gives us little in the way of cultural impact.

    In Jonathan Rosenbaum’s new book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, he has an excellent chapter on Chaplin, in which he says this:

    “Has there ever been another artist–not just in the history of cinema, but maybe in the history of art–who has had more to say, an in such vivid deatil, about what it means to be poor?”

    This single sentence, for me, has more of interest in it than the entirety of Fleischman’s book. The tricky part here, is that to fully understand the Rosenbaum quotation, you do need to know the facts supplied by Fleischman (and he does do an excellent job of marshalling the facts). But without having some sort of take on them – some sense of what makes them important (as displayed by Rosenbaum), you just have a list of facts, some interesting, some not.

  9. I agree with Mark (and already, Eric). Chaplin was really an extraordinary artist, not just in front of the screen, but behind the camera as well. I mean the fact that he shot so much footage means he was one amazing editor — to manage to produce these remarkable movies from so so so much film is one of many amazing things about him besides what he did in front of the camera.

    I’m frustrated that (no offense) reading the book got Liz to go see the docudrama, but not (as far as she has said) any of his movies. I mean, if you read a biography of a visual artist you generally want to look at the person’s art, right? That is, if you wrote a kid bio of Picasso (to think of another large-personality of the 20th century) you’d have them see his art, right? Fleiscman’s Twain bio had the whole “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” included. But what bothers me about this book is that the films themselves are just not “there” and Fleischman is not successful in my opinion, readers don’t seem to be inclined to go see them for themselves. (Indeed, I felt that Fleischman’s descriptions of gags were not compelling enough to entice young readers to go see them via youtube or wherever. (Hmm…I’ve been trying to sit on my hands regarding this book because I just care so much about the subject and communicating his brilliance to young kids, but I guess the gloves are off — to mix metaphors:)

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. Fleischman writes, “His films were truly handcrafted. He wrote them, produced and directed them, edited them, and wrote the music.” I really cannot imagine anyone reading this book and not realizing that not only did Chaplin direct his own films, but that he was a pioneer in this respect. So this book definitely does highlight other aspects of his career, Mark, and I’m not sure how you’re jumping to that conclusion from the lack of a more substantive discussion of A WOMAN IN PARIS.

    2. In fact, Fleischman does not omit either film. What Eric complains about is that Fleischman fails (a) to note Chaplin’s direction of a film (A WOMAN IN PARIS) in which he did not star and (b) to recognize THE KING OF NEW YORK as a response to the Communist allegations. I only have the ARC (which does not have the index) so I would need a specific reference to COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG to further discuss that one.

    3. SIR CHARLIE may or may not be a good introduction, but that is not why I am arguing for Newbery consideration. SIR CHARLIE may or may not induce readers to check out the original films, but that is not why I am arguing for Newbery consideration. In my post, I actually referenced specific criteria–plot, character, setting, style, theme–and I think it might be helpful if we could also frame our criticism of the book in terms of the criteria, too. To me, most of them sound like complaints about “clarity, accuracy, and organization” or “delineation of theme.”

    4. Mark, I can appreciate that this book is heavy on plot and commentary and light on critical analysis, but I do think Fleischman does communicate the cultural significance of Chaplin, most notably at the end of the book following his death (p. 228-230).

    It was only death that at last forced Chaplin from his lifelong fear of a pratfall back into poverty and a horror of following his mother into fits of insanity . . .

    He had show impeccable timing, in the manner of Shakespeare or Newton, to be born at just the right time to exercise his genius . . .

    No mortal had held in his comic grasp so many diverse people of the earth. Einstein adored the Little Tramp, and so did every chimney sweep. The cowboy wit and movie star Will Rogers famously noted that “the Zulus know Chaplin better than Arkansas knows Garbo.” He was referring to the fabled star of movies, both silent and sound: Greta Garbo.

    “In any thousand years, only a few legendary men like Chaplin appear to beguile us,” noted a contemporary writer. To which Laurence Olivier, a screen legend himself, brashly added, “He was perhaps the greatest actor of all time.” . . .

    No clown, no entertainer, has had more books written about him than little Charlie Chaplin, shuffling along from nickel comedian to golden immortal.

  11. Mark Flowers says:

    Jonathan,
    First, let me concede that I was less than clear in my comments – and that you are certainly right that Fleischman comments on Chaplin as a full creator of his films.

    My point (and I believe Eric’s) about A Woman in Paris was that in our hypothetical-ideal biography of Chaplin, one can use A Woman in Paris to highlight Chaplin-the-director, as against Chaplin-the-actor. That is, that it is not a “minor” film to be passed over but a great chance to discuss Chaplin’s skills as a director of others. Fleischman, after all, repeats (multiple times, if I remember right) the claim that Chaplin only wanted to film himself, and implies (in my opinion) that he was a bad director of other actors. I agree that this particular point is becoming a bit esoteric, so I’ll leave off there.

    As to cultural significance, I agree that Fleischman attempts it, in the lines you quote, but I can only repeat that I was unconvinced. If you look at the passage you quote, you’ll see that much of it regards the fact of Chaplin’s incredible fame (Zulus know Chaplin, more books written, Einstein, chimney sweep, etc.). This is clearly worth noting – how many people have achieved the fame of Chaplin? But, again, why was he famous? He was funny – yes, got it; I like the Olivier line, but again we’re back to acting. And why should a middle grader care? Because he was funny? Because he was a great actor? Because he was famous?

    I think those are valid reasons, but I personally don’t think it captures what was so significant about Chaplin, which for me has to do with 1) the social and political messages of his films (especially with regard to poverty, as noted in my last comment) and 2) the ways he changed film as art (through his direction and as a studio head). Perhaps Fleischman and you disagree. That’s fine – let’s move on.

    I do want to get to the discussion of style, plot, character, etc. – but I’m waiting to get my copy back in so I can use specific examples. For now, let me just say that while I agree with your assessment of Fleischman’s use of metaphor, there were other stylistic issues that nagged at me. To be continued . . .

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mark, in my experience funny plays better to middle grade students than art and sociopolitics, generally speaking. I understand why you find it unsatisfying on these counts, and I would have welcomed a fuller discussion of them myself, but I’m still trying to work out how much of it is just a subjective opinion and how much can be linked to the Newbery criteria.

    I’d like to pose a hypothetical question that I hinted at in the previous thread, “Another Crazy Summer.” Let’s say we do find a factual error in SIR CHARLIE (e.g. maybe Mildred really was sixteen and not seventeen, maybe it really does say that COUNTESS IN HONG KONG is the first film he directed without acting, or something else), or maybe we can all agree that there is an important omission (e.g. a fuller appreciation of THE KING OF NEW YORK and A WOMAN IN PARIS), then my question becomes this: How big are these flaws? I think most of us just gave ONE CRAZY SUMMER a free pass on the geography. Is this free pass territory in SIR CHARLIE? And if not, how do you rationalize that discrepancy in your mind?

  13. Mark Flowers says:

    Jonathan, I hear you on the funny and will definitely have to think on that more fuller in the context of the Newbery criteria. The one thing I will say (admitting that this is a personal bias – and not really to argue against funny) is that I work in a very poor community and think that there are a lot of kids at my library who would be really turned on by Chaplin’s confrontation of poverty.

    I think your hypothetical is crucial – and thought about it a lot when I read your Crazy Summer post. My gut instinct (and I think that of a lot of the people who commented on that post) is that non-fiction should be held to a high standard of factual accuracy. BUT – I agree that it is much more nuanced than that, especially in light of the specific Newbery criteria. There are certainly NF books out there with factual errors that are a lot more fun to read (ie, better style, plot, characters, etc.) than the ones with every fact in place.

    And of course with NF, new evidence can come to light later that change the facts, which can make a NF Newbery winner obsolete as factual information. So does that mean we need to tread lighter in giving the Newbery to NF? Does it mean that the factual accuracy of NF is unimportant? I would say no to both, but it certainly makes you think.

    In short – I haven’t decided on an answer to your hypothetical yet. If others have put up with our discussion so far, I wonder if they’d chime in with thoughts.

  14. Carol E says:

    Chiming in that I appreciate this thoughtful discussion enormously. Not being a big film critic or film historian, I really appreciated the writing style that was lively and informative about Sir Charlie. I did think it was a nice balance between the public persona and the working actor/director. Given the amount of time spent acting I thought it was appropriate to emphasize that aspect. I felt that the sexual peccadiloes (sp?) were nicely understated for the intended audience without ignoring them. In short, it worked in terms of the Newbeyr criteria in my mind. It also seemed to lay a thorough groundwork to the more meaty and more indepth work that exists for those readers intrigued with Chaplin.

    Quite frankly I think more precision and detail would have made it too long, too boring and too caught up in the subject matter to have much appeal. That appeal isn’t in the Newbery criteria is also true. However, in this case, I think it will easily stand the test of time, perhaps for the vagueness that is so problematic for some.

  15. Eric says:

    Looking back my initial comments seem harsher than I intended. While I stand by my criticism of some aspects of the book, I think that overall the biographical information is well presented (particularly Chaplin’s pre hollywood days).
    I do question Fleischman’s critical evaluations and I am not sure if Fleischman fully establishes Chaplin’s place as one of those rarest types of artists who are praised by both the public and the contemporary critics as the finest in their fields (he’s the only pantheon director to also consistently topped the box office with each release),

    I wonder if those who know Twain’s work inside and out had issues with Fleischman’s Twain bio. Were their major omissions that you struggled to understand or justify?

  16. Angela K. says:

    In the information I’m able to find about Mildred, she did marry Charlie on October 28, 1918. She was born on November 29, 1901, so she would have been just 16 for about one more month. If this can be believed, is it a grave error on Fleishman’s part? I would suggest that it’s no more consequential than One Crazy Summer’s geography glitches. I don’t know enough about Chaplin’s work to know what if there were major omissions. Should omissions be counted as a strike against accuracy? Or, should certain omissions be deemed acceptable due to age appropriate issues?

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    One of my pet peeves about evaluating nonfiction is that too often we get bogged down in discussing the details rather than the big picture. We often discuss accuracy or book design, or, if we know something about the subject, interpretation. Often, but not always. If we discussed any particular nonfiction book, we might spend 2/3 of our time discussing these points, while neglecting the more literary elements or the full range of Newbery criteria (just as we might likewise spend 2/3 of our time discussing whether A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS stands alone and/or is too old).

    I also wonder if we (making a huge generalization here) feel uncomfortable judging a nonfiction book in these aspects, and so we tend to stick with what we are comfortable with (fact-checking, for example). I think accuracy should be a pretty high standard in nonfiction, but should it really be any higher than any other genre? Not according to the Newbery criteria, but I think we often subsconsciously weight it more.

    If you look at the nonfiction this year, we have some pretty strong nonfiction published for ages 12 and up (SUGAR, KKK, BARBIE, WAR TO END ALL WARS, NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD), essentially these are YA titles. And we have picture book nonfiction (BALLET FOR MARTHA, LIZARDS, etc). But where is the nonfiction equivalent of middle grade fiction, either for accomplished middle grade readers or for precious young readers of nonfiction? Where is the book that might serve the audience of WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON and CLEMENTINE? Or even ONE CRAZY SUMMER and THE DREAMER? Where indeed? There are some great books for these readers, but most of them are short (IF STONES COULD SPEAK, KUBLA KHAN, LAFAYETTE, Scientists in the Field) in comparison.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I also wanted to note that Fleischman’s viewpoint isn’t that of the scholary critic or film historian, but rather that of the passionate fan, not an amatuer fan, however, but somebody with substantial comedy experience and (as he mentions in the preface) a little show business experience. I valued Fleischman’s opinion, not as an expert, but more as a peer, one comic genius paying homage to another one.

  19. Cecilia says:

    I totally agree about the lack of middle grade non-fiction! I have many struggling readers who are much more interested in non-fiction than fiction, but don’t get an opportunity to push their skills because of a lack of material written at their instructional level.

  20. As a writer of nonfiction, and specifically as a writer of three Scientists in the Field titles, I would like to point out how images and printing economics impact text. Our culture has become increasingly visual. Strong, high-quality photos produced at large sizes are now the norm in children’s nonfiction, at least for contemporary subject matter. At the same time, printing a book in full color is much more expensive than printing a novel or a history nonfiction title with only black and white images. As a result the overall page count goes down, and, inevitably, the space for text is substantially reduced.

  21. Mark Flowers says:

    OK, Jonathan, I’ve been reading the Newbery criteria more thoroughly and here are some (very tentative) thoughts on the distinctions between NF and Fic:

    1) The first two criteria mentioned are:
    - Interpretation of the theme or concept
    - Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization

    So, it seems to me that it is appropriate for us to be spending much (if not 2/3) of our time discussing the accuracy and interpretation. To me, this is very different from spending 2/3 of our time discussing whether Conspiracy stands alone or is too old. I agree that those are somewhat side issues, but I would argue that fact and interpretation are the meat of what a NF book should be offering.

    My guess is that you disagree with that last statement, and would argue that style, plot, character, setting are just as important (perhaps moreso) in NF than fact and interpretation. I think that’s a valid point, but I think both interpretations of the Criteria are possible.

    2) So, what does that mean about fiction. The criteria say:

    - Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements

    To me, this line is hugely troublesome, because it can so easily be used to argue that X book doesn’t need to have accuracy, good style, whatever for Y or Z reasons. It seems to open a huge can of worms, and perhaps that is what is troubling you.

    Nonetheless, I believe that the line should allow us to present a case that NF as a whole should have a far greater standard of “accuracy” than Fic, because of the nature of the work. In this sense we are not giving a “pass” to One Crazy Summer, but contending that as a fictional work, Garcia-Williams has the right to invent or change certain elements of the facts of Oakland in the 60s in support of her theme (I think the issue about the hill is a perfect example of that – the thematic value of the hill is far greater than the factual basis of it).

    So, again tentatively, I think that we could argue that NF can be evaluated heavily on accuracy and interpretation, without having to argue that Fiction be evaluated the same way. You spend far more time with these criteria than I do, and I’m sure you have thought of all this, but I’m just trying to get my head around some of it, and that’s what I’ve come to so far.

  22. William says:

    After reading this post and the comments, I have no idea why a middle grader would ever pick up this book. It seems that weighty topics like: the realization of creative and artistic genius through performance and film, how creative drive impacts family life, which films should or should not be included in the “definitive list”, underage romantic (sexual) relationships, or how Chaplin used his film KING OF NEW YORK as a metaphor against his alleged communist sympathies…these things are just not compelling, or understandable to 99.999% of kids (even those in the older 13 or 14 year age range).

    Most of the comments were well above my head…and sounded like PHD dissertations from film school. At one point one of the posters dropped his guard, and said offhandedly:
    “Probably the biggest problem I have with this book is that it never gives you any sense of why anyone should care about Chaplin.”
    But after saying this…he dove right back into the minutiae…

    It’s too bad that…”compelling” (to kids)…is not part of the Newbery criteria.

    Now, I’m not bashing non-fiction. Rather, I’m trying to view this through the eyes of a 14 year-old. There are plenty of contemporaries (or near contemporaries) of Charlie Chaplin whose stories may have appeal to a young reader. Topics could include stories like crossing the Atlantic (Lindberg), flying (Wright Bros.), trekking to the Galapagos (Darwin), navigating the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon (Powell)…Lewis and Clark. And if you want dystopia (Hunger Games), how about retelling the experiences of the children of the Donner Party. Well…maybe not…(the PBS special is gut wrenching).

    My point is, there has got to be something more compelling than reading about the entrepreneurial genius involved in establishing the business model of “film distribution” through the origination of United Artists.

    I know by now you’re all gnashing you teeth at me. So OK, maybe I’m all wet. No, I haven’t read the book. Therefore, I went out to Amazon to the “Look Inside the Book” section.

    Surprisingly, there are a lot of sample pages and I read through the first forty which are mostly there (maybe 5 pages of gaps). Basically, what I found was a listing of facts (in a literary way) interspersed with quotes from the man himself.

    The story that would have had a chance to appeal to kids was Chaplin’s Oliver Twist-like childhood. This was where the book should have started and ended in what could have been a fictional recreation of Chaplin’s non-fictional early life. Of course this would have thrust the book into the alternative historical fiction category.

    Unfortunately, there was never enough time for any emotional buildup, as fact, after fact, after fact is thrown onto the pile. “Why should anyone care, indeed.” After these first 40 pages, I got the idea of how the book would play out (literary chronological listing of facts).

    For people who moan that non-fiction is overlooked by kids…this is part of the problem.

    Maybe I’m being too harsh. So to try and get some sort of consensus of what others thought I looked at the reviews posted on Amazon by the readers themselves.
    Amazon shows that the Sir Charlie hardcover was published on June 15, 2010.
    But unfortunately, as of this date, there are no reviews posted.

    Hmmm…….

  23. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. Mark, perhaps I overstated my point a little bit. I do think we have been discussing accuracy, theme, and interpretation–and those clearly fall under the Newbery criteria. I just want to make sure that those are not the *only* things that we discuss because those are not the things that make a book *most* distinguished. Nobody is ever going to say, “This is the most accurate book of the year, therefore, it is the most distinguished, therefore let’s give it the Newbery!” I don’t really know which nonfiction books you like, Mark, but I know Eric likes WE ARE THE SHIP, and I’d bet that his reasons for liking it, aren’t solely because of fact and interpretation. In other words, there are other strengths that move it up to the next level. And I’m just saying at some point, I’d like our analysis of SIR CHARLIE to evolve into a discussion of the full range of strengths and weaknesses. So, it’s not that I disagree with you that fact and interpretation should be the meat of a nonfiction offering as much as I know that in order for the nonfiction to compete as literature the discussion needs to be about what a particular nonfiction book says about what it means to be human.

    2. Accuracy is just as important to fiction, particularly *historical* fiction, as it is to nonfiction, and I’m not buying any attempts to read the criteria to allow for artistic license in the fiction. And I’d argue that the hill issue is not necessarily as benign and insignificant as you are making it out to be. The Oakland Hills, for example, are where the rich and wealthy people live. In her original post, Nina mentioned Pill Hill (so called because of the medical profession) as the closest possible hill for the story, but this too is a wealthy area. Doesn’t the hill issue affect the whole sociopolitical setting of the novel? Tsk, tsk.

    3. William, I just don’t know where to start with you. Bringing the number of Amazon reviews into a Newbery discussion? This shoulda been a historical fiction novel? You skimmed the first forty pages?

  24. Mark Flowers says:

    Jonathan:

    “Nobody is ever going to say, ‘This is the most accurate book of the year, therefore, it is the most distinguished, therefore let’s give it the Newbery!’” Not only is that hilarious, it’s also quite a good argument. I feel like we’re getting somewhere here. And I agree with you that there is no question that an NF book needs to be very well written, with depth of plot and character to be Newbery worthy.

    “Accuracy is just as important to fiction, particularly *historical* fiction, as it is to nonfiction, and I’m not buying any attempts to read the criteria to allow for artistic license in the fiction.” I think I can buy this (although I might modify to “almost as important”) – especially your (or Nina’s) explication of the “hill issue.” I’ll be very interested to see what you think about Donnelly’s Revolution (over on adbooks) which is also historical fiction, and also appears to have some factual problems.

    I think I would still argue that One Crazy Summer’s inaccuracies are on the whole less of a hindrance to it than Sir Charlie’s are, but I can definitely see your side of it.

    So that leaves us with style, plot, character, etc. I still haven’t been able to get my hands on another copy (I’m a few back on the holds list), so I can’t give you precise examples, but my general complaint on style was that Flesichman’s prose got awfully purple is some places. Those metaphors you mention are great, but sometimes they seemed to get too thick to wade through.

    On another point, in your original post you said, with regard to character: “Chaplin comes to life as a fully realized human being and he grows and changes over the course of the book. Of course, this a particular strength of the genre of biography, and we would expect nothing less from an excellent one.”

    I agree with this completely – biography lends itself well to character development, and Fleischman succeeds here. Unfortunately, for me, the flip side of this is that biography *doesn’t* lend itself to plot. Most people’s lives (even famous, interesting people like Chaplin) don’t have clear lines and arcs. Fleischman clearly realizes this, giving the bulk of the book (70 pages) to the part of Chaplin’s life that was thick with plot – his early life. But as we got to the end of Chaplin’s life (and even through the film years), I felt like I was just getting a list of events that happened to him, rather than a “plot.”

    You always have excellent direct quotations to support your opinions, and I await your disproval of my points, but assuming you agree at least a little on the plot issue, how do you feel that fits in with our other discussion about the differences between fiction and non-fiction?

  25. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. I think we can agree that there is a basic foundation that excellent nonfiction should have (accuracy, documentation, etc.), but in order for it move into the realm of excellent literature, it really needs to have something more.

    2. Fleischman clearly goofs on the age of Mildred Harris. I believe he deliberately does it to downplay the issue for young readers, but we cannot consider the author’s intention, and must see this is a flaw. To my mind, I would put it on par with the misnamed street in ONE CRAZY SUMMER. Neither one of them seem like a big deal to me. The subtle omissions in SIR CHARLIE and the hill issue in ONE CRAZY SUMMER seem a tad more grievous, but still relatively minor.

    3. I do think it is a valid, however, to call into question these broader issues of interpretation about Chaplin’s life and art. I also think it’s valid to ask whether the prose skews on the purple side. And, too, the simple narrative arc of a biography does seem like a list of one event after another without (a) significant analysis that shows causation and (b) digressions that flesh out the entire period in which the subject lived. I do think SIR CHARLIE is light on these, but my question here is this: Is the young readership of this biography a mitigating factor? My comparison here is WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON. Yeah, an 8th grader can enjoy it, too, but it’s uniquely created for the developmental reading needs of a 3rd or 4th grader.

  26. Nina Lindsay says:

    Been feeling like I have not got much weight to wade into this conversation, but I wanted to remark how much I’m appreciating this exchange. I also want to pick up on something that Carol E said. In terms of the “big picture”…I see the young-audience appeal to this book to be the story of the “self-made” young man, and his sense of humor and entertainment. This, at a very basic level, is something that’s going to engage kids, and Fleischman did a fabulous job of drawing them in with his writing style.

    That he doesn’t provide the fullest or most complex (or, debatably, most accurate) interpretation of the *whole* of Charlie Chaplin is important. But every book on our shortlist has something that could have possibly been done better. No Newbery winner is perfect. I’m mulling over where the balance tips for me on this one.

  27. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. Does any biography ever really capture the *whole* of its subject? No more than any fiction book provides the fullest, most complex, or accurate interpretation of Black Panthers, Asperger’s Syndrome, etc. No one book can be everything to all people.

    2. I also wanted to add that while, yes, the narrative arc of this biography is relatively simple and unadorned, most of the fiction we are seriously considering has a similarly boring plot, either being limited third person or first person, just one event after another.

    3. Coming back to some of William’s points. First, I never, ever cared one whit about the childhood of famous people, and really dislike biographies that are weighted toward childhood, viewing it as somewhat condescending (“Ooooh, look, you are child, too! You can relate!). Second, it’s interesting that you look at Chaplin’s life and think about a fictional treatment, while I look at DREAMER or FORGE or whatever and wonder what drove the author to a fiction treatment over a nonfiction one. And third, I’m not sure that such fictional treatments always succeed better with children. For example, HEART OF A SAMURAI is a fiction treatment of SHIPWRECKED. Both books are fine, but I think SHIPWRECKED has broader appeal.

    4. And coming back to Pamela’s point, I have no problem with the length of Scientists in the Field. It’s a perfect format and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. But there is a noticeable gap in nonfiction for young readers. Keeping in mind that SIR CHARLIE has 32,000 words, the following books with multiple starred reviews were published for ages 12 and up.

    FREDERICK DOUGLASS (34,000)
    THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK (34,000)
    THE WAR TO END ALL WARS (30,000)
    THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BARBIE (27,000)
    THE SPIES OF MISSISSIPPI (21,000)
    I don’t have word counts for JANIS JOPLIN, SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD, or THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD, but they are within this range)

    And the following books with multiple starred reviews were published for children–

    LAFAYETTE AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION (17,000)
    KAKAPO RESCUE (17,000)
    THE HIVE DETECTIVES (12,000)
    DRIVEN (10,000)
    IF STONES COULD SPEAK (7,000)

    There’s really nothing very long published for children, especially when you compare these numbers to the fiction for the same audience.

    COUNTDOWN (59,000)
    KEEPER (53,000)
    ONE CRAZY SUMMER (45,000)
    THE DREAMER (28,000)

    So I think SIR CHARLIE at 32,000 words is a juvenile biography for the reading child.

  28. Jonathan Hunt says:

    So if you’re a child, and you want to read about Chaplin, what are your options? Probably an encyclopedia article or a picture book biography . . . Or Rosenbaum (i.e. the adult biography)?

  29. Feeling a need to present more fully my reservations I’ve done a blog post: http://medinger.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/sid-fleischmans-sir-charlie-the-funniest-man-in-the-world/

  30. Feeling a need to present more clearly my reservations I’ve done a blog post: http://medinger.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/sid-fleischmans-sir-charlie-the-funniest-man-in-the-world

  31. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Monica, I’m afraid I didn’t find Chaplin’s explanation any funnier than Fleischman’s. Plus, I find them hard to compare because Chaplin’s explanation accounts for a live performance in front of an audience where Fleischman’s does not. I also never got the sense from Fleischman that the stepmother was a complete troll, but rather that she put up with a lot from his father. Some of your other points are interesting, if not compelling. Will look at the disputed source when I get home.

  32. Okay, I can buy that neither of them are particularly funny, but Fleischman’s the one claiming Chaplin is the funniest man in the world and I think he fails at convincing child readers of that.

  33. If it was clear that this was a personal tribute to Chaplin by super fan Fleischman (sort of what he did with Houdini) the book would work a lot better for me. His descriptions of Charlie’s work are those of a fan and admirer, not something that a child reader would read and then say oh, I want to go see the real thing. The language doesn’t help — mugging in front of the camera sounds old and quaint and completely not like anything a kid today would want to look at. That is, if a child reader even understands the word “mug” in this sense. I’m dubious that my quite-smart fourth graders, even with all their knowledge of Chaplin, would.

  34. Reread the Louise chapter and Fleischman paints her pretty black, I’d say.

  35. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Huh? The child reader doesn’t understand the word “mug.” So . . . if I can find words in ONE CRAZY SUMMER that your fourth graders don’t understand, does that make it unsuitable for Newbery consideration? I’m just not following your logic.

    Well, of course, Louise is painted pretty black, but it’s clear that she’s mistreated by Charlie’s father, no?

  36. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Monica, I think your points have some merit, but I must admit that I remain slightly exasperated by some of their implications. If I wanted to argue against ONE CRAZY SUMMER and mentioned that (a) the kids weren’t motivated to go learn more about the Black Panthers and (b) didn’t know some of the words in the book, you would think I’d gone off the deep end. No?

  37. Mark Flowers says:

    From Monica’s review: ” Good and decent book — yes. Newbery quality — no, at least not in my opinion. ”

    I think that’s what my opinion boils down to. I’m completely sympathetic to Jonathan’s eloquent defenses of the book throughout this thread, and yes, I would emphatically recommend the book to a young reader looking for something on Chaplin. But to paraphrase Jonathan, Nobody is ever going to say, “This book is better than an encylopedia article on Chaplin, therefore, it is the most distinguished, therefore let’s give it the Newbery!”

  38. Jonathan, fine I cave on the vocablulary arguement.

    But not the other. This book is supposedly about the funniest man in the world and the way he WAS funny is in movies. To argue this and then not convince readers to go see those movies, to figure you know them from Fleischman’s attempts to describe them — something is off for me here. Chaplin made great films, that is why this biography exists, no? He would be inconsequential without them and so they are central to the book, they are its meat and potatoes, so to speak. You can quote a poet or put in a visual artist’s work in a book, but for film you can only try to describe it and then hope that your readers will go actual see the work in question. It isn’t about learning MORE, but about knowing his work at all. If readers finish Fleischman’s book and decide they know all about Chaplin and his work without seeing a single film, well, I”m flummoxed at the possibility.

  39. Jonathan Hunt says:

    We absolutely should not argue that SIR CHARLIE is worthy simply because it fills a niche. We shouldn’t be comparing it to encyclopedia articles, but neither should we be comparing it to biographies written for adults (e.g. Robinson, Rosenbaum) either. Rather, we should be comparing it to the others books published this year. I’m perfectly fine with this book splitting people on its worthiness. I mean, there are a half dozen fiction books that routinely get mentioned as leading Newbery contenders that I would like to summarily dismiss, too. I’m not as invested in this title as I may have seemed from the discussion, but I’m keenly interested in the arguments put forth against nonfiction books because I just find so many of them bizarre. And you know this whole discussion has just been a warm up exercise for SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD, right?

  40. William says:

    The thread that will never die….lol…

    Looking at the cover art of this book, and interior text print size, it looks like it’s aimed squarely at the middle-chapter-book reader. The “Funniest Man” teaser does nothing to dampen the “younger reader” perception that this is going to be some lighthearted biographical take.

    If this book had accurately reflected it’s packaging (and was written younger) I think it would have been given more leeway But it is very adult in tone. Yes, I consider many 12 year-olds to be reading at an adult level. Many of the posted comments point out numerous factual slights and discrepancies. And, as I said previously…it seemed to skim over the compelling events in Chaplin’s life. It never grabbed me.

    For those children 12 and up, who are so inclined, if they have a fascination with movie stars, the early days of Hollywood, or how the production of feature films and the studio system evolved, why not just point them to accurate, and well researched adult books. The difference in vocabulary, reading level, and conceptual thinking between Sir Charlie and an adult book is non-existent.

    Jonathan, you specifically asked:
    “…So if you’re a child, and you want to read about Chaplin, what are your options? Probably an encyclopedia article or a picture book biography . . . Or Rosenbaum (i.e. the adult biography)?…”

    Well, I’m no expert on Chaplin, but I went out to Amazon (apologies) and found one book that might well fit the bill:

    “Discoveries: Charlie Chaplin” by David Robinson 1996 paperback 143 pages published by Abrams.

    Here is a snippet of what a 5 star Amazon reviewer (apologies again) thought of the book:
    “David Robinson is an historian and film critic who produced a massive definitive biographical study on Chaplin. A short time afterward Robinson did this small volume for the Abrams Discoveries series, a line known for its smooth paper, compactness, and illustrations. The book is as excellent an overview of Chaplin’s career as anything published. While only 143 pages, it is packed with information. Robinson was given access to the Chaplin archives by Charlie’s family for the production of his earlier study, and his wealth of knowledge is on full display here. The book follows Charlie from his very rough childhood and early success in vaudeville through to his rise as a star in the Karno and Keystone comedy groups. Robinson details Chaplin’s ethic of hard work and inventiveness, which lead him to eventually take full control of his projects and propel his fame to an international level. The story of the comic genius’ life is never far away, and we are given facts about Chaplin’s first love, his marriages, the creation of his famous “Little Tramp” character, and his friendships with other actors and directors…etc…etc.”

    The definitive biographical study on Chaplin written by David Robinson (as cited in the above review) is…”Chaplin: His Life and Art” (pub. 1994, 706 pages).

    The name of Jonathan Rosenbaum was brought up as a Chaplin source. But in searching Amazon there is no book about Chaplin written by Jonathan Rosenbaum. There are oodles of books written by Jonathan Rosenbaum dealing with cinema. The only book by Rosenbaum I found dealing with a singular person was a collaborative book about Orsen Wells.

    However, in her blog post (see the link in her comment), Monica Edinger cited David Robinson’s book (the 706 page one). From what I could gather in the Amazon reviews…as experts on Charlie Chaplin go…this David Robinson sounds like the real deal!

  41. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Monica, if I said that ONE CRAZY SUMMER did not inspire me to learn more . . . er, “know the work” of the Black Panther movement, you would simply tell me that was not necessarily the intent of the author, and you would be absolutely right. It’s funny because I always thought the aim of a biography was simply to tell the life story of its subject. It’s true the subtitle of the book is “Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World,” but I’m not sure why Fleischman bears the responsibility of proving this claim to you. I understand that you personally do not find the book successful because Fleischman does not (a) prove how funny Chaplin is and (b) did not motivate Liz to look at the Chaplin films (it did inspire me to check out the YouTube clips, by the way), but I wish you could see that these two things have absolutely **nothing** to do with the Newbery criteria. They are extra Monica critieria. They don’t make it easier for you to vote for the book, but they don’t necessarily convince anybody else either. And I know you’ve mentioned a handful of other things that do fall under the Newbery criteria, and *are* valid criticims, but I’m just quibbling with these two in particular.

  42. William says:

    Jonathan…

    Our two posts hit in succession…bang bang.
    So I hadn’t read your’s before mine hit.

    I think you make an extremely valid point!!!
    The Newbery must be judged against the other books of the year.

    Therefore, I think in the non-fiction category, biographies are going in with a huge disadvantage.
    And I think it’s a function of the criteria.

    How do you show distinction in plot, character, and setting when those factors are already set in concrete?

    Anything you do to try and spice up these three things may skew the facts.
    And anything you omit on purpose, don’t include by mistake, or give the right flavor to…will be held against you.

    As I said before, if this book was written younger, maybe all that could slide by.

  43. Mark Flowers says:

    @ William:
    I don’t see that this has much to do with anything, but because there seems to have been confusion, and because I was the one to originally cite him, Jonathan Rosenbaum is a film critic, whose most recent book “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia” (University of Chicago, 2010) contains a chapter (pp. 86-96) called “Rediscovering Charlie Chaplin.”

    It’s a single chapter in a long work on film, and I merely cited it because I happened to have read it around the same time as the Fleischman and liked the quotation about Chaplin as an artist on poverty.

    @ Jonathan – I’m understand your frustration about “extra Monica criteria,” and (for once) I don’t have much of a stake in this particular discussion, but I wonder if you could briefly discuss why the Newbery criteria “Interpretation of the theme or concept” does not cover Monica’s complaints about “proving” Chaplin’s funnyness? Isn’t it possible to argue that one of the themes of the book is Chaplin as “the funniest man in the world”? Or is your contention that this book is simply biography, plain and simple — ie that its job is to give us Chaplin’s life and nothing more? Or something else?

  44. Wendy says:

    I, too, am mildly frustrated by the number of people that it seems can’t see the forest for the trees.

    –Most adult biographies of anyone are full of inaccuracies. Google just about any famous human subject and you will find devotees of that person arguing with each other about the “flawed” biographies. I’m not saying this necessarily makes any errors by Fleischman OK (though I don’t really think people have pointed out many–many things being pointed out here are opinion, not true error), but to say there’s no reason to read this book instead of an adult book is folly.

    –Anecdotally, I’ve never cared for Charlie Chaplin (and I, too, was a film history student in college; it was my minor) and this made me want to check out some of his work. When my sister marked it “to-read”, I warned her that my nine-year-old niece would probably get obsessed with Charlie Chaplin if she read it. I can’t imagine where the idea that this book wouldn’t lead people to Chaplin’s films comes from–though I also buy Jonathan’s point that that shouldn’t necessarily matter. Did people who read the Mark Twain book want to run out and read Huckleberry Finn?

    -By subtitling the book “Funniest Man in the World”, I don’t think Fleischman was putting himself under any obligation to write a funny book. Being funny is what Charlie Chaplin is known for (and even if children haven’t heard of him–though I don’t know that they’d pick up this book if they haven’t–it’s clear from the beginning that he is known for being funny). The purpose, or one purpose, of the book is to show how Chaplin became the “funniest man in the world”, and also to show that there was more to him than that. The thing that actually impressed me most about this book was that it felt engagingly melancholy. I’m not a Chaplin expert in the slightest, so my thoughts about him are gleaned from general knowledge, but my impression has always been that he was a melancholy soul–that that’s part of what set his slapstick apart. Fleischman captured an over-the-top voice for Mark Twain and captures a melancholy voice here for Chaplin. That’s what makes this book Newbery-worthy to me, even though I’m not a big fan of metaphors, either. (By the way, Monica’s quoted passages from Fleischman and Chaplin? I can’t even discern a difference, and thought, like Jonathan, that neither was funnier than the other.)

    -William, I think you misunderstand the criteria. I come across this a lot. If I say that the presentation of plot isn’t compelling in such-and-such book that people like, the argument I get back is simply a recitation of the plot. Or I get a list of characters, or a paragraph that boils down to “this book is set somewhere”. It’s about writing, how the author presents those elements. A writer of a biography may not be able to invent plot or characters or setting, but can still write those elements in a compelling way–or a dull way. Lincoln: A Photobiography is the obvious example of biography as compelling children’s literature. And that also gets to your thoughts about why children should or would read this over an adult biography. I think this IS particularly suited to the intellectual child because of the lively language. Your comments about “packaging” do not actually match what you will find in libraries in non-fiction for older children.

  45. Wendy, why are you frustrated at all? Seems to me discussing and disagreeing here is all part of the game. I spent most of yesterday on this which I had no business doing, but it was intellectually stimulating and I was pushed hard to articulate my issues clearly and in a way that others might understand.

    This book is highly praised which is why I finally decided to give my contrary and decidedly minority view. So far there seems to be only a few of us on this minority plank so why not let us have our say?

    Perhaps my reservations are all trees, but for me the forest is indeed flawed:)

  46. Wendy says:

    I think, Monica (and it’s a good question), it’s because I feel like the discussion is being held back by what seem to me minor or irrelevant concerns–and maybe also because I’d like to see this amount of discourse on books that are more important to me for either “love” or “dislike” reasons. But, of course, that’s all a matter of perspective; I know people think I get hung up on weird stuff sometimes, though it’s always stuff that seems important to me. My personal dealbreakers are not others’, and vice versa. I wish we were seeing more, and more in-depth, discussion about Countdown or Keeper or The Boneshaker, and heck, I could probably talk Kneebone Boy all day long, even though that did get plenty of attention here.

    Also, I think it’s interesting that you consider those who find this book “flawed” the minority–I feel like I’ve seen much more negativity than love for this book. Again, I guess it’s all about perspective.

  47. Wendy says:

    (For instance, and FWIW: I have 21 books on my “2010-award-possibilities” Goodreads shelf right now, which doesn’t mean I favor them for the award but that they’ve come up at least occasionally in awards discussions. The average rating for Sir Charlie is the lowest by quite a bit.)

    (Highest? City Dog, Country Frog. Highest non-picture/poetry is, not surprisingly, One Crazy Summer.)

  48. Interesting. The book has racked up stars (the maximum possible I think) and all the reviews I’ve seen have been glowing. I checked goodreads too and most of the reviews seem very enthused. So I do feel very much out of sync which is why I stayed quiet till now. I also felt that being so close to the topic made me less objective. And so I tried in my post to focus on issues that might resonate with others. Perhaps wanting it to communicate Charlie’s humor is my issue, but I’m not so sure. It also is connected to the child appeal issue. And theme (as Mark pointed out).

    Yes, this post has a lot of comments, but most of them are Jonathan and me debating with Mark and William jumping in a few times as well:) All I can say is that I appreciate greatly the chance to have this conversation with others thinking hard about this book.

  49. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I just wanted to echo Wendy’s point that nowhere in the text does Fleischman propose to argue and put forth evidence that Chaplin was indeed the funniest man in the world. He’s not writing an essay, but a biography, and the subtitle does not obligate him to argue and defend that position. Indeed, Fleischman takes it as a given that Chaplin is funny, and spends little time trying to convince us–probably because he knows all the evidence we need is in the films and he could write oodles and oodles, and never capture the essence of Chaplin’s onscreen brilliance. Can you imagine this biography in 50 years . . . MICHAEL JACKSON; THE KING OF POP . . . Okay, kids, he *was* the King of Pop. No, really. He was. I swear he was! I’ll prove it to you . . . blah, blah, blah . . . zzzzzzzz

    SIR CHARLIE got four starred reviews, but Horn Book didn’t even review it in the Magazine. PW put it on their best books list (they normally only pick three longer nonfiction books so they are very selective). It’s likely Booklist will best it, meaning four stars, two lists, putting it decidedly middle of the pack in terms of a critical reception.

  50. Brian says:

    Just in case anyone is still curious about the ages of Chaplin’s wives/SOs, I checked with the Robinson biography, which seems to be the authoritative work on Chaplin.

    Paulette Goddard was married at 16, but not to Chaplin. She married and divorced Edgar James in the same year, and did not meet Chaplin until she was 21.

    Mildred Harris was 16 when she met Chaplin. They became romantic when she was 17, and married when she was 17. (Of interest, Robinson simply refers to Mildred’s non-pregnancy as a “false alarm”. Felischman seems to characterize it as more of a trap. Robinson does say, though, “For her part, Mildred seems to have made knowing use of her golden hair, blue eyes and flirtatious prattle. She was presumably not discouraged by her mother….” p.245)

    Lita Grey had a part in The Kid when she was twelve. She and Chaplin married four years later.

    Oona O’Neill was 17 when they met, and they waited until she was 18 to get married so that they would not need parental consent.

    Edna Purviance was 19 or 20 when she first met Chaplin. She was living on her own in San Francisco, and had had at least one serious love affair before Chaplin.

    Another interesting aspect in the Robinson bio is Chaplin’s infatuation, when he was 19, with a girl named Hetty Kelly, who was 15. It was brief, and possibly ended by Hetty’s mother, but it left a mark on Chaplin. Robinson implies that Chaplin’s interest in younger women/girls may have been linked to Hetty Kelly. Just speculation, but of the affair, Chaplin said, ‘What happened was the inevitable. After all, the episode was but a childish infatuation to her, but to me it was the beginning of a spiritual development, a reaching out for beauty.’

  51. I did wonder why Fleischman left Hetty out of his biography. Chaplin gives her quite a bit of attention in his autobiography.

  52. I did wonder why Fleischman left Hetty out of his biography. Chaplin gives her quite a bit of attention in his autobiography. As I recall (I’m on the train so don’t have the book with me), he was excited about seeing her again when he first returned to England and was quite upset to find she died in the flu pandemic.

  53. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Oh, I didn’t wonder at all. He included all the wives, but none of the dating relationships. Purviance is in the book, but Fleischman discusses her more as a co-star than as a girlfriend.

  54. Yeah, but he represents Hetty in his autobiography as the woman of his dreams, unlike any of the others.

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