Sir Charlie Chaplin: The Funniest Man in the World by Sid Fleischman

60701891Lynn: In his preface to Sir Charlie Chaplin (Harper/Greenwillow, 2010) Sid Fleischman relates a story of how Chaplin was asked about a movie scene in which he single-handedly captured thirteen enemy soldiers. “I surrounded them,” he answered and Fleischman goes on to say that “I surrounded Chaplin to make him the subject of this biography.” I think that exactly describes this book. Fleischman, with his usual attention to detail carefully surrounded Chaplin and brought us the story of the man behind the character of the Little Tramp. For me it was a compelling study of a complex and fascinating man and the best sort of biography: well-researched and documented, while remaining a totally engaging and fascinating reading experience.

I read with a sense of sadness too as the wonderful Sid Fleischman left us recently. I had the great honor of sitting at his table at the Newbery/Caldecott Banquet and listening to his thoughts on the beginnings of this book. We are infinitely lucky to have his look at this complicated genius.

Cindy: Not sure how to hook young readers on a biography about an actor who worked in film not only before COLOR but before SOUND? How about pitching the rags to riches story, starting with a childhood with an alcoholic father and a mentally unstable mother who would spend most of her life committed to a mental hospital? The boy who grew up drinking from horse water troughs and living in a workhouse for the poor would pull himself up by his spats and make himself into one of the most successful actors and movie entrepreneurs ever.

Or, take advantage of today’s wonders of moving picture technology–YouTube! Many clips from Chaplin films can be found by searching his name. Those who have seen Lucille Ball try to keep up with the chocolates coming down a fast conveyor belt will enjoy Chaplin’s earlier take on mass production in his classic, Modern Times. I feel a kinship with both Lucy and Charlie as I try to keep up with the new books coming out every day!

Don’t miss the reference notes where Fleischman includes tidbits that didn’t make the cut for the main text of the book. For instance, Jackie Coogan, the child star that Chaplin brought to the limelight? His drug-addicted parents squandered his ample film earnings, providing the genesis for California’s “Coogan’s Law” protecting child actors from predatory parents. In later life, Coogan was best known as Uncle Fester in the campy television show, The Adams Family. I also learned that the son of Chaplin’s younger step-brother, Spencer Dryden, was a drummer for Jefferson Airplane.

I’m delighted that Fleischman turned his magic to the writing of biography late in his career, but sad that we won’t have more. Check out Michael Cart’s column about Sid and learn why biography became the genre of choice for this writer as he closed out his career and life.

nonfictionmonday1This week’s Nonfiction Monday host is the blog In Need of Chocolate (gotta love the name). Take a look at the round up of other nonfiction blog entries today.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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