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.
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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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at email@example.com
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