Recommended for ages 8 and up.
Candace Fleming is one of my favorite non-fiction writers for young people, and I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating look into the life of the renowned showman P. T. Barnum. I was surprised to discover that my two teenagers, however, had no idea who he was, so apparently he is not as well-known among young people. I hope this biography will change that fact, since it is a highly entertaining and informative work that is perfect for school reports as well as for recreational reading.
This larger-than-life figure is not easy to capture on paper, but Fleming does an admirable job capturing his elephant-sized personality. I especially liked the sections on his early years, where we learn how a small time boy known as Tale from the tiny village of Bethel, Connecticut evolved into P.T. Barnum, the world-famous showman. For example, we learn how Tale came from a family of practical jokesters who were also thrifty Yankees, and Tale began saving his pennies at an early age. By the time he was eight years old, he became a peddler, selling candy and other items to volunteer soldiers who trained nearby. He excelled in school, particularly in math, but often had to miss school to help out on the farm.
But business was his talent, and he had many clever and funny business ideas that are detailed in this biography. Early on, he realizes he wants to be his own boss, and at the age of 24 relocates to New York City, now with a wife and child, to make his fortune.
Barnum starts his show business career by purchasing an exhibit of an ancient slave, Joice Heth, who was thought to be 161 years old and the baby nurse of George Washington. Fleming explains that exhibits of unusual people like Joice Heth were common in Barnum's day, and although it seems distasteful to our modern sensibilities such shows could be perfectly respectable in that era. When Heth died, Barnum even made money by charging for her autopsy! It didn't matter that she turned out to be only around 80 years old--Barnum had started his career as a traveling showman, and he didn't look back.
One of the fascinating aspects of Barnum's life was his cycle of rags to riches, repeated numerous times in his life. His highly successful American Museum, which made him rich exhibiting everything from live exotic animals, including an aquarium with live whales, giraffes, and a rhinoceros, to human curiosities such as Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins, and assorted oddities, burned to the ground, was rebuilt by Barnum, and burned again. He went bankrupt through bad investments in a clock company, ran--and served--in public office, and finally, in his later years, became a circus man.
In profiles of Barnum's relationship with opera singer Jenny Lind and miniature man Tom Thumb, Fleming demonstrates how Barnum was one of the first to exploit the cult of celebrity that we take for granted in the 21st century. He was brilliant at generating publicity, and knew how to generate a media frenzy before the phrase was coined.
Barnum was such a celebrity that the New York Sun, as a favor to Barnum, printed his obituary early so that Barnum could read it; within a month of its publication, Barnum died at age 81.
Although she writes with obvious affection for her subject, Fleming does not glorify this huge 19th century figure. We see, for example, that Barnum the private man could be cruel to his first wife, who bore him four daughters. Also, although he loved children in general, he paid little attention to his own children (although he had more time to lavish affection on his grandchildren). Fleming brings into her narrative many interesting aspects of Barnum the man. For example, at the young age of 13, Barnum turned his back on his strict Calvinist upbringing, and became a Universalist, who believed God's nature was love. Religion was important to Barnum throughout his life, and when misfortune struck, he believed it was the will of God. He even took the pulpit from time to time; according to Fleming, one churchgoer remembered that Barnum "talked about the nature of the Gospel and of God's love...[he] mentioned neither tigers or elephants."
The book features the very effective use of many sidebars, photographs, drawings from the period, and ephemera such as ticket stubs, broadsides, and programs, much as in Fleming's book about the Lincolns (The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary). Kudos should go to illustrator Ray Fenwick as well as designer Rachael Cole for their role in making this such an attractive book to browse through as well as read cover-to-cover.
The Great and Only Barnum has received multiple awards, including: ALA Best Books for Young Adults 2010; ALSC Notable Book 2010; Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book 2009; New York Public Library 100 Books for Reading and Sharing Title; Publishers Weekly Best Book 2009; YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults 2010 (nominee). The publisher suggests this book for ages 8-12; I would add that it is equally suitable for young adults and adults as well.
Fleming provides an annotated bibliography, useful links to find Barnum on the web, source notes, and an index.
Related reading: A new novel based on the lives of several of the human curiosities housed in Barnum's museum makes an interesting read for teens (not recommended for younger readers due to some mature content). Barnum also appears as a character in the novel, entitled The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, by Ellen Bryson (Henry Holt, 2010).
Also, a new biography for young people of Tom Thumb, discovered by and made famous by Barnum, will be released in February 2011 by Clarion Books (Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature, by George Sullivan).