Welcome to the big top! One of STACKED’s goals this year is to post more and a wider variety of content (believe it or not, we have a huge, varied list of topics we want to cover in a Google Doc). To start, we’re hoping to post more non-fiction reviews and discussions. And onward.
The Great and Only Barnum by Candice Fleming was one of the first young adult non-fiction books I’ve read. Not to mention it’s a biography, which is another genre I’m pretty poor at reading in. But let me say, this title did NOT disappoint.
TGAOB follows the life of show man P. T. Barnum from his birth to his death, highlighting his younger years as a sales clerk, shuffling between Connecticut and New York City and his decision to go into show business. His circus career began, as it seems, quite accidentally, after a long stint in the museum business. I thought Fleming’s narrative was engrossing: I found myself flying through the text, eager to learn more about the man of infamy. At the beginning of the book, we meet his lineage, and throughout the text, I kept thinking back to a connection Fleming made between Barnum’s prankster grandfather and himself. The likeness was not only amusing, but it really did shed a lot of light into why Barnum chose the path he did in life and why, even though he has had so many critics, he is still a fascinating and likeable character.
Throughout the book, there are ample photographs, and there is a fascinating spread of sideshow trading cards. I thought the section about the people Barnum brought to the spotlight left him more of a good person than a bad person — if there were a bias in this book as a whole, it would be that it was quite apologetic for Barnum’s decisions to showcase people with different physical traits from the norm. But at the same time, it didn’t delve deeply enough into the criticisms he received to make these apologetics worth including in the text; it almost seemed like a preemptive band-aid for those reading the text who might be ready to be angry. From the text, it seemed to me that Barnum really and truly cared for his people, putting them to spotlight to showcase the varied nature of humanity (and while there was absolutely financial gain here for him, he also took great care of these people who may otherwise have been outcasts in society).
Some of the issues I had with the book included the facts that were brought up but not elucidated further. I wish I could learn more about the strange relationship Barnum had with his first wife (though we hear about his quick marriage overseas) and I would love to learn more about the race relations. Barnum’s museum had a policy to not allow African Americans in, except for a few hours one day a week. Knowing the museum was in New York City, I had a lot of questions about whether this was the norm and whether Barnum’s policy was groundbreaking because he let them in. Here’s perfect fodder for a future book!
I thought the use of sidebars and photos was well done, with just enough to keep me interested. I appreciated how, for the most part, the narrative ended on the page where a side bar was so I could read those without flipping pages; unfortunately, this did not last throughout the book and became a point of frustration for me. More frustrating, though, were the sidebars that jumped pages and the use of the black box with white text. It is well-known this is the hardest way to read text. But aesthetically, the book showcased a nice use of font to text to decorative elements, and it felt like a lengthy magazine article. This will definitely appeal to teen readers AND to adult readers who want to know about Barnum but don’t want to invest time into a lengthier biography. I got just enough to pique my interest.
My other criticism on this title is that there was not enough discussion of the circus. I went in believing to know about Barnum’s circus career and decisions, and though I learned these came near the end of his life, I wanted more. I wanted to know how the various circuses came to meld together and become what they are in today’s society. Again: here’s another prime book opportunity. Something of that nature would be a great readalike to this one. Authors – take note!