Monday, July 14, 2014

Nonfiction Monday: How They Choked: Failures, Flops, and Flaws of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg, illustrated by Kevin O'Malley

I've been waiting eagerly for the next volume to follow the gruesomely informative How They Croaked (which I somehow missed out on reviewing). This one tells the stories of fourteen famous people - and their famous failures.

  • Marco Polo, after a lifetime of diplomacy and surviving in the dangerous court of Kublai Khan, decided to try his hand at military strategy and failed so dismally he ended up in prison. 
  • Isabella of Castile, who proved she had the guts to rule her kingdom and her family - but started the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Montezuma II, who was a powerful (if feared) ruler, but failed to protect his empire from the Spanish invaders.
  • Ferdinand Magellan, who was a skilled navigator and sailor but his social skills were so awful his crew left him to die and he never completed his journey to the Spice Islands.
  • Anne Boleyn, who watched her older sister's example and thought she'd avoided the pitfalls and landed a king but ended up losing her head.
  • Isaac Newton, a brilliant scientist and mathematician, refused to collaborate with other scientists of the day and spent the latter half of his life secretly and illegally practicing alchemy. It probably killed him.
  • Benedict Arnold, whose arrogance and greed led to him becoming famous...for treachery.
  • Susan B. Anthony, who fought all her life for women to get the vote but died before her dream became a reality.
  • George Custer thought his luck would never run out - but it did, at the Battle of Little Bighorn where he got not only himself but his men killed. It wouldn't be the first time.
  • Thomas Alva Edison, so determined to prove he was right, he performed cruel experiments on dogs (not to mention all those places he burned down).
  • Vincent Van Gogh. Never sold a painting, was universally disliked, feared, and hated.
  • J. Bruce Ismay tried to get out from under his father's shadow and finally became famous - as the coward responsible for the construction of the Titanic and the deaths of thousands.
  • Joseph Jefferson "Shoeless Joe" Jackson thought he had it made with baseball, but a few mistakes and some scandals and he never played ball again.
  • Amelia Earhart believed her own press and made one final flight without preparation or training.
Each mini-biography ends with further information the person and events of their life, varied by the person. Some list other people involved in their failure, more context for events, further information, etc. The book also includes an introduction, a conclusion discussing how failure is a normal part of life, acknowledgements, sources, further reading, and an index. The black and white caricatures are ghoulish and lend a sly tone of humor to the outrageous anecdotes.

It can be hard to judge this type of book from an adult perspective. Of course, the sections are only brief overviews of the subjects' lives - I personally think Amelia Earhart and Benedict Arnold were much more complex than they're made out to be. But that's part of the layout - it's just a tantalizing glimpse into each person's life, hopefully enough to get kids interested in searching out more information so they can judge for themselves. I felt like I already knew most of the information presented, but again - adult perspective. Most of this information will be new to the kids reading it, unless they're big history buffs. Most of the biographies they've previously read will probably have focused on the personages triumphs and contributions, not their failures.

Verdict: This is a unique perspective and slice of life look at fourteen famous and very different people. It will require a fairly good reader to make it through, but the short sections and the additional information breakdowns at the end of the chapters will pull through readers who are daunted by the complete length of the book. It's a great layout and Bragg is a strong writer who brings the people to life in a humorous and down to earth way. Highly recommended.

ISBN: 9780802734884; Published 2014 by Walker/Bloomsbury; Purchased for the library

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