The Great and Only Barnum

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
The Great and Only Barnum Book Poster Image
Fascinating, thorough look at the showman and his time.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Barnum needs to be understood in the context of his times, and kids will learn much here about American culture, media, and life in the 19th century.

Positive Messages

By today's standards -- and often the standards of his own time -- Barnum was not a particularly ethical man. He purposefully hoodwinked people to make a profit, and for the fun of it. The author holds him accountable for his transgressions, but also shows us a hardworking, passionate man who grew increasingly generous and thoughtful over the course of his life.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Barnum was no saint, but readers can be inspired by Barnum's drive, perseverance, enthusiasm, and work ethic. For all his success, he endured equally spectacular losses -- bankruptcy and fires -- and rebounded each time.

Violence & Scariness

Animals meet violent ends in fires and train accidents.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this biography pointedly but tastefully addresses P.T. Barnum’s less admirable traits, including callous treatment of his first wife, lack of interest in his children, drinking early in life, his purchase of a slave for exhibit, professional dishonesty, and exploitation of the people and animals with whom he worked. But it’s all part of a balanced portrait of a complicated man who was full of surprises -- both admirable and shameful.

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What's the story?

P.T. Barnum was just as intriguing as the oddities and spectacles he so flamboyantly presented to 19th-century America. This biography of the larger-than-life “prince of humbugs” details the savvy young businessman’s rise to become an American legend who revolutionized museums and gave us the three-ring circus. Along the way readers will meet the little people, bearded ladies, giant elephants, and other “representatives of the wonderful” who populated his world, and get a deeper understanding of the times in which he lived.

Is it any good?

This skillful, nuanced biography is a feast for curious minds. In the center ring, of course, is the captivating story of Barnum himself. Candace Fleming’s engaging portrait shows this complicated man as he wished to be remembered, as he was seen by friends and detractors, and as he lived in private. This is a man who put "human curiosities" on display, yet paid them handsomely for the time, and who once bought and exhibited a slave yet later advocated allowing black Americans to vote. Amid the spectacle, she reveals a man with an astounding work ethic -- he rebounded from bankruptcy, devastating fires, and public disgrace -- and a love for life.
The narrative is embroidered with plentiful extras, including profiles of people in Barnum’s life, colorful anecdotes starring Barnum, illustrations and ephemera, and even an introduction to circus lingo. Ray Fenwick’s circus-inspired illustrations and designs pull everything together in a captivating package. An annotated bibliography, a list of relevant websites, and source notes give engaged readers a wealth of further material to explore.

The thematic artwork, inspired by 19th-century designs, makes this an immersive experience.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Barnum’s “humbugs.” Were his lies justified? What do you think of the audience who, knowing Barnum’s track record, kept buying into his deceptions?

  • P.T. Barnum was an imaginative, ambitious, and hardworking man. He also built his fortune and his reputation on deception and exploitation. Looking at the span of his life, do you think he was a good man? Why or why not?

  • The exhibition of people like Barnum’s “human curiosities” is a controversial subject. Some were paid well, others -- like Joice Heth -- had little choice in the matter, and all were put on display. Were these fair working partnerships, or exploitation?

  • If Barnum were alive today, do you think he would still be a circus man? What form of modern entertainment do you think he would enjoy being involved in? Create an ad for a modern Barnum presentation -- a live performance, a TV show, or some other form of entertainment.

  • Barnum gathered tremendous collections of wild animals from around the globe, but he didn’t always take good care of them. Research how animals in circuses and zoos are cared for today.

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