Review: Tom Thumb


I just fin­ished an advance read­ing copy of TOM THUMB: THE REMARKABLE TRUE STORY OF A MAN IN MINIATURE by George Sul­li­van (Clar­i­on; Feb­ru­ary, 2011; 208 pages; grades 5–9).

Writ­ing non-fic­tion is like putting togeth­er the pieces of a puz­zle, says author George Sul­li­van… “I like non­fic­tion because I’m a very curi­ous per­son, and the research that I do I find intro­duces me to new worlds,” he said. “I’m always inter­est­ed in find­ing out what peo­ple were real­ly like—how they live, what the fam­i­ly life was like, what moti­vat­ed them.” (full arti­cle here)

I think he suc­ceeds in con­vey­ing that sense of curios­i­ty and won­der to his read­ers, and TOM THUMB should be of great inter­est to mid­dle-graders for both plea­sure read­ing and research­ing reports.
In TOM THUMB, Sul­li­van pieces togeth­er the puz­zle behind the real-life sto­ry of Charles Sher­wood Strat­ton (a dwarf who would lat­er become famous­ly known as Tom Thumb), as well as those of P.T. Bar­num and Tom Thumb’s wife, Lavinia.
Writ­ten as a nar­ra­tive, the text chrono­log­i­cal­ly fol­lows Tom Thumb’s life and beyond, weav­ing an inter­est­ing biog­ra­phy and tale of his­to­ry and show­man­ship. Sul­li­van treats his sub­ject with care­ful dig­ni­ty and respect.
In addi­tion to the sto­ry itself, librar­i­ans, teach­ers, and researchers will appre­ci­ate the atten­tion to back­mat­ter, includ­ing acknowl­edge­ments, about the sources, end notes, bib­li­og­ra­phy, books and arti­cles list, and an index.
In my mind, the book also rais­es some inter­est­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for dis­cus­sions in class­rooms and chil­dren’s book clubs:

  1. The book makes it clear that Tom Thumb appar­ent­ly enjoyed play­ing his roles and liv­ing life as a per­former in the pub­lic eye, but oth­ers, most notably Bar­num and Tom Thumb’s own par­ents, also prof­it­ed from his on-stage antics. At what point does it con­sti­tute exploita­tion to treat peo­ple this way? What fac­tors might have made it accept­able his­tor­i­cal­ly? How is it dif­fer­ent today? What types of exploita­tion, if any, still exist today? Should they be banned?
  2. The book reveals Barnum’s skills in self-pro­mo­tion, mar­ket­ing, and know­ing what audi­ences want­ed and were will­ing to pay for. It also reveals sev­er­al knows cas­es of “hum­bug­gery,” or instances where he know­ing­ly deceived audi­ences to draw big­ger crowds and more prof­it. Is this behav­ior accept­able for a “show­man?” What might “hum­bug­gery” look like today, and how do we try to pro­tect con­sumers from it? Are we suc­cess­ful? How can we be on the look­out for “hum­bug­gery” in today’s media?

Sul­li­van has writ­ten more than 100 books for chil­dren, and he’s still writ­ing in his 80s. He shared some of his tips here, includ­ing:

“I write very ear­ly in the morn­ing, when my mind is fresh and when I know I’m not going to be inter­rupt­ed by the tele­phone or vis­i­tors or what­ev­er might occur dur­ing the day,” he said. “I do a great deal of work in the ear­ly morn­ing hours.”


“You take the project and you break it into pieces,” he said. “You have an out­line that breaks it down into dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories. Then you research each of these pieces, instead of try­ing to do every­thing all at once.”

Good advice. And Sul­li­van has cer­tain­ly built a book, and a career, worth emulating.

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