Bluffton: My Summer with Buster Keaton
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Bluffton: My Summer with Buster Keaton

by Matt Phelan
     
 
In the summer of 1908, in Muskegon, Michigan, a visiting troupe of vaudeville performers is about the most exciting thing since baseball. They’re summering in nearby Bluffton, so Henry has a few months to ogle the elephant and the zebra, the tightrope walkers and — lo and behold — a slapstick actor his own age named Buster Keaton. The show folk say

Overview

In the summer of 1908, in Muskegon, Michigan, a visiting troupe of vaudeville performers is about the most exciting thing since baseball. They’re summering in nearby Bluffton, so Henry has a few months to ogle the elephant and the zebra, the tightrope walkers and — lo and behold — a slapstick actor his own age named Buster Keaton. The show folk say Buster is indestructible; his father throws him around as part of the act and the audience roars, while Buster never cracks a smile. Henry longs to learn to take a fall like Buster, "the human mop," but Buster just wants to play ball with Henry and his friends. With signature nostalgia, Scott O’Dell Award–winning graphic novelist Matt Phelan visualizes a bygone era with lustrous color, dynamic lines, and flawless dramatic pacing.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 08/26/2013
Historical detail, a rich sense of place, expert pacing—Phelan (Around the World) keeps all the plates in the air in this fictionalized recreation of the boyhood summers of Buster Keaton. In lightly sketched, gently tinted watercolor panels, Phelan conveys the excitement a troupe of summering vaudeville actors brings to sleepy Bluffton, a small resort town on Lake Michigan. It's easy to understand the envy the boy narrator Henry feels for his new friend, the child star Keaton, who performs in a comic act in which he's tossed about by his father. Buster's stunts and pratfalls are polished, and his signature deadpan gaze is already perfected. Simultaneously, Phelan hints at darker truths behind Buster's poise: his father's drinking, and the charges of child abuse that dog their act. "Buster's never been hurt in his life!" his red-faced father claims. "Well, not bad, anyway." Over several summers and endless baseball games—Buster's real passion—Henry considers the meaning of his own ordinary life in the light of his friend's celebrity in a way that's believable and satisfying. An unapologetically nostalgic piece of Americana. Ages 9–12. Agent: Rebecca Sherman, Writers House. (July)
From the Publisher
Thrilling—a spirited, poignant coming-of-age vignette and an intriguing window into a little-known chapter in vaudeville history.
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Phelan’s watercolors are expertly rendered and soft in focus, but pop at just the right moments, simultaneously showing the sleepiness of the town, the glamour of show business, and the energy of summer. ... Bluffton is a rich and engaging story with a lot of charm, and will be a great choice for early chapter-book readers and graphic-novel fans.
—School Library Journal (starred review)

Wonderfully evocative... With a beautiful economy of phrase and image, Mr. Phelan shows Henry's happiness in the company of his glamorous friend but also the jealousy that begins to trouble him.
—The Wall Street Journal

Children's Literature - Lorraine Donohue Bonzelet
Buster Keaton, the famous American silent film actor and director, spent his youth as a vaudeville performer in an act called "The Three Keatons." Buster was the indestructible "human mop" who was tossed around by his father to elicit the amusement and applause of the audience. Matt Phelan uses comic book-style framing and watercolor-adorned sketches to depict Buster Keaton's life. This historical fiction graphic novel takes place in the early 1900s when Henry, a fictional character, notices a change in the town of Bluffton, near Michigan's Muskegon Lake. Henry is pleasantly surprised to find zebras, elephants, tightrope walkers, and vaudeville performers occupying his town. Henry admires the juggling and flipping talents of Buster Keaton, and he wants to learn everything he can about the act. Buster is more interested in playing baseball and masterminding practical jokes. Henry yearns for the responsibility-free and exciting life of Buster, while struggling with what he wants to do when he grows up. He eventually learns to redirect his focus on who he wants to be rather than what he wants to do. Unless the watercolor illustrations attract the young reader, this book is likely to go unnoticed. It would take the encouragement of parents or teachers for children to give this book a chance. Child abuse allegations brought against the Keaton family are detailed in the book and can be used as a conversation starter. The book might hold the reader's attention better if they have background information on the vaudeville act of "The Three Keatons" and the talent Buster Keaton brought to the silent film industry. Several of Buster's boyhood contraptions and practical jokes were used in his films. The author's notes provide a good summary of Buster Keaton's success in the silent film industry. Reviewer: Lorraine Donohue Bonzelet
School Library Journal
Gr 3–6—Henry and his hometown of Muskegon, Michigan, may be ordinary, but neighboring Bluffton is anything but. The year is 1908, and vaudevillians have come to the resort town to relax for the summer. Intrigued by the visitors, Henry heads off to Bluffton and meets a young actor named Buster Keaton. The two boys quickly become friends, but each of them yearns for what the other has-Henry wants a life of show business and fame, while Buster wants a normal life filled with baseball and fishing. Phelan does an excellent job of showing an accurate portrayal of Buster Keaton, from his dangerous physical comedy routines to his alcoholic father; the facts flow so smoothly that it does not feel like historical fiction at all. Henry is undeveloped in the beginning and simply moves along Buster's story, but the character really comes into his own later on when feuding with Buster and trying to put on a show of his own. Phelan's watercolors are expertly rendered and soft in focus, but pop at just the right moments, simultaneously showing the sleepiness of the town, the glamour of show business, and the energy of summer. An author's note and some photos explain a bit more about the real Buster Keaton. Overall, Bluffton is a rich and engaging story with a lot of charm, and will be a great choice for early chapter-book readers and graphic-novel fans.—Peter Blenski, Greenfield Public Library, WI
Kirkus Reviews
In this winsome, sparely spun graphic novel by Phelan (The Storm in the Barn, 2011), Henry Harrison gets a tantalizing taste of the outside world when a young Buster Keaton and more vacationing vaudevillians tumble into his small Michigan town. The scene opens on a tranquil Muskegon street, with a glimpse of the suspender-sporting Henry sweeping up his dad's hardware store. Strolling men in bowler hats, long-skirted women and a June 1908 calendar offer the initial whiff of an era long gone. Nothing like an elephant to shake things up! When the show people come to town one summer, nearby Bluffton springs to life, as does Henry's yearslong infatuation with Buster Keaton, who, wincingly, was then best known as the tossed-around but indestructible "Human Mop." Frame by frame, in pencil and watercolor, the artist captures the joys of lakeside summers of fishing, baseball and harmless pranks, all the while skillfully communicating the emotional intensity of youth. Despite the painful sense of longing the worldly Buster stirs up in Henry, a 1927 epilogue of sorts assures readers that Henry finds his own path in life…and his own special brand of show biz. An author's note explains that the Actors' Colony at Bluffton really did exist, from 1908 to 1938. Thrilling--a spirited, poignant coming-of-age vignette and an intriguing window into a little-known chapter in vaudeville history. (art not seen in full color) (author's note) (Graphic historical fiction. 9-12)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780763650797
Publisher:
Candlewick Press
Publication date:
07/23/2013
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
550,953
Product dimensions:
7.10(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.83(d)
Lexile:
GN370L (what's this?)
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

Meet the Author

Matt Phelan is the author-illustrator of the award-winning graphic novels The Storm in the Barn and Around the World. He is also the illustrator of Always and I’ll Be There by Ann Stott and The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, winner of the Newbery Medal. He lives in Philadelphia.

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