Sunday, February 25, 2007

Forgotten Bookshelf: Chimney Sweeps Yesterday And Today

by James Cross Giblin, illus. Margot Tomes
Harper & Row, 1982

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen: my very first non-fiction book review for the Forgotten Bookshelf!


I sometimes think that non-fiction is the neglected sibling of the big kidlit family. I know of few people who have fond childhood memories of curling up with a non-fiction title and a flashlight after lights-out. And it's difficult for non-fiction titles to have staying power on library shelves because, with our ever-changing world, titles frequently become outdated and discarded. Usually only biographies, memoirs, and and the odd book about math have the chops to be For the Ages. And then there's the little gem about an overlooked, intriguing topic that is not only timeless but makes for a suberb read-aloud.

Chimney Sweeps, Yesterday and Today, is one of those books. Here's why: thanks to Mary Poppins, every kid (and most of the adults) I know absolutely loooooves chimney sweeps. James Cross Giblin manages to put together a set of facts and portraits about chimney sweep life that manages to be compelling, entertaining, and full of pathos as well. His writing is exceedingly well-paced and accessible, making this a great book for the middle grades (and perhaps a read-aloud for kids as young as second grade).

Now, here's the lowdown on the goodies that make this book so fabulous.

1. You find out why good luck will be yours when a sweep shakes hands with you, or why you can blow 'em a kiss, and that's lucky too.

2. The book features photographs of modern-day sweeps, who apparently still enjoy wearing top hats and tails as they go about their business. (Chapter 8 features a photo of a sweep in the act of jauntily leaping from a rooftop. Egads.)

3. Chapter 5 is devoted to the recreation of a day in the life of a 19th-century boy chimney sweep. This chapter reaches Dickens-levels of teearjerker-ness, yet manages to be fascinating. This is the one for teachers to pull out during Social Studies -- absolutely fabulous writing.

And the number-one reason why you should read this book . . .

From Chapter 7:

Farmers in England and Europe often used live geese as chimney sweeps, and many American colonists did also. A settler would climb up onto the roof of his one-story cabin or house and drop a large goose with a rope tied loosely around its feet down the flue. He raised and lowered the goose several times, and trusted that its flapping wings would remove most of the soot from the chimney. Then he gave the dirty, frightened bird a bath.
Whoa. I know that the PETA people will hate me for saying this, but hands-down, that is the BEST THING I've read in a children's book in a LONG, LONG TIME.

Go, people. Find this book at your library or used bookshop. Flip to Chapter 7 and read this paragraph to everybody and anybody you can find, and relish in the ensuing hilarity.

Goose in the chimney. Ah, it makes me happy.


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