Old Favorites: author Sid Fleischman

I had today’s Old Favorite all planned and half written, but then I discovered that last week, author Sid Fleischman died.  And because he was a great favorite of mine, I just had to do one of his books.

It was difficult to pick just one though. I loved the McBroom stories, featuring farmer Josh McBroom, his sweet wife Melissa and their eleven redheaded young’uns (as McBroom calls them: WillJillHesterChesterPeterPollyTimTom MaryLarryandlittleClarinda“).  My favorite episode in their lives was McBroom’s Ghost, where one March, after the coldest winter ever around their parts (it was so cold that the smoke froze in the chimneys and red barns turned blue!), a haunt starts to chase the children around the farm. It shows up out of nowhere,  and sounds like everything from a rooster to John Phillip Sousa’s orchestra. Of course, the McBrooms try a bunch of home remedies to chase the ghost away, from burning a pile of shoes to getting a dog. But it isn’t until the spring thaw  that they discover the real culprit.

And  although I loved the McBrooms, they weren’t as chock-full of memorable characters as other favorite titles  like Jingo Django or Humbug Mountain. But I finally settled on my favorite Sid Fleischman book being By the Great Horn Spoon! originally published in 1963. It was popular pretty much from the moment it hit the bookstores, and was even made into a Disney film called The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin in 1966.

* * *

Jack Flagg is an orphan from Boston, on his way to make his fortune  in the 1849 California Gold Rush. The first step, of course, is getting to California, and Jack accomplishes that by stowing away on a side-wheeler bound for the West. It would be a scary adventure for a twelve year old alone in the world, but luckily, he’s not alone.  Praiseworthy, the finest English Butler in Boston is accompanying him. To keep him out of trouble. Or is there another reason?

Hoping to bring back enough money to help his sisters and his Aunt Arabella, Jack and Praiseworthy travel by sea and land, meeting a series of memorable characters such as the daring, crusty sea Captain Swain and the diabolical Cut-Eye Higgins.  Their adventures include pickpockets, fisticuffs, and even a stagecoach robbery…and that’s before they even get to the gold fields!

This is  a great book to read yourself, but it’s an even better book to listen to. My sixth-grade teacher used to read to us after lunch, and By the Great Horn Spoon! was one of the class favorites. If you like reading aloud (like I do!) the exaggerated accents are fun to play with, and the adventure never stops.  It’s an rip-roaring read full of humorous episodes and bigger-than-life characters. By the end, you’ll be cheering for both Jack and Praiseworthy.  And maybe even wishing you had your own English Butler!

* * *

Sid Fleischman was a very interesting man. He started out as a magician, emulating his hero, Harry Houdini.  Somehow, he ended up a screenwriter in Hollywood. He started writing children’s books so his own children could understand what their father did. (He wrote them into his first book too–Mr. Mysterious and Company features Jane, Paul and Anne Fleischman as the main characters.)  Sid Fleischman chronicled his own life in his autobiography The Abracadabra Kid: A Writer’s Life, which received critical acclaim. He also wrote The Whipping Boy, which won the 1987 Newbery Medal.

One final book by Mr. Fleischman will be coming out this spring: Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World,  a biography of Charlie Chaplin.  Even though he left behind a legacy of over 40 children’s books, almost 20 adult books, and many screenplays, his artistic and comedic genius will be missed.


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