Famous Phonies: Legends, Fakes, and Frauds Who Changed History by Brianna DuMont
(Sky Pony Press, $14.95, Ages 10 – 14)
It’s time for some historical horizon broadening courtesy of Famous Phonies, a new nonfiction book from Brianna DuMont that will not only enlighten young readers, but will make them eager for the next book in The Changed History series. Kids will enjoy this middle grade book written in a quirky, playful tone. “It’s especially aimed at reluctant readers, but it engages the parents too. (Always a bonus!),” says DuMont and she’s spot on! And don’t you just love that cover?!
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Meet a dozen individuals whose legends are often larger than life: Confucius, George Washington, Pythagoras, Hiawatha, Gilgamesh, Major William Martin, William Shakespeare, Pope Joan, Homer, Prester John, Huangdi, and The Turk. Some you’ve heard of and others may initially produce a hunch of the shoulders. Either way, after reading Famous Phonies, you’ll know them all, learn how easily the facts of their lives got blown out of proportion and have a greater appreciation for the weeding out history buffs like DuMont do so that readers can see the whole picture. Plus it doesn’t hurt that she’s honed in on some fascinating details and shares them in a tongue in cheek way that middle graders will adore. The interesting factoids included for each personage also add to this book’s appeal.
For example, how many disciples did Confucius really have – was it three thousand or seventy-two? And all this before social media! What facts were bent after his death and what were legit? Was he really over nine feet tall? I found out that Confucius’s father died a couple of years after his birth, and his wives (neither one Confucius’s birth mother) kicked him and his teen-aged birth mother out of the house. He traveled around seeking recognition, but it turns out, he wasn’t always the nicest or sharpest knife in the drawer. In fact, as a result of “his nasty personality, the actual Confucius had very little influence over others during his lifetime. But that just wouldn’t do for his followers, so they decided to jazz things up after Confucius’s death.”
And George Washington, who cannot tell a lie, actually lied through his removable teeth all the time. Here’s an excellent example: “When calling upon the Continental Congress to boycott all imported goods from Britain prior to the Revolutionary War, he was secretly ordering carriages, fancy clothing, guns, and Wedgewood pottery from London for his own personal use.” It’s not that DuMont was deliberately digging only for dirt, although she does have a degree in Archaeology, it’s just that finding out the truth is easy if you look for it. It’s also fascinating.
Being a huge Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond) fan, I’d have to say my favorite chapter was the one about Major William Martin. It seems that prior to penning his novels, Fleming worked for an Admiral concocting plans to trick the enemy, aka the Axis powers during WWII. To move the direction of the war from losing to winning, Britain and America knew they had to secure the island of Sicily because, “The Axis Powers used Sicily as a base for German Luftwaffe bombers to launch surprise attacks on the rest of Mediterranean Sea, destroying anything that flew or floated past.” However, the Allies couldn’t let the enemy know that this was their ultimate goal hence the need for a major deception or in this case “disinformation,” putting out false info to fool the Axis powers. This particular ploy, #28 to be precise, was originally devised by Fleming with his boss, as part of the secret list known as the “Trout Memo.” It would be implemented by a British spy named Ewen Montague and “use a dead body as a fake spy in order to plant false information in the mind of the enemy.” Brilliant, right? Ah, but it was a lot more difficult and complicated than it sounds involving a frozen corpse, fake documents and a backstory for said dead body (Major William Martin) that would not alert the Germans to the plot. Success could mean the tides of the war might turn in favor of the Allies. I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that DuMont’s got all the elements of a gripping spy movie here that are guaranteed to pull your child into the intrigue and excitement that grabbed me.
Okay, so you know I thought Famous Phonies was a fabulous, fun read, but I think parents, teachers and librarians will like it, too. That’s in addition to your kids, of course! Nowadays lots of students do their research online. They think Wikipedia is the be all end all, but here’s a chance to get kids engrossed with historical figures and let them see that there are multiple sources for their fact finding missions. They can read the book in one sitting, or return to it on multiple occasions absorbing one chapter at a time. DuMont’s done a wonderful job of selecting subjects whose stories are interesting, and presenting them in a middle grade friendly manner sure to entertain even the biggest history-phobe. And that’s the truth!
– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel