Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton by Matt Phelan

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton
by Matt Phelan
240 pages - Hardcover
Candlewick Press
July 2013

Barnes & Noble

Maybe I'm a little biased because I work for the publisher but I think this book is fantastic. A couple of years ago I was at a company party while working the big industry show Book Expo America. I'm pretty shy and was trying my best to mingle. I happened to overhear someone talking about Buster Keaton and of course this classic-film-loving gal perked right up. The person talking about Buster Keaton was Matt Phelan, an author/illustrator renowned for his children's book art. He has had much success with his historical middle-grade graphic novels and he was working on one about Buster Keaton. Once anything classic film related comes up in conversation, my introverted nature seems to be suppressed and I jump into the conversation with much enthusiasm. I talked to Matt for what seemed to be hours about Buster Keaton and about his work-in-progress, a graphic novel called Bluffton. And each Book Expo we attended, we chatted more in anticipation of the book's release.

Today Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton goes on sale to the public and I urge you to find a copy and buy it.

Bluffton follows the story of Henry Harrison, a young boy from Muskegon, Michigan. It's the summer of 1908 and a troop of vaudevillians, including a young Buster Keaton, have stopped to spend the season at Bluffton, a small neighborhood by Lake Muskegon. Buster is different from any other kid Henry has ever met. Henry is mesmerized by the vaudevillians, their animals, their props, their antics and their colorful personalities. Vaudeville life is the polar opposite of the seemingly hum-drum life Henry leads in Muskegon. However, Buster doesn't seem to think so. Buster lives the vaudeville life all the time and when he spends his summers in Bluffton he gets to be a regular kid for a while. Buster wants to play baseball, go swimming and fishing and do all the things a normal kid from 1908 would do during the summertime. Henry wants to juggle, do stunts, appear on stage and do everything Buster and the vaudevillians do.

This story has a lot of classic elements that work well. There is what I like to call "the new person dynamic" in which a stranger comes into someone's life and changes it forever. There is also opposites-attract and grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side factors. You learn a lot about both Henry and Buster from how different they are to each other and how they interact.

Matt Phelan does a superb job with the illustrations in the book, taking extra care with Buster Keaton. Keaton was known as the Great Stone Face but you'll see a much more playful and relaxed Keaton here. And in this book, unlike in his movies, he smiles! The graphic novel style of the book lends itself to film aficionados because it reads as though you were watching the actions on film.

Bluffton is intended for children ages 9-12 but I think people of all ages will enjoy this book. It's a great way to introduce children to an important figure in film history and to show them a time before electronic devices in which work and play were exclusively physical. Adults will revel in the nostalgia and the history and everyone will be transfixed by the amazing illustrations. This is a great choice for reluctant readers because of the accessibility of the illustrations, the story and the text.

You can see a free preview below of the book. Also, I'll be posting an interview with Matt Phelan soon on this blog! Stay tuned.


  1. My daughter will get such a kick out of this book! Thanks for posting about it!

  2. With no connection to the publisher at all, I wholeheartedly agree with you. This book is wonderful. It casts a spell, doesn't it? I agree that the book is for everyone and that those illustrations are just mesmerizing. You caught it all in your review.


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