Monday, September 2, 2013

Bluffton: My Summers With Buster by Matt Phelan, Book Review

By: Matt Phelan
Published by: Candlewick Press
Released on: July 23red, 2013
Source: arc from publisher at BEA '13
4 Owlets: I Enjoyed It
Purchase from: Amazon | Barnes & Noble
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Matt Phelan, graphic novelist extraordinaire, presents a rollicking tribute to vaudeville, small-town dreams, and Buster Keaton as a boy. 

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.

I received this arc when I was at BEA this past May, and I admit, I'm not a huge fan of graphic novels/books, but I enjoyed this one. The cover is what prompted me to pick it up in the first place. I wanted to know what the story was behind the boy who was standing on the elephant's back on the docks. What I got was a bit of surprise. Matt Phelan tells the story of a young boy in the early 1900's in Muskegon, Michigan. 

The historical theme and the illustrations in this book are what grabbed my attention. Once I started reading this book, I couldn't put it aside until I was done. This book has a very distinct voice, and I wanted to know more about it. The friendship and dual points of views of both Henry and Buster Keaton made reading about this era entertaining. Not that I needed entertainment to keep reading. I've always been drawn to the turn of the century era, and once the vaudevillians were introduced to the story, I was hooked. I honestly had no idea what they were, and their role in the story fascinated me.

What did surprise me is at first I thought this was a story about Henry, the town resident that Buster befriends, but I quickly realized this story is about Buster, though Henry has a big role in the time Buster spends in Muskegon. Buster and Henry are quite a pair, and the two have a lot to learn about each other. Henry is fascinated with Buster's life. While Henry is stuck going to school and working in his father's store, Buster gets to travel around with the vaudevillians, and perform shows. Buster has grown up on stage. Since he was a toddler he's done acrobatic stunts to his now comedic show he does with this parents, leaving him no time for school. Buster on the other seems to want something more. He doesn't seem to share the excitement over his own life that Henry does.  

Another thing that surprised me with this story was found in the author's note at the end of the book. That Buster Keaton is in fact a real person, and this story is one that gives us a glimpse of how this tough cookie of a kid went on to become a star in movies. I loved getting the historical part of Buster's life both from the story, and from Matt's notes. The historical elements of this story made this a fun, intriguing read. Though there are not many words, the few there are complimented the illustrations perfectly. Matt did a fabulous job at telling the story of two young boys who both want something more than life in the quite time of Muskegon, MI has to offer them.  Aside from the historical facts, at the heart of this story are two young boys who over a couple of summers get more than they bargained for as they learn about some of life's lessons, following your dreams, responsibility and friendship. Despite my reading an arc and having the images in black and white, I can not wait to take a look at the published copy of this book. 


  1. I'm not a big fan of graphic novels either, but this one sounds terrific. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. I am not a huge fan of graphic novels either, although I do think this one looks awesome. I am online today looking for some interesting stocking stuffers for the kids this year. I would recommend Barbara Ward's site and books. She has The Snowman Maker and The Reindeer Keeper and they are fantastic. Her site is, she just writes some really great stuff!


I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves. ~ Anna Quindlen

Good children's literature appeals not only to
the child in the adult, but to the adult in the child.
~ Anonymous ~