Learning from Your Mistakes…or Not!

080273488X_01_LZZZZZZZHere comes another great title from Georgia Bragg. How They Choked: Failures, Flops, and Flaws of the Awfully Famous (May 2014) follows her 2011 popular book How They Croaked: the Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous. Like its predecessor, this new offering is sure to have wide appeal for middle graders.

The book profiles fourteen very famous individuals, ranging in history from Marco Polo to Amelia Earhart (four women and ten men, if you’re counting). In each case, she reveals the person’s character traits and behavior patterns that put up some serious warning signs that all might not end well. In the case of George Armstrong Custer, extreme vanity and recklessness led him to think of himself as invincible, and so, in his ceaseless search for glory, he caused not only his own death but the deaths of many others, when he made his famous “last stand” against a huge and well-organized Lakota Sioux army. Amelia Earhart is another example. Throughout her flying career, she had a reputation for ignoring safety flight checks and procedures. Thus, when she took off on her cross-equator flight in 1937 without any survival equipment, fuel supplies dangerously close to the margin, and an alcoholic navigator who did not know Morse code, maybe it’s not so surprising that she has never been heard from again. Others, like Susan B. Anthony, did not meet such dramatic ends. In fact, her seeming “failures” really laid the groundwork for later success—by others. Throughout her life, Ms. Anthony worked tirelessly for women’s rights. In her lifetime, she saw almost no results. But eventually, all that she fought for was realized. She was, indeed, a woman ahead of her time.

The book is engagingly written with much humor and lots of quips. Black-and-white illustrations by Kevin O’Malley add to its appeal. At the end of each chapter there is a double-paged spread of interesting facts about the person and his/her era to further put things in perspective. While the author puts a decidedly light spin on some seriously bad events in human history, her facts are accurate. This title, and its earlier companion, share some common ground with previous titles like the “Horrible History” series of twenty-some years ago, or the current “Wicked History” biographies.  They have the appeal to draw in many young readers who will learn a lot about famous people and the times in which they lived. And who knows where that might lead. I know that in the case of my own, now grown daughter, those “Horrible Histories” were the gateway to an avid interest in history as an adult. I look forward to what Ms. Bragg writes next. Who knows—maybe a book about inauspicious beginnings. After all, it’s common knowledge that people thought Einstein wasn’t too smart as a young lad. What did they know anyway?

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