The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P. T. Barnum

by Candace Fleming

Hardcover, 2009



Local notes

921 BAR




Schwartz & Wade (2009), 160 pages


Biography of P.T. Barnum, showman and founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Readers can visit Barnum's American Museum; meet Tom Thumb, the miniature man (only 39 in. tall) and his tinier bride (32 in.); experience the thrill Barnum must have felt when, at age 60, he joined the circus; and discover Barnum's legacy.


Utah Beehive Book Award (Nominee — Informational Books — 2012)
Society of Midland Authors Award (Nominee — Children's Nonfiction — 2010)
Arkansas Teen Book Award (Nominee — 2011)
Volunteer State Book Award (Nominee — Young Adult — 2012)

Original language


Physical description

160 p.; 8.13 inches

User reviews

LibraryThing member YouthGPL
This is a biography of P.T. Barnum, and I learned quite a lot from it. The tone is circus-like, with a lot of exclamations and interesting sidebars. It has a great page design which I think will draw readers with its old-time feel, like an old circus poster. It's easy to read, and long enough for
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those 100 page plus biography reports. P.T. Barnum never wanted a traditional job, and one of the things that I did not know about him was that he really began in the business of museums, much like the Ripley's Believe it or Not museum in San Francisco. There is an index, source notes, Internet site page, etc. for kids interested in him to do more research. The only thing that I think is disappointing is that many students would not pick P.T. Barnum unless urged to do so. This is one where they should be urged.
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LibraryThing member mmpvppl
This book is great. I loved the photos. The layout is very "showman". Written in a friendly, informative manner that kept me coming back for more information about the circus man. Grades 4/5 and up.
LibraryThing member jmsummer
This book is about the life and times of P.T.Barnum, considered the greatest showman on earth. He is best know for the creation of the modern circus that takes his name. He was also known for his famous museam. This book ties together those events with the moments that made up the rest of his life.
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It take a straightfoward look at his life, from birth to death. Interwoven within many pages are side topics and addition facts that liven up and add to Barnum's life as well as the period of time that he lived in. Almost every page is filled with period ilustrations and photos to help support the reading. The biography helps sugest additional books dealing with Barnum and the 19th century timeframe. My only problem with the book would be its constant use of breaking up the main text with all of the side notes.They are all show inside large black boxes that contrast with the white background of the main text. I find that it causes the reader to lose focus from the main text. Each of the side notes could have been added to the main text or at the very least, used a similar format in order to not distract the reader.
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LibraryThing member annashapiro
In great detail and with plenty of first-hand accounts & quotes, Candace Fleming tells the story of PT Barnum, the showman who started the great Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was from Bethel, CT from a family of farmers. He was inspired by the great pranksters in his own family, as well as Hack
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Bailey, who taught him that 'When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant.' After the success of PT's first hoax, Joice Heth (the world's oldest living woman), it became apparent that PT Barnum was trading in the family business for show business. He was famous for showing 'human curiosities', like Isaac Sprague, (the human skeleton), Chang & Eng, (Siamese twins), Anna Swan (The giantress), the Fejee Mermaid, and of course, Tom Thumb. There are such great side-stories in this book - glimpses of what museums were like back in the 1800s, accounts of relatives, and more. One great note is that Hans Christian Anderson was in love with one of Barnum's spectacles, Jenny Lind, 'The Swedish Nightingale'. The book accounts that 'when he begged her to tell him why she didn't love him, Jenny didn't say a word. She just handed him a mirror."
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LibraryThing member delzey
Assuming you've read nothing about his life, what do you know of P.T. Barnum? That he was a huckster and a flim-flam man? That his name was the first name in three-ring circuses for a good portion of the 20th century? That he said "There's a sucker born every minute?

That's about as much as I knew
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– or thought I knew – going into this biography, coupled with a skepticism that was little more than a glorified snake oil salesman. Nothing like a well-written biography intended for middle grade readers (and up) to clear the air.

First, the quote: Barnum never said it, one of his competitors did, apparently cheesed that Barnum was able to corner the market on drawing a crowd. The circuses came later in his career, built from a combination of his showmanship and the desire to mix the curiosities from his "museum" with a traveling show full of animal acts and clowns. In between there was his American Museum of alleged artifacts from history (many of them fake) and the type of human curiosities generally associated with traveling freak shows.

If Barnum's life seems like the natural extension of Professor Harold Hill's fast-talking salesmanship it's clear Barnum was born for the life he led. As a boy he was successful in drawing a crowd and making money from them. And what's most surprising is how genial he seems, how he never regarded the public as the "suckers" despite the importance of making money from their gullibility. He had a genuine regard for what we would probably call low entertainment and discovered that the general public didn't mind "harmless" hoaxes.

Fleming makes this a breezy read, well-documented with a strong narrative thread, and actually fun. Makes me wish there were more biographies like this when I was a kid.
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LibraryThing member saraml
middle and early high school, 4starP. This book perhaps fits into Radical Change in that it presents the viewpoint of a somewhat controversial historical person who did some things that might be questionably appropriate for children.

Passage for discussion: "But Barnum wasn't always good-natured
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when it came to his wife. At times, he was downright meant o her. Once, during a boat trip to Ontario, Canada, in 1843, Charity got seasick. Instead of being sympathetic, Barnum made fun of her in front of the other passengers. While Charity moaned miserably, he kept everyone else aboard 'in a half-suffocation of laughter' by telling her disgusting stories to make her feel worse" (76).
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LibraryThing member Bianca0_0
I read this book mostly becuase I had to read a Historical Non-Fiction one for school, but it turned out to be quite interesting and amusing. Much less boring than I thought it would be. A good Historical Non-Fiction book.
LibraryThing member brettmoody
Having read this purely for school work, I must say I enjoyed quite a bit. While not the paper museum most DK books are, the book was nonetheless interesting. Fleming crafted a focused, fun biography for those interested in the life of the greatest showman on Earth.
LibraryThing member Pamplemousse24
While this was a fairly well written book, it won't appeal widely. It is full of information and fairly colorful for the young adult who is particularly interested in Barnum, but does hold any special pull for the random reader.
LibraryThing member KilmerMSLibrary
This biography takes a look at the life of the entrepreneur and showman P.T. Barnum, the man behind The Greatest Show on Earth. From jumbo elephants to three-ring circuses, the story follows Barnum from his childhood to his amazing success to financial disaster and back again.
LibraryThing member abcrane
A wondrous reflection on one of the largest names in circus history. Fleming does an excellent job creating an exciting atmosphere that is full of accessible information. I really appreciated being about to get a lot of additional information in terms of the sidebars and photo captions. This is a
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great book to interest readers in reading non-fiction books.
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LibraryThing member allisonpollack
Summary: P.T. Barnum is the founder and showman of the Barnum and Bailey circus. This book follows him growing up in Connecticut to his first jobs in New York as a traveling showman and eventually to opening his own American Museum. He had begun the "freak show" type of show with people lining up
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at the door to look at the horrors behind his circus.

Personal reflection: I love the circus and it was interesting to see his upbringing and how he came to get into the business of being a showman.

Class use: Students can learn about the circus, and the history behind it.
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LibraryThing member Salsabrarian
Wow, P.T. Barnum was a money-grubbing publicity hound! That's how it comes off initially and his lack of involvement with his wife and daughters doesn't help. But in essence, this is a readable and wildly interesting biography about a man who knew how to strike when the iron was just hot and had
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his finger on the pulse of what would entertain Americans. Some of the interesting bits include the "freaks" he found for his museum and his life outside the American Museum and the circus. Now I know more about the "Barnum" in Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.
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LibraryThing member sweetiegherkin
Before he was the great circus showman P.T. Barnum, he was Phineas Taylor Barnum (known to friends and family as Taylor or even just Tale) – a simple country boy from a small village in Connecticut. In this book, Candace Fleming chronicles how Tale grew from helping out in the family’s farm and
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grocery to becoming the ultimate showman and a driving force behind the world-famous Barnum & Bailey circus.

Throughout this biography, there are numerous examples of economic concepts at work. Notably, the reader learns about Barnum’s upbringing and how he began manual labor at a young age. His parents enforced in him the notions of earning and saving money, with Barnum recalling “my father did not miss an opportunity for a financial lesson.” With these lessons at hand, Tale began saving pennies by age 5 and paying for his own clothing by age 7. By age 15, the elder Barnum had passed away and Tale was responsible for earning money to support the whole household.

But Barnum was never a fan of working with his hands, preferring instead to work with his head and come up with unique ways to make money. One of his schemes revolved around making candy to sell to weary and hungry volunteer soldiers after a day’s training. Another involved buying a large quantity of cheap green bottles and then offering them as prizes in a lottery at his uncle’s grocery shop. These examples, along with others, show Barnum’s almost innate understanding of human reasoning (he later wrote of the lottery incident, “People like to win, no matter how small the prize.”) and his ability to capitalize on that knowledge for his monetary gain.

In his later teen years, Barnum moved to New York City, continuing to work as a grocer’s clerk, but also learning about business with the hopes of one day running his own. Fleming writes, “He wanted one [job] where he could use his imagination and energy. He wanted to be is own boss. And he wanted to make lots of money.” Barnum engaged in various odd jobs over the years, including working in small circuses. Eventually, Barnum fell into buying and exhibiting natural curiosities – often the cringe-worthy practice of displaying people deemed as “other” enough to be astonishing – and he used all the lessons about human nature he gleaned up until this point to sell his show. For instance, his first exhibit was of Joice Heth, a slave who was reputed to be more than 160 years old and to have been originally owned by George Washington’s father. When visiting crowds started to die down, Barnum planted a false rumor that Heth was really a mechanical robot voice by Barnum himself in order to drive up ticket sales once again. Barnum concluded, “Controversy is good for business.” This early exhibit raked in money for Barnum – reportedly earning each week the equivalent of $35,000 today. He later acquired oddities and rarities to make up the exhibits in his Barnum’s American Museum, using all his past job experiences and business savvy to create an experience that astounded his museum-goers and made hundreds of thousands of dollars (the equivalent of millions today) in profits for Barnum.

After decades of running his museum, Barnum finally retired only to find himself in need of a new project to combat boredom. When he received a letter asking to become a partner in a small traveling circus, he jumped at the chance and launched a new career in the circus. He went through several partners before teaming up with James Bailey and at last the famous Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth circus was born.

Fleming has clearly done her research with this biography of P.T. Barnum, using various (and sometimes humorous) anecdotes to move the story along and provide fascinating tidbits about Barnum’s life, his family, and the stars of his museum and circus. She intersperses her writing with quotes from primary source materials including Barnum’s autobiography, personal letters, and relevant newspaper articles. The book also includes reproductions of archival materials such as photographs, engravings, advertisements, ticket stubs, and so forth. The final product is a biography so riveting that children and teens (and possibly even adults) will not want to put it down.

I reviewed this book for EconKids.
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½ (44 ratings; 4)
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