Just as adults are digging into Walter Isaacson's recent biography of Benjamin Franklin, older children and young adults have a wonderful treat waiting: Candace Fleming's entertaining, imaginative Benjamin Franklin's Almanac: Being a True Account of the Good Gentleman's Life. I'm a biography buff, and this is one of the best biographies for young people I've seen in a long time. Everyone knows Franklin was a fascinating figure, but there's plenty of new material in this intriguing volume. It's organized as a scrapbook of fascinating details, one that adults will also enjoy perusing, and modeled after Franklin's own Poor Richard's Almanack.
Fleming spent three years researching original sources for her book, intending to write a traditional, chronological biography of her hero. However, she explains, as she learned more her feelings changed: "Innovative, vulgar, sometimes heroic, sometimes flawed, the incredibly complex Ben Franklin I discovered beguiled me, and I was no longer satisfied to tell his story in the ordinary way." And so, Fleming turned what could have been a rather ordinary book into a delightful Franklin feast. With his grand accomplishments so well known, she decided to focus on smaller events "scraps from some lesser-known events, as well as funny stories, hand-drawn sketches, cartoons of the day, and snippets of gossip." She also includes "souvenirs from Ben's travels, keepsakes from his childhood, bits of his family life, and pieces of his private thoughts." Not that Fleming ignores the big picture. She begins with a year-by-year chronology of Franklin's life and has organized all of the book's tidbits well, placing them in thematic chapters such as "Boyhood Memories" and "The Scientist's Scrapbook." What's more, each and every page contains plenty of photographs, illustrations and small sidebars that add to the book's liveliness. Anything but a run-of the mill recounting of well-known facts, Ben Franklin's Almanac is a book that will introduce young readers to the true delights of history and biography, to all of the amazing details, anecdotes and records that historians cherish. If only young people had more biographies like this! Alice Cary is a contributing editor at Biography magazine.