Review of the Day: Tricky Vic by Greg Pizzoli
I was listening to a favorite podcast of mine the other day when the panelists began discussing the difference between heist films and con man films. A heist film is one where the entire movie is a build-up to a great and fabulous heist. Ocean’s 11 and that sort of thing. In the children’s book world this would be The Great Greene Heist. A con man film is different. There you have a single individual, and not necessarily a heroic one either. Catch Me If You Can is a con man film. And on the children’s book side? Honestly, we don’t have a lot of them. Maybe Pickle by Kim Baker but that’s a stretch. It really wasn’t until I laid eyes on Greg Pizzoli’s Tricky Vic that I could appreciate what I had been missing all these years. Told with a relaxed easygoing style, Pizzoli takes one of the world’s most notorious individuals in the con game, and refuses to humanize him. Here we see a character that was larger than life. Makes sense that he’d try to sell a structure that was in many ways his equal.
In 1890 he was born Robert Miller, but that didn’t last. Names came and went and by the time he was an adult, Miller was a professional gambler turned con artist. His preferred method of payment was gambling on transatlantic ocean liners but then along came WWI and Miller, now calling himself Count Victor Lustig, needed a new occupation. Through a little low level trickery he got the blessing of Al Capone and then set about bilking the easy rich. But his greatest feat, and the one that would put him down in the history books, was his successful con of “selling” the Eiffel Tower to prospective buyers. Though in time he was eventually caught and jailed (in Alcatraz, no less), Vic’s odd life shines a spotlight on those individuals willing to get ahead on our own greed and misplaced hope. Backmatter includes an Author’s Note, Glossary, Selected Sources, and a note on the art.
Every great picture book biography finds something about an individual that is interesting to child readers. In The Boy Who Loved Math it was Paul Erdos’s sheer enthusiasm and childlike goofiness. In The Noisy Paintbox it was Kandinsky’s ability to translate sound to sight and back again. And in Tricky Vic it’s shamelessness. Kids don’t often encounter, in any form, adults that unapologetically do wrong. Vic ultimately pays for his crimes, and in many ways that’s the only way you can get away with what Pizzoli is doing here. You see, the trouble with con man storylines is that they’re just too much fun. You can’t help but root for Vic when he pulls the old Romanian Money Box scheme or when he cons the great Al Capone himself. Really one of the few objections I’ve heard lobbed against the book is a question as to whether or not kids will have any interest in an obscure two-bit criminal. But like all great nonfiction authors for kids, Pizzoli knows that children’s biographies do not begin and end with Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes kids appreciate far more the biographies of the people who didn’t go about with halos hovering around their ears. There’s room on our shelves for the baddies.
Now when Greg Pizzoli debuted with his picture book The Watermelon Seed two years ago, there was nothing to indicate to me that he had any inclination to go the nonfiction route. “The Watermelon Seed” utilizes a three-color print job and distinctly retro aesthetic. That aesthetic remains intact in Tricky Vic but Pizzoli but the technique has been cranked up to eleven. In “A Note About the Art in This Book” at the back, Pizzoli says that the illustrations seen here were “created using pencil, ink, rubber stamps, halftone photographs, silkscreen, Zipatone, and Photoshop.” The end result is a book that straddles the line between those picture books actually concocted in the 1930s and a distinctly contemporary creation.
Dig a little deeper and Pizzoli’s illustration choices go beyond mere novelty. The choice to render Vic’s head as a thumbprint has so many different uses. With a mere change in tone or color, Pizzoli can render his personality and character different from one page to the next. This chameleon of a man couldn’t ask for better representation. But much of the success of the book lies in how it tackles the question of Vic as a bad person. Pizzoli’s choice to make Vic expressionless throughout the book is key to this. Because kids aren’t exactly reading about a role model, it’s important that Vic never look like he’s having too much fun. Remove his mouth and eyes and voila! An instant blank slate on which to project your storyline. Let the facts speak for themselves.
And speaking of facts, in no time in our nation’s history have picture book biographies for children fallen under as much scrutiny as they do today. Time was the D’Aulaires could write varying fictional accounts of everyone from Pocahontas to Abraham Lincoln and win Caldecotts for their efforts. These days, the debate rages around how much an author is allowed to do and the crux of that debate centers on made up dialogue. I am firmly of the opinion that made up dialogue is unnecessary in a children’s book biography. However, when handled creatively, there are exceptions to every rule. And “Tricky Vic” is, if nothing else, vastly creative. If you read the book the actual text is all factual. There is some mucking about with the timeline of one of the major events in Vic’s life, but Pizzoli comes clean about that in his Author’s Note in the back, and I give a lot of credit to folks who fess up plainly. Getting back to the text, look a little closer and you’ll see that there is some made up dialogue but Pizzoli keeps it at a minimum and gives it its own separate space. Little speech balloons between the characters will occasionally crop up at the bottom of the pages. The feeling is that these are interstitial fictional bits that simply support the rest of the text. A reader doesn’t walk away from them thinking that they’re strict representations of the past. They are, instead, a little colorful complement to the text to give it a lighter bouncier feel.
I recently conducted a Salon in my library on children’s nonfiction picture book illustration and historical accuracy. During the course of the talk we discussed Vincent Kirsch’s work on Gingerbread for Liberty and the times when a bouncier, more light-hearted feel to the illustrations best fit the text. In Tricky Vic Pizzoli isn’t going for a meticulous reconstruction of past events in his art. He’s going for something with a historical feel, but with fun built in as well. The design elements are what really step things up a notch. I also loved the factual sidebars that complemented the text but never dominate. As kids read they encounter sections talking about Prohibition, The Tower’s Critics (the folks who hated it from the get-go, that is), the Hotel de Crillon, Counterfeiting, and Alcatraz. The end result is as dynamic as it is informative.
I wonder vaguely if this book will receive any challenges from concerned parents living in the mistaken belief that Pizzoli has penned a How To manual for little budding criminals. As I mentioned before, the line between celebrating your biographical picture book subject and simply reporting on their life is thin. The beauty of Tricky Vic, I think, is that his life is just as wild and weird as any fictional character. There is value in showing kids the fools of the past. I don’t think anyone will walk away from this thinking Vic had it all figured out, but I do think a fair number of them might want to follow-up on Pizzoli’s Selected Sources for a little independent reading of their own. And if this book encourages just one kid to rethink their attitude towards nonfiction, then this title has earned its place in the world. The gorgeous art and great writing are just gravy. For one. For all. Un-forgettable.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Giant and How He Humbugged America by Jim Murphy
- The Fairy Ring by Mary Losure
- The Great Moon Hoax by Stephen Krensky
Other Blog Reviews: 100 Scope Notes
Professional Reviews: The New York Times
Interviews: Greg Pizzoli discusses his technique at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
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