Bluffton is Matt Phelan's third standalone solo work for Candlewick Press. His first two books were The Storm In The Barn (an "atmospheric" tale set in the Dust Bowl that won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction) and Around The World (which was nominated for two Eisner Awards). He has also illustrated picture books and provided cover and interior art for novels, including the Newbery Medal-winning The Higher Power of Lucky.
I've been a fan of his solo books since day one – I wrote about both The Storm In The Barn and Around The World here on my3books as they were being published. In fact, my writeup on The Storm In The Barn (and two more books) was the first book-reviewing post I made here.
As powerful as The Storm In The Barn was, and as sweeping an adventure as Around The World was, I think that Bluffton might just be my favorite of Phelan's books. Beginning in the summer of 1908, in sleepy Muskegon, Michigan, Henry Harrison is stunned and thrilled to learn that a troupe of vaudeville performers will be vacationing in nearby Bluffton – for the entire summer! A young lad who is clearly not cut out to take over his father's shop, Henry dreams of befriending the vaudevillians and learning their secrets. He is even more enchanted when he meets young Buster Keaton – a boy who is fast becoming the most celebrated vaudeville performer, known around the country for his incredible slapstick act.
Henry's dream comes true – he soon befriends Buster, but it's not all he imagined it might be. While Henry wants to escape the sleepy humdrum of Muskegon and learn all that Buster can teach him about show biz, Buster just wants to spend his summers being a normal boy – playing pranks, swimming, and mounting sandlot baseball games with all the local kids.
The magic of Henry's growing awareness of the outside world, more grown-up worries and feelings, combines with the historical detail of Buster's increasing fame and talents to make a vivid journey back in time. I don't think Matt Phelan's drawings have ever been more expressive.
If you're attending BEA 2013 in New York next week, you can bid on Matt's portrait of Buster Keaton from the book in the annual ABC/ABFFE Silent Auction. More details here on Matt's blog.
Bluffton: My Summers with Buster
by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press | 9780763650797 | $22.99 | July 2013