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Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry) – A Book Review

Charlie Chaplin

On the 130th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s birth, it is my pleasure to review the delightful children’s picture book newly released from Candlewick Press, Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry) by Gary Golio.

Sometimes it pays not to press the “publish” button. Upon receiving a review copy of Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry) (thank you, Candlewick Press!) I had scheduled the review to coincide with Charlie Chaplin’s birthday today. This morning, I was casually following a few Chaplin conversations on social media and realized that the Charlie Chaplin Archives had recently launched an extraordinary resource. The Archive has made public the digitization of Chaplin's "very own and painstakingly preserved professional and personal archives, from his early career on the English stage to his final days in Switzerland."

Much of the content has never before been seen including Chaplin’s own photographs, screenplays, letters and much more. It is an astonishing thing the archive has done; a true feat in accessibility: without public access to our cinematic pass how can we possibly hope future generations to understand it, much less enjoy it.

SmileAward-winning children’s book author Gary Golio also has long understood the critical importance of accessibility, having written an impressive slate of picture book biographies designed to introduce children to some of the greatest musical artists of the 20th century like Charlie Bird Parker, John Coltrane and Bob Dylan. In his latest picture book, Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry), he switches gears to film by focusing on young Charlie Chaplin and his journey to becoming “the Little Tramp.”

Chaplin’s impoverished boyhood has long been labeled as Dickensian and that is hardly hyperbole. Chaplin’s own autobiography takes great care in painting vivid pictures of the Victorian London he grew up in: the soot-filled streets, the workhouses, and of course, the bright lights of the Vaudeville stage. It is this imagery that Golio, along with illustrator Ed Young, worked with to create a children’s book that follows Charlie’s formative years on the stage to his early days in Hollywood with a kind of simplistic poetry that befits the Little Fellow himself.

Golio’s text is a successful exercise in economy, employing Chaplinesque turns of phrase like “laughter and tears are brothers, too” and “happy and sad go hand in hand” to astutely describe Chaplin’s unique brand of pathos.

Young’s illustrations are lovingly crafted, giving color to the black-and-white world of the turn of the last century, and there are clever splashes of silent film imagery throughout; even a flip-book feature that is a tip of the derby, if you will, to the medium Chaplin was about to become master of.

Smile 2

(Golio also includes resources on how to access Chaplin’s films—although I’m sure he would have much preferred the Chaplin Archive’s announcement to have come prior to this book’s publish date!)

Smile is a beautiful book that remains true to early Chaplin lore and its rags-to-riches storyline is such a recognizable narrative that it should have no problem entertaining children.

My young nieces range in age from 6 to 9 and have had no introduction to classic films, let alone silent films, so I can’t wait to read this book to them. Fingers crossed it will make them want to learn more about Chaplin and, thanks to the Chaplin Archives, it will now be much easier to do just that.

Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry)
By Gary Golio
Illustrated by Ed Young
Candlewick Press, 2019
Available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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