Having studied history for many years I can tell you that even before newspapers were officially invented, people have found ways to spread sensational tales of mysterious creatures, moon beings, and fish falling from the sky. In fact modern newspapers developed, in my opinion, in the intersection between business correspondence, political doggerel, and sensational gossip and rumor. Only recently have concerns over truthfulness and integrity in journalism been particularly important, and the continuation of publications like the National Enquirer shows that the tradition of sensational journalism continues.
After reading so many early newspapers and broadsides, I was excited by the premise of Stephen Krensky’s The Great Moon Hoax, and hoped that it could communicate some of the wonder and excitement of a world where it could be true that a telescope had found people and beings on the moon. Based on a true series of events from the 1830’s, Krensky’s story focuses on two “newsies” who have a string of good luck selling papers when a series of news stories featuring marvelous discoveries from out of space before it is discovered it was all made up.
I loved the idea of this story, but found that some aspects of the story didn’t work for me, partially from a historical stand point, but particularly because of issues I had with the presentation for the intended audience. Historically, it is not likely that two homeless very young boys living on the streets in the early years of the 19th century would be reading well. Most likely they would have some one read the paper to them or only make out the rough details, not the rather large words used by the newspaper. The bigger issue, however, was the way this book presents this story as a ploy for the newspaper to make money. Things like this are more complicated than true or false. For example, stories of alien abductions are not about someone lying about their encounters, but rather about people who may have a range of degrees of belief that something happened to them. Similarly, speculation like this about the moon is more hypothetical then hoax. Centuries earlier, in England, pamphlets were published with discussions of people on the moon and whether or not they could be converted to Christianity. In a time period, when journalism was still being formalized, the imaginative, far-fetched reporting that places the speculation about what might be on the moon in the mouth of a famous astronomer is less a hoax than business as usual.
These little historical complains are not really important in the long run, the larger problem for me is that this book doesn’t seem to have an intended audience. Since some of the text is from the actual newspapers, the vocabulary used might go right over the heads of a picture book audience. Here’s a quote:
Unexpectedly, “four successive flocks of large winged creatures” appeared. “They averaged four feet in height, were covered except on the face, with short and glossy copper-covered hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane, without hair, lying snugly upon their backs…”
This could be overcome if the illustrations could bring these descriptions to life, but Josee Bisaillon’s look like tissue paper ghosts and fail to bring life into the stilted text.
Overall, this book did not work for me, but still did leave a smile on my face as I thought of all the fantastic newspaper articles through the centuries.