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Tricky Vic

tricky vicRobert Miller was known to everyone except his own family as Count Victor Lustig (or by any of forty-five other aliases). He was a con man, with a career full of ways to separate people from their money, including, believe it or not, selling the Eiffel Tower. He was “one of the most crooked con men ever to have lived.” Not your usual subject for a children’s picture book, but Geisel Award winner Greg Pizzoli pulls it off. Like any good picture book, Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower is written with a light touch, and the mixed media illustrations are gorgeously simple-seeming with plenty of visual play that will appeal to children and adults alike, and which complement and extend the text. Vic’s face, for example, is not a face at all, but a fingerprint, and one of his “marks” (victims) was Frenchman Andre Poisson (French for fish), his head replaced with that of a fish, with a speech bubble saying, “He took the bait.”

The beautiful design, the informative sidebars, and these amusing visual elements ought to play well with the Caldecott committee. These little touches are subtle but add up to a winning package. The muted color choices are a bit of a nod to the Elliot Ness era and allow the reader to feel as if he or she is in the middle of an old movie. A gray-green sensibility runs through the book, while the fingerprints and fish heads serve to keep the tone light. However, the committee may also consider one historical issue: Pizzoli says in his author’s note that he altered the actual timeline of Robert Miller’s story, placing Vic’s conning of Al Capone before the sale of the Eiffel Tower, when most accounts suggest he did that afterwards. Pizzoli felt he was giving precedence to character development over exact historical accuracy. Can he do that and have the book still be nonfiction? Will that matter to the Caldecott committee? As a former member of the Sibert committee, I can just picture the discussion through that Sibert lens. I think the Caldecott committee will see this as nonfiction: everything in the text is true — even if the sequence of events has been skewed — and it helps that Pizzoli points out what he did and why. It’s a bit of literary license in the service of good storytelling, which is what any book committee is looking to honor.

About Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches seventh and eighth grades at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.



  1. Susan Dailey says:

    Thanks for the enlightening review and for pointing out the literary license in the timeline, Dean. The overall book design is well done–interesting endpapers, good quality paper, paper cover differs from cloth cover. I find the Al Capone illustration striking and the scene of the Eiffel Tower with tape amusing. I’m not sure why, but I feel the sidebar about prohibition crowds the illustration. The other sidebars don’t give me the same feeling. In relation to the sidebars, do you think the archival photos will be a problem for the committee?

  2. This is one of my favorite books this year, as is Pizzoli’s Templeton Gets His Wish, although Tricky Vic is more interesting, artwise. I love the way Pizzoli takes this subject matter that initially sounded to me like an odd book for kids and made it accessible and fascinating. OF COURSE kids would want to read about this bold, interesting, crafty man. I don’t find Pizzoli’s rearrangement of the timeline troubling, since he is clear and owns up to it, but I can see where other people might dig in their heels on the issue. One way or another, Pizzoli just keeps coming out with these solid books with fantastic illustrations–and so funny. I can’t wait to see what he gets himself up to next.

  3. Dean Schneider says:

    Excellent question, Susan, about the archival photographs. The book clearly meets the Caldecott criteria; it’s one of the definitions that might be problematic. #5 in the Caldecott definitions addresses “original work”–that the illustrations must be created “by this artist and no one else.” Not sure if this requires EVERY illustration or image, or is it OK to incorporate other content within your own illustration. Your question sent me back to the criteria and definitions (easy to do with the handy sidebar links above); now I have to go looking for previous winners and honor books for a precedent in incorporating archival photographs or other media beyond the illustrator’s own art. I’m figuring there are, they’re just not in my cluttered brain at the moment.

  4. Dean Schneider says:

    The one I just thought of (referring to the use of archival photographs in a Caldecott book) is the photograph at the end of Patrick McDonnell’s ME… JANE (2012 Honor). And I believe that was controversial… Anyone have ideas or precedents?

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    This is covered in the back of the manual. I have copied and pasted the relevant portion below. TRICKY VIC shouldn’t have a problem. I also don’t think FUNNY BONES (where it is a much larger issue) will have a problem either, but I don’t think there will be as much consensus on that point.

    The intent is to insure that a book is a NEW creation, and not a re-creation from some other work. This
    does not mean that some minor portion of the work cannot have appeared elsewhere. It does mean,
    however, that no significant part of the book under consideration was originally part of another work.
    Not all cases are clear-cut, and each committee must make its own judgments about originality. Where
    consensus is not easily reached, the Chair should discuss the issue with the Priority Consultant, who may
    also consult the President, the Executive Director, the Board, or previous chairs.
    1. Children’s books derived from previously published adult books can’t be considered eligible. The intent
    of the award is not to see who can successfully adapt an adult book; the award is intended for the original
    creation of a distinguished book for children. This condition is NOT intended to exclude works in which an
    author (or illustrator) has created a new work based on earlier work that is in the public domain, such as a
    novel based on a Shakespeare play.
    Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky, was published for adults in 1998.
    A children’s version, The Cod’s Tale, was published in 2001 and would not be considered eligible.
    John Newbery Award Committee Manual – Formatted August 2012 68
    Othello: A Novel by Julius Lester, based on the Shakespeare play and published for children in 1995, would
    be considered eligible.
    2. If a portion of a book was previously published elsewhere – for instance, in a magazine, a collection of
    short stories or in electronic format – then the amount of previously published material must be a minor
    portion of the entire work. The substantial majority of the book must be wholly new, original and
    previously unpublished.
    Example: A chapter in A Long Way from Chicago, by Richard Peck (Newbery Honor, 1999) had previously
    been published as a short story. However, this chapter was a minor part of the book, which was much
    longer. The book was ruled eligible.
    3. A committee may consider books that are traditional in origin, if the book is the result of original
    research and the retelling and interpretation are the writer’s own.
    Example: On this point, Donna Jo Napoli’s books The Prince of the Pond, Otherwise Known as De Fawg
    Pin, based on the folk tale “The Frog Prince,” and Zel, based on the folk tale “Rapunzel,” would be eligible,
    as would Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter, based on the folk tale “Sleeping Beauty.”
    5. A book first published in electronic format (e-book) and subsequently published as a hardcover or
    paperback book is not eligible.

  6. Susan Dailey says:

    Thanks for the responses, Dean and Jonathan. Statements #1 and #5 from the manual are particularly interesting. I didn’t have any idea about adaptations of adult books. And while I don’t think the rule about previously published eBooks is an issue now, I wonder if it will be in the future.

  7. Elisa Gall says:

    I’ve been wondering about this book’s eligibility, but not because of the archival photographs. TRICKY VIC started its life as a zine. (Jules Danielson’s blog features more information here:

    If I were on the committee, I’d be hunting down a copy of that little 16 pager and considering whether the previously published images and story make up a “significant part of the book” or if the zine counts as “previously published material.”

  8. Definitely among my favorite American picture books this year – Pizzoli’s masterpiece.

  9. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Wow. I am always amazed at how much work the committee has to do BEFORE they even meet. I wish I had that zine…

  10. Elisa Gall says:

    I wish I had that zine too, because if it is half as interesting and beautiful as the picture book, that’s one amazing zine. I appreciate how this book leans to the older PB age range as well. It’s not THIS ONE SUMMER old, but older than the average – or at least more mature (with the unapologetic booze and crime). 🙂

  11. Susan Dailey says:

    I’ve been thinking about the statement of adaptations of adult books. If the title is a picture book, does the addition of illustrations make it eligible? I’m think of “The Boy who Harnessed the Wind.” An adult book was published in 2009. Then a picture book version came out in 2012.

  12. I thought the book had a great deal of information, and the medium they used blended very well with the story. #BigMama’s House

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