How They Choked Failures, Flops, and Flaws of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg – Review by JoEllen McCarthy

WARNING: if you read on, this may cause purchase of books…

how they choked

If you are Nerdy, you understand the thrill of finding a new “must have”.  However, when that title is a companion to an already amazing mentor text, well let’s just say there are additional nerdy bonuses.   Georgia Bragg showed us that nonfiction can be funny, cool, even a little gross, and definitely not boring with How they Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous.

how they croaked

Bragg has done it again with How They Choked: Failures, Flops, and Flaws of the Awfully Famous.  And just like They Croaked, you can expect your students to be laughing out loud.  Additional bonuses, you will have tons of material for mentor texts, craft lessons for adding voice and layering informational texts.

Remember as Donalyn Miller says, “Kids read what we bless.  So if we’re not blessing nonfiction, they won’t read it either.”

“Real people make mistakes (even historians). Nobody’s perfect- not your parents, your teachers, or even you.”


In How They Choked, Bragg explores history’s successfully famous fiascoes; Ferdinand Magellan, Issac Newton, Custer, and Shoeless Joe Jackson to name a few.  Bragg refers to these individuals as overachievers, brave show-offs, and brilliant boneheads.    With the help of illustrator, Kevin O’ Malley’s hilarious illustrations, How They Choked reveals the story behind fourteen infamous failures.

Bragg is a master at her craft.  Her writing serves as a model for others to emulate.  She has the ability to play with words and engage the reader.  She composes scenes to bring the reader back in time.  She plays with punctuation, font and word choice throughout each piece. Students and teachers will savor the leads from each section, as a great example of what strong writers do. Want a sneak peek?


  • “There’s good news and bad news. Isabella was the original get-out-of-my-way-and-don’t-tell-me-what-to-do person.”  


  • “Benedict Arnold was madly in love with one person—himself.”


  • “Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t give away his paintings for free.”


  • “Marco? Polo! Marco? Polo! Marco? Exactly.  Where was Marco Polo? Just like in the game of tag — the real Marco Polo was a master escape artist.”


  • Reflecting on Amelia Earhart’s many close calls:  “She was “winging it” like nobody’s business.”


  • A favorite section explores the Titanic failure, J. Bruce Ismay: “The First-Class Coward- A man with ice in his veins, and the proof is the over fifteen hundred bodies that are at the bottom of the Atlantic.  After eighteen ice-related warnings, Bragg argues, “Ismay lived his life as a man who could probably run over a pedestrian and then keep on driving.”  


Bragg’s pieces often leave the reader thinking about his or her own “moral compass.”

Bragg has the ability to shock as well.


  • On Susan B. Anthony: “Imagine living today in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia where women can’t vote or own property, can’t get an education, a divorce, or equal pay….Susan B. Anthony was born in a country like that—the United States.”

As if each section wasn’t filled with enough goodies…. Bragg ends each chapter with additional “Cool Facts” and even “Not-Cool Facts.”  Bragg demonstrates a variety of text structures to analyze the author’s choices, biases and more…. and then lets the reader decide.


Fun to read, reread, and analyze with a lens for author’s craft, intentions and more…. This text begs to be paired and layered to discover the many ways authors can influence the reader.


Not one to hold back, Bragg shocks, entertains and even appalls the reader.  Bragg and O’Malley make the perfect team. This book might be just what the doctor ordered for what I recall Jillian Heise referred to as our “disengaged readers.”  This text will reenergize, reconnect, and remind students that nonfiction can be fun.  This is a choice sure to be a match made in book heaven.


Our goal when working with kids should be to empower them as thinkers.”- Kylene Beers.  


Bragg’s texts help our students think across texts, talk back to the texts and leave them hungry for more.  Bragg successfully shares stories that will enable our students to learn about the past and find models for writing engaging nonfiction.   This book is sure to  make your students react, respond, and reflect.  Perhaps it will  causes them to act as well- to it read the next text, to explore or further investigate an idea, to read more, write more or think more deeply. That is empowering!


This text serves as a mentor, a model, and a motivator.  This engaging NF supports the notion of reflecting, teaching and learning from texts vs. assigning.  This text provides voice and vision.  Thank you, Georgia Bragg, for providing that vision.


As Georgia Heard said, “Mentor texts are more than just craft coaches for writers—they can also offer inspiration and life lessons.   Perhaps Bragg can help our students see another side of those “famously flawed failures”… and in the end take away a little craft, with a little kindness.


JoEllen McCarthy (@imalwayslearnin) is a lifelong learner who spends her days teaching and learning in K- 8 classrooms as a regional staff developer.   She is obsessed with picture books, addicted to Twitter, and energized by the amazing community of learners she has the pleasure of working with daily.  JoEllen is very appreciative of the Nerdy Community and her Twitter PLN for the reading, writing and thinking inspiration that fuels her passion for teaching and learning.