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Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Extraordinary Mark Twain, written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic, 2010. $22.99 ages 9 and up

"They thought they knew Mark Twain - after all, he was a world-famous author, quoted here, there and everywhere. Thousands of people had read his books and attended his lectures. People probably thought they were Mark Twain experts. But they were wrong, and Susy was "annoyed." Greatly."

This lively and lovely book tells us what happened to Mark Twain. His daughter Susy, who was 13, told her version of his life in a journal that she hid from him while she was writing it. That Susy loved her father is evident in the story told and the entries written.

Barbara Kerley spotted a footnote about a biography apparently written by Twain's eldest daughter and it intrigued her. She intuitively knew, having an adolescent daughter herself, that children of that age like to tell things as they see them. She found the text of the biography and used it to tell this remarkable story of a famous father and his loving daughter. She uses samples from the journal to add interest and entertainment for her readers. These entries are placed in the book as minibooks stapled to the spine and they add much character and charm to the story being told.

Susy has much to share as she watches her father live his life, the private one shared by family not fans. Barbara Kerley uses Susy's biography to inform her readers about the many things that we are interested in knowing about this fine writer, humorist, speaker and storyteller. His many habits and foibles are shared, his physical being gets special attention:

"He has beautiful curly gray hair, not any too thick, or any too long, just right; a roman nose, which greatly improves the beauty of his features, kind blue eyes, and a small mustache. . . . In short he is an extrodinarily fine-looking man. All his features are perfect exept that he hasn’t extrodinary teeth.”

Ah, truth be told!

Once he discovered what she was doing, Twain would make 'pronouncements' about himself to be added to the journal. Years later, he would publish some of what Susy had written and even include some passages in his own autobiography. He liked what she had written. The journal ends suddenly and suggests that Susy found other things of interest to her...ten years later, at age 24, she died from spinal meningitis. It was catastrophic to Twain and he later wrote in a letter: "I did not know that she could go away and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind."

Edwin Fotheringham's artwork is brilliant, taking us back in time and plunking us right in Mark Twain's neighborhood. He gives us candid and personal glimpses into the life the two lived together, and also provides a look at the public and private Mark Twain as he goes about the work that is also his life. I went back to the illustrations again and again, as they helped me fashion a true picture of this great American writer. Thank you for that!

An author's note adds much additional information and is most useful. Barbara Kerley also includes detailed instructions and tips for 'writing an extraordinary biography' of our own, with tips that parallel what Susy Clemens did when she was writing about her favorite famous person. She reminds us that our subject need not be famous, just well-known to ourselves. Even the endpapers have additional information...a selected time line and a detailed list of sources used.

This brilliant picture book biography shows Mark Twain as a young man embracing life and all it has to offer, as a loving father and as a sad old man. I think Susy would approve and relish sharing it with her father.

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