Monday, December 6, 2010

Hanukkah Book Review: The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley

Now, for a change of pace, I thought I would write not about a humorous book, but about a book on a humorist.  The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) is an unusual twist on a biography; it is a description of the great 19th century American writer, Mark Twain, as told by his 13 year old daughter, Susy.  The author, Barbara Kerley, is a renowned writer of biographies and other nonfiction books for children.  She had considered writing about Mark Twain for years, then stumbled upon a reference to a biography that Twain's adolescent daughter had written about him.   So Kerley tells the story of Mark Twain, but intersperses the pages with little cut-out pages from Susy's biography, where she reflects on this famous man from a personal perspective.

At first glance, this is a pretty simple book; the reading level is more for the elementary school level than for middle schoolers.  But like another of the picture books I reviewed earlier, my beloved Blockhead:  The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D'Agnese (another point of light in 2010), I think it can also be appropriate for early adolescents.  For one thing, Susy is herself 13, so middle schoolers can relate to that.  I personally think a first reading of Tom Sawyer, or particularly of Huckleberry Finn, is more appropriate during middle school, so this could go nicely with reading some of Twain's most important books.  It contains a page with tips for writing biographies, and demonstrates more middle school-level biography techniques, like using a particular anecdote to illustrate a larger truth about the subject, rather than a mere recitation of facts that is more common to elementary school.  But more importantly, read carefully, this book explores some of the issues that tweens wrestle with in middle school, like the difference between how others see us and how our family sees us, our public and our personal personas, and accepting our weaknesses along with our strengths.

The illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham are also quite lovely, and are not too juvenile for middle schoolers.

My son picked it up and read it on his own, and he enjoyed it.  But I plan to read some Twain later in the year, and expect to return to this book again then.

And while we are on the subject of biographies about humorists...
Last week, my son read the book Sir Charlie:  Chaplin, the Funniest Man on Earth by Sid Fleischman, and declared that it was one of the best books he had ever read.  I haven't read it myself, so I can't vouch for it personally.  But Fleischman won the 1987 Newbery award for his book, The Whipping Boy, so chances are that this book is pretty well written.  And Sir Charlie is definitely for a middle school level or higher.  Or if you want to continue the Mark Twain theme, Fleischman also wrote a biography on Twain entitled The Trouble Begins at 8:  A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West.  It's definitely on my list to read when we roll around to that point in our history and literature studies.

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