Mark Twain said his daughter used “no sandpaper” on him
The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy). By Barbara Kerley. Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic, 48 pp., $17.99. Ages: 4–8.
By Janice Harayda
In this picture-book biography Barbara Kerley takes a humorous approach as she tries to prove that Mark Twain was more than a humorist. Children may not be persuaded, but this crowd-pleaser has other virtues, including larger-than-life digital art and 11 folio insets with lines from 13-year-old Susy Clemens’s account of her father’s life, which inspired the volume.
Best line: Twain on the book by his daughter that inspired The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy): “This is a frank biographer and an honest one; she uses no sandpaper on me.”
Worst line: “The animals on the farm could not care less that Papa was a world-famous author …” (Kerley).
Recommendation: The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) isn’t for children who are old enough to debate the moral questions raised by the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but for those young enough to enjoy lifting the letters out of the envelopes in “The Jolly Postman” series.
Published: January 2010
Furthermore: The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) appeared on the Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal lists of the best books of 2010.
About the author and illustrator: Kerley and Fotheringham collaborated on What to Do About Alice?, a picture-book biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
On this site I’ve often faulted publishers’ reading group guides for their poor quality –- poor in part because they tend to pander to book-club members with loopy questions like: “The heroine of this novel is a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens. Have you ever known a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens?” Gee, I’ll have to think about that one! I might have known one-eyed snake charmer, but her parents got in the space ship voluntarily and technically weren’t abducted! How about you?
So I was heartened to find that the U.S. Government has posted more than two dozen free reading group guides that are more objective and helpful. The guides come from The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program intended to encourage reading, and most cover major American works of fiction for adults or children, such as My Antonia, The Great Gatsby, The Age of Innocence, The Call of the Wild, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But a couple deal with books by authors from other countries — Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich – and the NEA plans soon to post companions to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others.
You can download the guides for free at the site for The Big Read. And some libraries can get printed versions and CDs with more information at no cost. (I learned about all of this when I found a stack of free reader’s guides and companion disks for To Kill a Mockingbird at a small-town library giving them away to patrons.) Along with warhorses such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Big Read guides deal with a couple gems that are less well known, including Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.
“A good half of the humor of the late Mark Twain consisted of admitting frankly the possession of vices and weaknesses that all of us have and few of us care to acknowledge.”
H. L. Mencken in “The Ulster Polonius” in Prejudices: First Series (Knopf, 1919).