I was so pleased to find The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley while browsing the picture books at one of our libraries. I remembered that it got a bit of positive attention after it was published, and indeed, after checking I realized it was the Cybils 2010 nonfiction picture book winner. It’s one I had wanted to read, but it had fallen off my radar. This year I happened to nominate Kerley‘s Those Rebels, John and Tom for this year’s Cybils in the nonfiction picture category, and for both books she teamed up with illustrator Edwin Fotheringham. Having read two books by this author/illustrator team, I can say that whatever they’re cooking up next, I want to read it and share it with my children!
The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) is a picture biography based on what Twain’s own daughter, Susy, wrote about him beginning when she was about thirteen. Interspersed between many of the pages are little booklets from Susy’s journal which are “drawn from the original manuscript,” as are some of Twain’s own handwritten notes. Through Susy’s eyes we meet a man who is so much more than the humorist he is remembered for being: a man of many moods and emotions, he loved his cats and took great offense when his shirts were missing buttons. He often wrote from breakfast until just before supper time without a break, and he often got up during (or stayed up until) the wee hours of the morning when he was particularly inspired. He was the most famous resident of Hartford, Connecticut, and as such couldn’t help but attract more attention than he usually wanted. He often escaped with his family to Quarry Farm in New York, where they played tennis together and tried to get their donkey, Kiditchin, accustomed to carrying them on his back. It was not all fun and games, though–Twain had a special writing study at Quarry Farm, and his wife would often expurgate his work for him. In the end, Susy wrote over 130 pages about her father and his personality and the various pursuits that aroused his passionate attention, from writing to copyright law. This picture biography provides a very balanced look at his life at home with his family. Kerley positively peppers this book with quotes both from Susy’s hand and from Twain himself, and they really make Twain come to life. This is my favorite, which is attributed to Twain himself regarding all the visitors he received at home:
But sometimes Papa had to suffer when, as he put it, some “mentally dead people brought their corpses with them for a long visit.”
Isn’t that hilarious? Kerley includes an extensive list of sources as well a timeline in the backmatter of the book. Edwin Fotheringham‘s are dark, saturated, and often humorous, and they fit the tone of this picture book to a T. We give this book a Highly, Highly Recommended and can’t wait to see what Kerley and Fotheringham dream up next! (Scholastic, 2010)