Monday, June 25, 2012

284 (2012 #29). The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)

by Barbara Kerley,
illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

The Susy of the title of this wonderful picture book fictionalized biography is Olivia Susan "Susy" Clemens (1872-1896), the oldest daughter of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain.  When she was 13, Susy started writing a biography of her father, because she was "annoyed" that "so few people know Papa, I mean really know him....They think of Mark Twain as a humorist, joking at everything."

Susy's mother later found the biography and shared it with her husband, who expressed "deep pleasure" at her "frequently desperate" spelling and the way she didn't "cover up one's deficiencies, but gave them an equal showing with one's handsomer qualities."  And that's just what Kerley and Fotheringham do in the 19 double-page spreads of the narrative.

Eleven of those spreads feature a small four-page "Journal" glued in by its left side on the right-hand page near the gutter, as pictured below, making small books within the book::
These "journals" contain actual quotations, misspellings and all, from Susy's biography.

Author Barbara Kerley, in an I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) group blog post, said "I knew when I stumbled across Susy’s diary that it would be a rich counterpart to Twain’s own ‘polished up’ version of his life’s story."

Later, Twain quoted extensively from Susy's biography (retaining the misspellings) in his own Chapters from My Autobiography series for the North American Review, describing Susy as "a frank biographer and an honest one; she uses no sandpaper on me," who was "loyal to the responsibilities of her position as historian."

This is all the more poignant when you read, in the author's note at the end of the book, that Susy died at age 24 of spinal meningitis.  The end of the book also includes a selected timeline of Twain's life and detail on the sources used for each spread of the book.  Kerley also includes an excellent tip sheet on writing a biography appropriate for students, which is also available on the author's web site.

As you can see, the digital media illustrations are marvelous.  The people are (appropriately) cartoon-like, to fit Twain's humor, or shown in silhouette, in color schemes fitting the period.  Edwin Fotheringham even works in an 1890 photograph of Twain and Susy near the end of the book.

I can't recommend this book enough, and I'll be looking for more by Kerley and Fotheringham.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

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