Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)"

After more than two years with nary a literary reference on this blog to the author formerly known as Clemens, I'll be mentioning him several times over the next several posts. I am starting by proclaiming my enthusiasm for a certain 2010 picture book biography.

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy), written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, examines a popular subject through a new lens. But technically, the lens is actually old. And young.

It's not really that confusing. Let me explain.

The book is a look at Twain through the eyes of his daughter when she was 13, circa 1885. This was made possible by a journal/biography she wrote at the time. Bravo to Barbara for sensing the gleeful picture book potential in this.

The book is often cheeky, often incisive, and consistently ingenious.

Susy’s words are presented verbatim (spelling mistakes and all) and blown into the book on small “journal entries” (single sheets folded into simple leaflets). Generally I am averse to novelty formats or features in books. I feel Susy's entries would’ve been no less effective as part of the two-dimensional page design because that would not distract from content with cuteness, however thematically appropriate. Also, Compulsive Me says, because that would be less likely to tear. In this case, however, the rest of the book is so strong that I don’t mind it.

Historically, I've been one of the most zealous anti-smoking blabbermouths I knew, yet I'm also a pundit for authenticity and a frequent opponent of PC. Therefore, I applaud the bookmakers for showing Twain smoking at times. This is nonfiction. Twain smoked. Doesn't mean kids will follow. Case closed.

The book is not a storyography, an incident-focused variation of biography. However, it feels like one because it tells about a whole life through the device of a girl commenting in her journal on said life. In other words, the incident could be a girl keeping a journal.

As mentioned above, this is hardly the first book to spotlight Twain (though to my surprise, it does seem to be one of the first picture books). I have often said (usually only to myself) that I will never write a picture book on a textbook figure—meaning a person who is already widely known by name as well as accomplishment. (While Superman is recognized worldwide, his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are not household names.)

However, thanks to the extraordinary Barbara Kerley (according to Marc), I’m now more open-minded to the possibility. It's all in the approach.

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