The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley. Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. 2010. Scholastic Press.
What do you do if you are the thirteen-year-old daughter of the famous Samuel Clemons, aka Mark Twain, and you are bothered that so many people only know him, narrowly and solely for his humor? Well, Susy Clemons, who knew there was so much more to her interesting father than being funny, decided to secretly write her papa’s, Mark Twain’s, biography and tell the world the whole story. Barbara Kerley and illustrator Edwin Fotheringham, tell this father and daughter story with graphically dynamic illustrations and font selections. The bonus in this book-within-a-book format is the inclusion of handwritten entries from Susy’s actual journal. These are printed on separate, smaller pages and attached to the book’s larger pages near the center fold. At first, Papa Twain is unaware of his daughter’s writing project, yet readers know he is living under Susy’s careful scrutiny. She notices and records all—the good, the bad, the funny, and the serious. When Papa discovers Susy’s writings, he is impressed and proud of her loving honesty. He notes that in her writings, “…she uses no sandpaper on me.” This book will make both a fun, powerful read-aloud, and a launching point for further investigation about both Susy and her famous papa.
In the Classroom
- This book will serve you well in your classroom as a gentle introduction to the biography genre. With this book, readers are privy to two biographies: the author/narrator’s story of Twain and her daughter, and Susy’s book-within-a-book snippets of her father’s biography.
- Barbara Kerley has provided a full page of specific advice and tips for readers interested in writing their own “extraordinary” biography of someone they know well. This will work as a useful guide in a classroom for students doing research-based writing or for an interested student to pursue independently. Following these suggestions will help young writers really bring their subjects to life, honestly and clearly, without using “sandpaper.”
- Don’t miss the Author’s Note page, divided into two sections: Papa, focusing on Mark Twain (Papa, to Susy) and Susy, providing further information about the thirteen year old author of her famous father’s biography. This section, the Selected Time Line of Mark Twain’s Life, and Sources page, each serve as clear examples of the importance of the writer being the expert for curious readers. (And they are excellent examples of how to present additional information to readers in a way that is easy to locate and to utilize for further research.)
- Susy’s biography of her father is her attempt to “set the record straight” about her famous dad. She felt the public only knew one aspect of him—his humorous side. Susy wanted people to know the other sides of her Papa. Students could reflect about their own “other sides.” What else about them would they like people to know beyond the simple descriptions like athlete, good student, quiet, musician, etc.? For older students, it may be motivating to ask them to think about their social network profile—both what it says and what it doesn’t reveal about them.
- Students could read a biography of their own choosing, then evaluate their choices against Susy’s no “sandpaper” standards—did the authors of their books reveal both the “good” and the “bad” about their subjects?
- This book is a wonderful gateway to Mark Twain—the writer, the man, and the father. Students could read one of Twains famous works—The Prince and the Pauper, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and so on. You might even decide to read aloud a portion of one these stories to get your students started. Hearing the writer’s words—hearing his writer’s voice—will take their understanding of Susy’s father one step further.
- Susy’s journal entries are presented just as she wrote them—spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and all. Discuss this with students. How do they feel about sorting through her “frequently desperate” spelling? What affect does this have on her message? This could really open the door to a much broader trait-based discussion—what feedback would they give Susy about her ideas? Word choice? Voice? Sentence Fluency?
- Twain’s daily writing routine is one of the things Susy pays close attention to—what happened when he was really in the groove and how he was frequently “distracted.” Ask your students (and be willing to share your own thoughts) to reflect about their own writing routines. Have they ever experienced being in “the zone” as a writer, where the words just flowed? What distracts them from their writing? How do they deal with the distractions?
- In Susy’s writing, she employs both the semi-colon and ellipsis in many of her sentences. How does this use of punctuation affect the flow of her writing? You may want to use her writing to introduce your students to these punctuation marks, having them practice by imitating some of Susy’s sentences.
- This book is also a great example of the presentation (Conventions and Presentation) choices publishers, authors, illustrators, and graphic designers make—colors, fonts, size, endpaper, and “extras,” etc.—to both appeal to readers and help readers access the author’s message.
- Visit the author at http://www.barbarakerley.com/