The Trouble Begins at 8

          This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the death of Mark Twain. Although most of his books were written for adults, children and teens quickly found them, especially “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” 

          The library owns dozens of editions of this title alone. In e-book format, in paperback, in a scholarly edition from the Oxford University Press, in a children’s edition illustrated by Fredericksburg’s own Troy Howell – young readers have plenty to choose from. Tom’s scheme to get his friends to whitewash the fence for him, his infatuation with Becky Thatcher, his appearance with Huck and Joe at their own funeral – every young reader should have the chance to know and enjoy these stories. 
          Twain was not only a good writer, he was himself a lively character who caught the imagination of many other writers. Barbara Kerley’s new book, “The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy),” tells his story in the voice of his thirteen-year-old daughter. 
Susy did, in fact, write a biography of her father in her journal, and Kerley and her illustrator, Edwin Fotheringham, have reproduced part of it here, in small notebooks tipped into the larger pages of their picture book biography. Susy was very admiring of her Papa but did not hesitate to point out his faults: "All his features are perfect exept that he hasn't extrodinary teeth," Susy notes (using her own unique spelling system.)
In addition to these charming excerpts, Fotheringham’s drawings, full of movement and humor, bring Twain and his family to life. His struggles with fame (“Far too much of Papa's time was used up by being famous”), his smoking habit, his fondness for his family are all noted. Readers nine and up are sure to enjoy the bookmaking as well as the story.
Sid Fleischman’s dozens of tall tales come as close as any twentieth-century children’s books do to capturing the spirit of Mark Twain, so it’s fitting that one of his final books (he died last spring at age 90) was a Twain biography. “The Trouble Begins at 8” takes its title from the posters used to advertise Twain’s public appearances: ”Doors open at 7, the trouble begins at 8.”
In Fleischman’s words, Twain “changed literature forever…He slipped in a subversive American sense of humor. He made laughing out loud as respectable as afternoon tea.” How he got that way is a story filled with anecdotes, jokes, wordplay and the author’s genuine appreciation of an American original. The lively text is supported by extensive notes and bibliographies presented in just as spirited a fashion, and may inspire readers twelve and up to look for more Twainiana.
The nineteenth century America Twain knew and loved comes to life in the activities found in R. Ken Rasmussen’s “Mark Twain for Kids, His Life & Times.” Woven into a text that covers Twain’s life, touching on everything from slavery to his love of reading, are imaginative projects for kids. 
“Unmasking a hoax” uses one of Twain’s tall tales, this one about a so-called “petrified man,” to challenge kids to figure out how Twain hinted that the story was a fake. Not a bad skill to learn in the Internet age! 
Kids twelve and up will have fun with the projects while learning a lot about one of America’s best-known humorists.

First published in the Free Lance-Star on November 29, 2010.