Copyright © 2004 Mark Twain Forum
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Connie Ann Kirk
As the author of Mark Twain A to Z (Facts on File, 1995) and editor of Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls (Contemporary Books, 1995), The Quotable Mark Twain (Contemporary Books, 1998), and other notable reference books, R. Kent Rasmussen continues his good work of making facts and quotes about Mark Twain accessible for a wider audience with the publication of his latest book, Mark Twain For Kids: His Life and Times, 21 Activities. In this most recent book, the author uses a hands-on approach to the biography, works, and times of Twain that both educators and young people will appreciate. The horizontal 8-1/2 by 11-inch paperback design with colorful cover illustrations invites young people (the book is recommended for ages nine and up) in to a book that they will find both informative and entertaining. As the latest of Chicago Review Press's series of "For Kids" books that include Shakespeare For Kids and The Wright Brothers For Kids, this book will bring a younger audience into active engagement with one of America's best-loved authors.
The volume is made up of six chapters that follow the course of Twain's life from his Missouri boyhood to his death and burial at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York. Children are invited to pour over such features as a time line, family tree, and profusion of photographs, quotations, and many sidebars that contain information such as mini-biographies of people close to Twain, a description and photo of his birthplace, and an especially timely comparison of Harry Potter with Tom Sawyer. A highlight of the book is the inclusion of 21 arts and crafts, writing and observation activities spread across the chapters that bring the text alive for visual and tactile learners. The book concludes with a list of resources that include a listing of selected books by Twain, websites for further exploration, places to visit that are important to learning more about Twain's life and work, as well as an age-appropriate bibliography and index.
Rasmussen's lively text is engaging reading that will capture and keep young people's attentions. Chapter 1, "Missouri Boyhood," describes biographical elements such as Twain's birth, family, move to Hannibal, school days, printing apprenticeship, and the budding author's desire for travel. Interspersed throughout the chapter are literary echoes of Twain's boyhood from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In addition, historical topics such as slavery in Missouri, nineteenth century health care techniques, and childhood recreation in the period are also addressed. Activities in this chapter include "Market Your Own Patent Medicine," "Make a Slate," and "Make Printer's Type." This pattern of weaving the biography with literary and historical information as well as instructions for relevant activities continues throughout the remaining five chapters: "Life on the Mississippi," "Roughing It in the West," "Becoming an Author," "Connecticut Yankee," and "At Home and Abroad."
Activities throughout the book include plans to make a paddlewheel boat and miniature lead line as well as a recipe to bake "Missouri-Fried Corn Pone." One activity asks young field researchers to chart results of a quick gender study in "Take the Needle-and-Thread Test" that replicates Judith Loftus's test of Huck's female disguise in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a testament to Rasmussen's sound and detailed knowledge of Twain's work and his sensitivity to passing this knowledge along to younger readers that he points out the contradictory action of Miles Hendon performing the same task in The Prince and the Pauper. The author respects the intelligence of his young readers at the same time that his writing is appropriate to their preference for information acquired through stories in language they can understand. Writing and observation activities in the book that teachers and librarians may find useful include: "Capture Real Human Speech," "Write a Travel Letter," "Invent New Words," "Plan a Newspaper," "Write Maxims," and others. This attention to Twain's power of observation, word play, and different kinds of writing works to awaken in children their own possibilities with language.
The many photographs and illustrations are appropriate and useful for children and engage them with the text. However, these are all either black and white archival photographs and pen-and-ink sketches or brown-colored illustrations from Twain's books or other sources. While these colors suggest the time period by mimicking nineteenth-century newspapers and broadsides, a more colorful design to the book might have drawn in more of the younger children in the targeted age bracket as well as those more reluctant to read biography, history, and literature. One wonders, for example, why activity sidebars could not be more colorful or contain photographs rather than simple drawings. Presumably, printing cost is one factor along with the choice of period design. This design detail is not overly significant, however, since the pages are well laid out with eye-easing white space and a good variety of photographs and drawings.
Another small matter, but perhaps worth mentioning here is that the publisher may want to consider placing credits with more detailed captions beneath graphics in this series in the future. For example, on page 72, True Williams's 1872 pen-and-ink drawing of Twain's first lecture from Roughing It is simply labeled, similarly to the way it is in the first edition, "Stage fright." The sources for all illustrations are mentioned in the summary of credits on the copyright page of the book. Citing the sources of artwork and documents directly beneath their captions raises credibility in non-fiction books for students and enhances their experience with primary and historical material. Attribution of photographs, artwork, maps, and so forth as part of captions is becoming more common and useful in non-fiction books for young people, who are still reluctant to seek out the information in a long listing of credits elsewhere in the book. Students are increasingly being asked at earlier grades to use and evaluate primary source material. Even those in middle school are being asked to write essay responses to what are commonly called "document-based questions." For example, a nineteenth-century American political cartoon may be presented to the student and the student may be asked to write a short essay that interprets and evaluates the cartoon in relation to what she or he has learned about that period of history. This type of essay is being required in varying degrees in younger grades than ever before in some schools, and students are taught to look for citation information that accompanies the document to help them do their work. Though this book is not intended as a textbook, many of the photos and sketches depicted within it are more historical, important, and relevant to the story of Mark Twain than the simple captions beneath them suggest. All of this explanation aside, this is a small matter that does not take away significantly from the overall quality of the book as a good resource for young people.
The book is appropriate for a child who is already interested in Mark Twain, nineteenth-century American history, literature, and/or writing or who may be enticed to become more interested through a multi-faceted approach. It is also an excellent educational tool for a school library or classroom as well where it will be useful for a variety of library activities and classroom units in language arts, social studies, history, and art. In Mark Twain for Kids, the author has provided a resource for young people to extend their reading of their favorite Twain novels and stories into an enjoyable, informative, and age-appropriate consideration of the author and his times.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Connie Ann Kirk is the author of several books for young
people and adults, including the young adult volume recently reviewed for the
Mark Twain Forum, Mark Twain: A Biography (Greenwood, 2004). She is a
Mark Twain Quarry Farm Research Fellow and a reviewer for the children's literature
review journal, The Horn Book Guide. Her new book, Companion to American
Children's Picture Books, is forthcoming from Greenwood Press in 2005.