My favorite reading challenge is Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge. Visit her blog to discover many more wonderful nonfiction picture book titles.
This week, I read two wonderful titles written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Edward Fotheringham.
A Home for Mr. Emerson introduces young readers to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s life and thinking. It would also be a superb picture book to use in the high school classroom to begin a study of Emerson. Aside from a couple of essays that were assigned in high school and that I probably only skimmed, I have never read Emerson, but Kerley’s book makes me want to.
Kerley focuses on Emerson’s desire to create a home and life for himself that reflected his values. In college, he discovered his true loves: “reading stacks of books, discussing them with friends, and recording ‘new thoughts’ in a journal.” (Emerson began to feel a bit like a kindred soul when I read that.) After college, he wondered: “Could he build a life around these things he loved?”
Yes, he could, and Kerley shows how. He moved to Concord, bought a house, planted a garden, stocked his library, and started a family. He became an important member of his community, but he was also a citizen of the world, traveling and receiving guests from all over the world. He makes a life for himself that is rooted in what he loves–reading, writing, conversing, thinking.
The climax of the story comes when Emerson is 69 years old, and his beloved house catches fire. Though much of what was most important to him (his papers and books) were saved, he was still deeply shaken by the experience. He set off on a trip to Europe and Egypt to quiet his mind and restore himself, only to find that he missed home terribly. When he finally returned to Concord, he was greeted with a pleasant surprise: his family and friends had worked together to restore his home.
Fotheringham’s lively style brings the characters and their environment to life. And the whole book is beautifully designed. Even the end papers are thoughtful: they’re printed with inspirational quotations from Emerson’s writing.
The back matter contains a photograph of Emerson and his family, a detailed “Author’s Note” with more biographical information, a list of thoughtful extension activities to “build a world of your own,” and a page documenting sources and quotations.
Kerley and Fotheringham really outdo themselves in The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy). In the detailed “Author’s Note” at the back of the book, Kerley explains that she had been thinking about writing a biography of Twain for years, but the project didn’t come together for her until she discovered “an interesting historical footnote: his thirteen-year-old daughter, Susy, wrote a biography of him.” Kerley’s book is, in effect, a biography of that biography. She uses Susy’s biography and her biographical project as the lens for examining Mark Twain’s life, work, and influence.
The design of the book is clever and effective.
Many spreads include a small Journal that opens to show words from Susy’s biography.
Kerley’s text comments upon Susy’s project, gives more context, and provides a larger view of Twain and his family. This is really a brilliantly conceived and executed biography and one I will probably have to purchase for my collection. (Note: I was concerned about the durability of this book given that the journal is printed on very thin paper and only partially attached to the main page, but I read a library copy that has clearly gotten some use and all of the journals are fully intact. So it’s also well-made!)
Fotheringham’s illustrations are delightful as always, and this cat lover was very pleased to see cats in most of the pictures! I had no idea that Twain had a bit of the crazy cat lady about him. If I had known that, I’m sure I would have paid more attention to his books when they were assigned in school. All a teacher would have had to do is show me the photo of Twain in his iconic white suit with one kitten on his shoulder and another crawling up his chest, and I would have been hooked for life. A little Googling turned up a list of Twain quotations about cats, which are very well worth reading, especially his description of his favorite, Sour Mash, around the middle of the page. There is also a lovely photo of the Twain cats asleep and awake.
The back matter includes an Author’s Note on “Papa” and on Susy, a list of tips for “Writing An Extraordinary Biography,” a timeline of Twain’s life, a photo of the Twain family (with a dog, not a cat. SIGH), and a list of Kerley’s sources for quotations.