By Abby McGanney Nolan
Sunday, September 21, 2008
THE TROUBLE BEGINS AT 8 A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West By Sid Fleischman | Greenwillow, $18.99; ages 9-12
How does one write a biography of Mark Twain (1835-1910), who held that "a lie well told is immortal" and stretched the facts of his own life? Newbery-winning author Sid Fleischman answers with this wonderfully well-told account of Twain's formative years, his entertaining fabrications and a bewitching procession of ornery riverboat pilots, perilous stagecoach journeys and quixotic quests for gold. It is so buoyantly written that the author seems to have been visited by the charming and restless spirit of young Twain himself. Fleischman makes room for Twain's words, showcasing his "talent for spring-loading his sentences with laughter," while also pausing to marvel at such 19th-century sights as a lone, unarmed Pony Express rider in the middle of his 1,800-mile dash.
Twain was, of course, deeply concerned with the truth, and this biography chronicles his ravenous reading of everyone from Thomas Paine to Darwin, his attention to the details of the Mississippi and the untamed territory west of it, and his fascination with the fakery of fortune tellers. The Trouble Begins at 8 (the title refers to a line Twain used to advertise his early public appearances) also grapples briefly with Twain's later career and family sorrows (only one child outlived him), but it is the stuff of his early life, which Twain transformed into a prize career on the lecture circuit and immortal works like Huckleberry Finn, that take center stage.THE ROAD TO OZ Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum By Kathleen Krull, Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes | Knopf, $17.99; ages 8-12
L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) is another world-famous author who went West, disliked charlatans and took a while to find his calling. Kathleen Krull's picture-book biography, the first devoted to Baum, dwells on the detours that led him to Emerald City. Born to privilege, he went from reading, writing and daydreaming to a succession of bad luck and unsuitable jobs, including chicken breeder, traveling salesman and window dresser. As Krull tells it, Baum's joy came from his wife and four boys, who adored the stories he made up for them. (In one of many asides, Krull notes that Baum's suffragette mother-in-law first suggested that he write down these tales.)
Krull keeps the story upbeat (Baum's bankruptcy and death are saved for an afterword), and Kevin Hawkes's appealing artwork captures the man's gentle nature and exuberant creativity. On one page, he's building a store-window display figure out of stovepipes, washtub, funnel and pan (Tin Man, anyone?); on another, he's writing, with emerald-green images of Dorothy and friends floating above his head.SANDY'S CIRCUS A Story About Alexander Calder By Tanya Lee Stone, Illustrated by Boris Kulikov | Viking, $16.99; ages 6 and up
Focusing on a single, grand project, Tanya Lee Stone and illustrator Boris Kulikov reveal the perpetual-motion life of Alexander Calder (1898-1976). He is introduced as a child of artists who provided him with all the tools he could use. Page after page depicts him creating remarkable objects: a castle for his sister's doll, made from scraps of wood, wire and leather; impromptu wire portraits of friends he met on the streets of Paris.
Stone's text is a lovely distillation of the evolution of Calder's magnificent miniature circus (which he carried around in five suitcases for performances), and Kulikov's illustrations are an amazing feat of their own. Featuring enchanting mixtures of full color and black and white, each one delivers a quirky, compelling perspective: the bird's-eye view of Calder on the edge of a ship, awestruck by "a fiery red sunrise" on one side and a full moon shining on the other; the vision of Calder walking back and forth over the Atlantic Ocean between Paris and New York; and an ant's-eye view of him setting his wire circus animals and performers in motion. Young readers will also learn that he invented the mobile, the playful sculptural form that likely pleased them and their parents not so long ago.
Abby McGanney Nolan regularly reviews children's books for Book World.