To Meltzer, Twain was not a simple, easily understood human being. Therefore, he makes no attempt in Mark Twain to gloss over his subject’s failings or to over-emphasize his positive characteristics. Instead, Meltzer gives his young readers a complicated person with whom they can readily identify.
This approach is especially evident when one examines the attention that the author gives to the young Twain, taking pains to dwell on his Hannibal years and on the development of his confidence and character that occurred at that crucial time. Like any teenager, Twain had his share of problems, but he is shown dealing well with challenges by taking on such tasks as working in a printshop in order to begin learning a trade. Twain’s love of pranks and occasional loafing are also illustrated, giving the account believability and a sense of humanity. Young readers, encountering a Twain who is of their own age, will be inspired.
Meltzer demonstrates the significance that other people can assume in one’s inner development, not only family members but also strangers that one happens to meet. In Twain’s case, such people were his mother, the printer who gave him his first job, and the Mississippi riverpilot Horace Bixby, without whom such Twain classics as Life on the Mississippi (1883) would never have been written. Mark Twain, like most successful young adult biographies, is a tale of a triumph gained only after real hardships. Although Twain had some breaks in his life, much of his literary success was attributable to hard work and the ability to make use of the opportunities that...
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While many fine biographies of Twain have been written, most are intended for adult readers. By writing Mark Twain, Meltzer has done young adult readers a considerable service. This work, published in 1985, is destined to be considered a genre classic, as it tells Twain’s life story in a way that engages the imagination and the heart. Twain’s youthful dreams are made emblematic of the dreams of adolescents everywhere: dreams of adventure, of love, of great deeds, of enduring friendship, and of a purposeful life. With a number of arresting illustrations—including a character-revealing portrait of Twain’s mother, the famous cub pilot photograph of a young Twain staring with defiance and pride at the camera, and a marvelous photograph of Twain late in life, looking pensively from a carriage toward the photographer—Meltzer allows readers to see Twain as he was.
Although the narrative explains important things about Twain in considerable detail, it glides over the surface of lesser happenings. Nevertheless, this approach is natural for such an introductory biography, in which Meltzer wants his young readers to pursue more detailed works that deal with his subject. Mark Twain has gained a reputation among many librarians and teachers as a well-presented, engaging study of Twain for young adults, one that they believe is at once sufficiently gripping and highly informative.