The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)

mark-twain-coverThis is the story of Mark Twain’s life in picture book form, with accompanying anecdotes from Susy who is writing this memoir so we can meet the “real” Mark Twain.  Susy, Mark Twain’s favourite daughter, did keep a memoir of observations of her dad for a short period of time, and excerpts from it are included as little fold out pages.  She talks about their home, his writing process and the role her mom plays, his leisure activities, and much more.

Barbara Kerley, Scholastic, ©2010, ISBN 978-0-545-12508-6

Spelling Mistakes

Mark Twain says his daughter’s spelling was frequently desperate.” Give students her spellings and ask them to spell them correctly—time them if you want to add some pressure. They need to add 5 seconds to their time for every word they still misspell.

Her incorrect words are: discribed incorectly, mustache, exept, extrordinary, sute, doute, Misouri, in good trimm, varius, chreatures (for creatures), expergate, donky, prosession.

This is a good time to mention that the first English dictionary was written in 9 years by one man, Samuel Johnson, and published in 1755. By contrast, the first French dictionary was written by an entire French Academy and published in 1694. It took 69 years to write. The first American dictionary was Noah Webster’s in 1806. After this spelling began to “solidify” into “correct” and “incorrect” spelling. Susy was writing in 1885.

A Book “In the Style Of”

This book has a particular style. For the most part it is a kind of story of Susy’s foray into biography. However, glued into place in the book are miniature foldout excerpts from Susy’s actual words. This is an excellent model to imitate.

In Social Studies it could take the form of a report on an explorer (for example) with inserted pages from his “diary” commenting on the events described on that page. In Science, it could be a report on a whale’s life cycle, with examples interspersed from the whale’s diary. In art, a research report on a particular artist could be written, with short imaginary diary inserts on occasion. Be sure that students realize the diary entries need only be 2-3 sentences long.

For 11 creative writing ideas, click The Extraordinary Mark Twain to download.


Ten Rules You Absolutely Must Not Break If You Want to Survive the School Bus

Ten-Rules-You-Absolutely-Must-Not-Break-If-You-Want-to-Survive-the-School-BusJames advises his younger brother on the 10 things you must not do if you ride the school bus.  They range from not sitting at the front, not sitting at the back, not making eye contact with the bully, to not touching the bully’s stuff, not sitting with a girl, and finally to not talking to the bus driver.  During the course of the day, his brother inadvertently breaks all 10.  But he discovers that things work out and makes a rule 11—you don’t have to pay attention to the rules.

John Grandits, Houghton Mifflin, ©2011, 978-0-618-78822-4

Listening Idea

With the PDF of lesson ideas there is a listening chart with the 10 rules cited on it. The second time you read the story, students could note how these rules are broken. Discuss at the end. For each one, ask if it is a sensible rule and why.


This is a good time to teach students the structure of a simile. Each of the 7 similes in the book is reflected in the illustration, which cleverly reflects the perception of the narrator. You may want to project the illustrations as you point out the similes in the book and ask the students to discuss their meaning. The only simile missing is that of the bus driver, although the illustration of her is of a predator bird. The similes are:

  • a dog…sounded like an arctic wolf that hadn’t eaten all winter
  • school bus …charging at me like a giant yellow rhinoceros
  • staring at me…I felt like a zebra at a lion party
  • big kid…up close, he was the size of a grizzly bear
  • girls…as mean as snakes
  • bus driver…illustration of a predator bird, no simile
  • brother…jumping up and down like a spider monkey.

For 7 creative writing ideas, click Ten Rules to download.

The House Baba Built

housebabauiltEd Young is well known for his picture books. The House Baba Built is more in the nature of a memoir of his childhood in the house his father built in Shanghai in which the family lived during World War II. We learn about the war, school, family activities in the house, taking in refugees including a Jewish family, food shortages, being unable to fill the pool…all through his eyes as a child. You can take just a part of this book for a rich study of many different topics.

Ed Young, Little Brown and Co.©2011, 978-0-316-07628-9

Exploring a Photo

Ed Young uses family photos as one of the many methods he uses to illustrate his story. Ask students to bring a picture of themselves that their family has taken – it’s best if they bring a coy. If they bring an original, make a copy for them so that the original is not accidentally destroyed.

Students need to look at their pictures and ask themselves the following types of questions:

  • How old was I when this picture was taken?
  • Where was this picture taken – describe quite precisely?
  • Why was this picture taken and kept? (Instead of others)
  • What am I wearing in this picture? How do I feel about these clothes? Was this typical of what I wore at this time?
  • What sensory memories do I have about this place – food, feel, sights, taste, smell, etc.?
  • What emotions are around this picture and why?

Encourage students elaborate and then use a copy of the picture to illustrate their “story” of the taking of the picture.

Make an Origami Box

In early spring, when the mulberry leaves sprouted, Ed Young and his friends traded silkworm eggs. They made paper origami boxes for silkworm houses and fed them on mulberry leaves.

Watch the YouTube several times and make it yourself, before you teach the class. Once they know how, it is very easy. If you live close to Richmond, there is very inexpensive origami paper at Daizo.

For 16 creative writing ideas, click The House Baba Built to download.

Miss Alaineus

miss-alaineusSage is home sick, but she is trying to continue with her vocabulary homework. It goes awry when she mistakes miscellaneous for Miss Alaineus. Her mother is holding a box with spaghetti hair on it when she mentions she needs “miscellaneous things” from which Sage concludes she is the woman on the box. When she defines it that way, the whole class laughs. Sage is devastated until she ends as Miss Alaineus, Queen of All Miscellaneous Things at the Vocabulary Parade. This book is full of charming puns and built in word definitions.

Debra Frasier, Harcourt, ©2000, ISBN 0-15-202163-9

Clever Langauge

This book is a terrific writing model for students. Sage, our storyteller, enjoys defining words and regularly halts her sentences to define a word.  The word is in bold, and the definition is in italics.

“I thought she was an ancestor, an ancient relative long dead, who had left us…”

“ Impossible,” I told her.  Impossiblenot capable of happening.”

“I was devastatedwasted ravagedRuineddestroyedFinishedbrought to an end.”

For the most part, Sage creates her own definitions.  Students could write their own clever stories using this strategy—to write in the first person and to stop the story to define a word.  This is also an opportunity to encourage the development and use of an extensive vocabulary.

The A-Z Vocabulary Challenge

In the borders of the book are sentences relating to the plot, but emphasizing the letters of the alphabet in order:

  • B “What did I tell you?  This berserk bacteria has bulldozed me badly. Help!”
  • D “I am defective and delirious, and so I will dwindle away.” (The author has a cold at the time.)

After students have written a simple story, ask them to change and add to it until it has 24 sentences.  Then ask them to place 3 A words (using fresh verbs, adjectives, etc.) into the first sentence; 3 B words in the second…skipping X and Z (hence 24 sentences).

For 9 writing ideas, click Miss Alaineus to download.