Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bambino and Mr. Twain

Years and years ago, soon after I got my master's degree in library science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I went back to school again.  I decided to get a second master's degree in English literature, from Virginia Commonwealth University.  I went part-time, at night, so my class choice was a little limited.  But I loved learning more about critical writing, and reading more literature.  I found most of my classes really interesting.  One of the classes that ended up being an unexpected favorite was a class that focused on the writings of Mark Twain.  I'm sure I originally thought it would only cover his most famous works, and that I could look more closely at The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I thought reading those two books again would tie in nicely with my love of children's literature.  Instead, I gained a far more rounded understanding of both Mark Twain the writer and Samuel Clemens the man.

So when Bambino and Mr. Twain showed up on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book nomination list, I was definitely looking forward to reading it.  This story takes place in 1904 and 1905.  Mark Twain is a famous, well-loved writer; Samuel Clemens is dealing with his grief over the loss of his wife, Livy.  He is reclusive, staying in his New York City home and not interacting with the public and reporters who wait outside.  He only talks to his housekeeper, his daughter Jean, and his cat Bambino.  The winter drags on, cold and dreary, as Clemens drowns in his sorrow.  Then as spring begins, a window is opened, and Bambino darts out.  Clemens is heartbroken and the family puts an ad in the newspaper, along with a reward for Bambino's return.  The response to the ad is completely overwhelming.  People bring cats of all kinds and descriptions to the Clemens house to help with this newest loss.  They just want to help their beloved "Mark Twain".  When Bambino finally returns, days later, the episode causes Samuel Clemens to realize that "there's a whole world outside of this house to enjoy."  He begins to return to life and his public, all due to his cat.

I found this book really interesting from my own adult perspective.  When the book opens, the entire family is in mourning for their wife and mother.  As I mentioned, Samuel Clemens is the one grieving.  He sees a huge chasm between his writerly persona, Mark Twain, and his own broken heart.  He says to Bambino, "' Everyone wants to meet witty Mark Twain,"..."' would they want to meet sad, old Samuel Clemens?'"  His daughters are also in the midst of their grieving - Clemens' daughter Jean is "growing old before her time." and his other daughter, Clara, is in a clinic, "too upset by her mother's death to be with them."  They are isolated, sad, and falling apart.  The cat is the only sign of energy and life in the home.

And because everyone is so beaten by their emotions, the cat's personality really shines.  Bambino is everywhere, providing distraction and comfort to the family.  When Clemens takes  to his bed, Bambino curls up on papers next to him.  When they half-heartedly celebrate Clemens' birthday, it's Bambino who eats the ice cream.  Bambino is clever, sassy and energetic.  Maltbie does a terrific job depicting the cat - his behavior is familiar to all cat-lovers.  Bambino's personality also gets at the core of the human-cat relationship.  Readers can tell how much Bambino cares for Clemens.  He accompanies Clemens everywhere, including playing billiards with him.

In the author's note at the end of the book, Maltbie explains that while Bambino was the Clemens' family cat, and did go missing in the spring of 1905, "whether Bambino's return really had anything to do with Sam's decision is something only Sam and Bambino would know."  So what Maltbie is indicating here is something discerning readers may have already wondered about: that at least part of this story has been fictionalized.  There is also quite a bit of dialogue in the book, which has also most likely been created by the author, since there are no citations.  Even though the story has been created, there are facts behind it, including that Bambino really did go missing.  So does the fictionalization make this story any less impactful?  I don't think so, in this case.  It is still a very vivid portrayal of grief and a family trying to move forward with their lives. It still rings true, both in their sadness and in the depiction of mischievous Bambino.  I appreciate Maltbie's author's note, with its clear explication of fact and fiction, to help readers distinguish between them.  Maltbie also includes a bibliography of adult biographies, which might help older readers continue to learn about Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain, including one written by his daughter, Clara.

This leads me to my thoughts about the audience of this book.  It is a nonfiction picture book, and it seems at first glance to be appropriate for children in younger elementary grades, just by looking at the length of the text.  However, most young children wouldn't know who Mark Twain was and would be confused by the duality of his personas - both Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens.  Also, the writing is fairly subtle and young readers will miss the grief and the loving relationship with the cat.  It seems like this book might be better used in a classroom where Mark Twain is being studied in-depth.  I also would have loved to have used it when I was taking my graduate-level seminar on the works of Mark Twain.

I haven't addressed Miyares' illustrations at all yet, and they do a terrific job of bringing this story to life.  The combination of mixed media and digital illustrations gives an unusual twist to the feel of this book.  They feel historically accurate and yet modern.  Everything that needs to be historically correct, is - including houses and clothing.  But the rest of the colors and details feel modern and a little more abstract.  The combination works well for this story, combining fact and fiction.  Again, Bambino's personality shines through.  When he returns to the Clemens' house, there is an illustration where the housekeeper scolds Bambino.  His tail quirks, questioning and unrepentant.  As any cat owner has experienced, he is sorry, but not that sorry.

This book is thoughtful and graceful.  It is a real treasure, both for Mark Twain fans and cat owners alike.  Explore it for yourself - it is worth the read.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.

Bambino and Mr. Twain.  P.I. Maltbie; illustrated by Daniel Miyares.  Charlesbridge, 2012.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

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