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"Sunny South" lithograph by Calvert Lithograph and Engraving Co. circa 1883 from Library of Congress collection

Born into a literary family, Anne Fadiman is an acclaimed writer, scholar, editor, and teacher. She won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997 for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a moving study of an immigrant Hmong family living with an epileptic child. Fadiman, a member of The Big Read Reader's Circle, spoke with the NEA about Mark Twain and how she would convince reluctant readers to tag along on Tom Sawyer's adventures.

 Twain wrote better about two things than any other American writer I can think of: place and boyhood. I'll expand that to say childhood since I first read this book as a girl, and I thought it was for and about me too. There's a kind of youth in this book. The characters are young, America is young, the Civil War hasn't happened. People aren't old and tired and cynical yet. And, of course, that is really the American dream, whether you're an immigrant starting over or you're someone who is trying to become a self-made man. You don't have to be tradition-bound. I think that nobody wrote better about those themes than Twain. Also he's one of the few people who wrote a sequel that was even better than the first book, because I think that Huckleberry Finn was even greater than Tom Sawyer. And when you look at these two books as a pair,they are like a small history of our country. And they are also series of lessons on the psychology of childhood all put in the most beautiful form. 

If I was trying to convince a 12-year old to read Twain, it would be easy. I'd just read aloud the first couple chapters and say, "Here." I think that the rest of the book would end up getting read.

Trying to convince an adult who had never read Tom Sawyer to read it might be more difficult because adults are busy. Adults are like the adults in the book. They're like Aunt Polly, and they're like Mr. Walters at the Sunday School. They're always whirring around, wasting their time on things that aren't important, or they don't have time left to read a book like Tom Sawyer. I would say it was a great book, I would say it was a hilarious book, and I might say that it was a book that could help them understand their children better.  That might get them, since adults are very averse to pleasure when it comes to reading but they are often ensnared by obligation. And if they felt that they might become better parents by reading it, that could get 'em.

Hear more from Anne Fadiman, Ken Burns, Sam Elliott, and others on The Big Read The Adventures of  Tom Sawyer radio show. Visit The Big Read calendar to find out who's reading, discussing, and celebrating Twain near you.

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