Big Read 2011: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain on raft

Welcome to The Big Read in Kansas City! – a citywide celebration of the Mark Twain classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, coordinated by the Kansas City Public Library and Kansas City Ballet.

About the Book

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is not merely a literary classic. It is part of the American imagination. More than any other work in our culture, it established America's vision of childhood. Mark Twain created two fictional boys, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, who still seem more real than most of the people we know. In a still puritanical nation, Twain reminded adults that children were not angels, but fellow human beings, and perhaps all the more lovable for their imperfections and bad grooming. Neither American literature nor America has ever been the same. A great book combines enlightenment with enchantment. It awakens our imagination and enlarges our humanity. It can even offer harrowing insights that somehow console and comfort us. Whether you’re a regular reader already or making up for lost time, thank you for joining The Big Read.

About the Ballet

Tom Sawyer—A Ballet in Three Acts, music by Maury Yeston and choreography by William Whitener, is the first full-length ballet on an American subject, conceived by an American composer and presented by an American company in recent memory. Inspired by Mark Twain’s classic work that captures the eternal wonder and adventure of boyhood, the three acts portray all of the well-known episodes from the familiar tale—the painting of the fence, the love for Becky Thatcher, friendship with Huck Finn, the witnessing of the murder, the Trial, and the colorful and legendary life along the Mississippi of Twain’s era that has become part of our central American myth and our treasured heritage.

Special Events and Exhibits

The 2011 Big Read in Kansas City tooks its inspiration from the world-premiere production of Tom Sawyer – A Ballet in Three Acts, commissioned by KC Ballet and featuring music by two-time Tony-Award-winning composer Maury Yeston. This Big Read collaboration connected readers with Tom Sawyer through a variety of free public events, such as:

  • An Evening with Maury Yeston and William Whitener | Thursday, September 8, 2011 | 6:30pm | Central Library
    Two-time Tony Award-winning composer Maury Yeston performed at the piano and discussed his latest work, Tom Sawyer – A Ballet in Three Acts, commissioned by Kansas City Ballet. Serving as the inspiration for this Big Read, the ballet is based on the classic Mark Twain novel and made its world premiere in October 2011 as part of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts’ grand opening. Yeston composed the Broadway productions of Titanic and Nine, which both earned Tony Awards for Best Musical. He also wrote the score for Phantom and contributed to the score for the Broadway stage version of Grand Hotel. Well-versed in a variety of styles, he has written cello concertos for Yo Yo Ma, a choral symphony for the National Symphony Orchestra, and songs for Gloria Estefan and Barbara Streisand. Yeston holds a Ph.D. from Yale University and is author of The Stratification of Musical Rhythm, a seminal music theory text. KC Ballet Artistic Director William Whitener, who has choreographed the production, joined Yeston onstage. Presented in partnership with Kansas City Ballet.
  • Where the Twain Meet: The Enduring Cross-Generational Appeal of Tom Sawyer | Tuesday, September 20, 2011 | 6:30 p.m. | Plaza Branch
    Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in such a fashion that his first novel simultaneously addressed two divergent audiences: the young and the formerly young. At times, his story ridicules boyhood fantasies (such as finding buried treasure and rescuing a damsel in distress) and later grants these same ridiculous hopes and dreams. In creating a text that speaks to two age groups, Twain appears as the literary forerunner of Pixar Animation Studios. Twain scholar Robert Hirst detailed how the author maximized the appeal of his book for both young readers and adults – including changes he made to the text in order to preserve the necessary "proprieties," which can be rather mysterious to readers 135 years later. Hirst is the general editor and official curator of the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the University of California – Berkeley, where he is currently developing the second volume of the bestselling Autobiography of Mark Twain. Presented in partnership with Park University.
  • Hal Holbrook Tonight | Wednesday, November 9, 2011 | 6:30 p.m. | Central Library
    Renowned stage and screen actor Hal Holbrook visited the Kansas City Public Library on Wednesday, November 9, 2011 for a public conversation about his beautifully moving new memoir, Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain. Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain recounts Holbrook's troubled boyhood - and how he found a refuge onstage, eventually starring in the one-man Broadway show "Mark Twain Tonight." The role earned him a Tony Award in 1966 and opened the door to television and film stardom, including Emmy Awards for his roles as President Abraham Lincoln (in Lincoln) and Senator Hays Stowe (in The Bold Ones: The Senator) and an Oscar nomination for Into the Wild (2007). This public conversation with Holbrook was hosted by Library Director Crosby Kemper III. This was the finale event for The Big Read celebration of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - coordinated by the Kansas City Public Library and Kansas City Ballet.
  • The Glorious Whitewashers: A Community Fence-Painting Event | Friday, September 9, 2011 | 4:30 p.m. | Community Garden, 51st and Main
    Families got a chance to whitewash a Community Garden fence. Before the whitewashing, the Coterie Theatre presented a dramatic reading from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
  • Thomas Hart Benton on Tom Sawyer: Re-envisioning Twain in the 20th Century | Sunday, September 18, 2011 | 2 p.m. | Central Library
    A discussion by art historian and exhibit curator Joan Stack about how Benton responded to the challenge of illustrating this classic Twain novel
  • Read It / Watch It Discussion Group: Tom Sawyer (1973) | Sunday, October 2, 2011 | 2:00pm | Plaza Branch
    Big Read discussion facilitator Kaite Stover led a lively conversation comparing the written word to its dramatic interpretation after this screening of Tom Sawyer (1973).
  • Susan Harris: Mark Twain and the Philippines | Tuesday, October 4, 2011 | 6:30 p.m. | Central Library
    Susan Harris, the Hall Distinguished Professor of American Literature at the University of Kansas, examined the rarely seen political side of Twain, who was actively interested in world events – and deeply patriotic.
  • Mark Twain and Tom Benton: Pictures, Prose, and Song | September 3 – October 30, 2011 | Central Library
    The Kansas City Public Library united Missouri’s most renowned author and its most prominent artist with this exhibit.


The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading to the center of American culture. The NEA presents The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and in cooperation with Arts Midwest. Support for The Big Read has been provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Boeing Company, the Poetry Foundation, and the Ford Motor Company. Additional support for The Big Read in Kansas City comes from the Kauffman Foundation and the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency. Additional partners for The Big Read in Kansas City include: Park University; the State Historical Society of Missouri; the Coterie Theatre; and the UMKC Communications Studies Department.