Wel­come back, Mark Twain!

New au­thors fin­ish, il­lus­trate bed­time fairy tale

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Don Olden­burg

Just you thought Mark Twain’s death was not greatly ex­ag­ger­ated, he’s back ... sort when of.

The new chil­dren’s book The Pur­loin­ing of Prince Oleo­mar­garine dates to more than a cen­tury ago. On an evening in 1879, at a ho­tel in Paris, Amer­ica’s lit­er­ary icon made up a fairy tale for his young daugh­ters. Later, he scrib­bled 16 pages of notes, but never fin­ished the story.

In 2011, a scholar dis­cov­ered the notes among Twain’s pa­pers at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley. While Sa­muel Cle­mens of­ten told his daugh­ters bed­time sto­ries, rem­nants from The Pur­loin­ing of Prince Oleo­mar­garine (Dou­ble­day Books for Young Read­ers, 152 pp., for ages 8-12, eeee out of four) are the only ones found from those heavy-lid­ded mo­ments.

To the res­cue comes Calde­cott Medal-win­ning hus­band-and­wife duo Philip and Erin Stead. To­gether, he writ­ing, she draw­ing, they al­ready had awak­ened the bed­time-story genre with such mod­ern clas­sics as A Sick Day for Amos McGee and Bear Has a Story to Tell.

And, as Philip Stead ex­plains their Twainian call­ing in the au­thor’s note, some­body needed to fin­ish this tale, and they aren’t dead and Twain is.

In the story, Twain cre­ates a “luck­less hero” named Johnny, who is a kind and un­happy boy liv­ing in a poverty-stricken land with his bad grand­fa­ther. Johnny’s life is so des­ti­tute his only friend is a chicken named “Pesti­lence and Famine.”

Johnny’s ad­ven­ture be­gins when his grand­fa­ther sends him down the dan­ger­ous road to the mar­kets at the king’s cas­tle to sell his chicken “for some­thing worth eat­ing.” The plot is pure Twain; isn’t Ad­ven­tures of Huck­le­berry Finn about a boy nav­i­gat­ing a dan­ger­ous world on his own?

Any­way, Johnny meets an old blind woman who hands him magic seeds that, later, grow flow­ers en­abling him to talk with an­i­mals. By the end, kindly crea­tures, from a help­ful skunk to the edgy tiger, help Johnny res­cue the in­suf­fer­able, kid­napped Prince Oleo­mar­garine. Imag­i­na­tive char­ac­ters pop­u­late this story. Erin Stead’s gen­tle, other-era il­lus­tra­tions give the book the look of a clas­sic child’s ad­ven­ture. Philip Stead halts the tale to in­ter­ject spot-on imag­i­nary con­ver­sa­tions with Twain, such as when Stead men­tions dis­ap­point­ment about how the story’s go­ing, and Twain tells him to write his own story then … which he does. So many in­struc­tive Twainian thoughts make this story worth­while, as when Twain men­tions one of the story’s lessons: “I tell you this … there are more chick­ens than a man can know in this world, but an un­pro­voked kind­ness is the rarest of birds.” Pick­ing up the pieces left from demised masters isn’t un­usual. We’ve seen it in Ian Flem­ing’s Bond se­ries, Ray­mond Chan­dler’s “Poo­dle Springs” story, F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s The Last Ty­coon, even Charles Dick­ens’ The Mys­tery of Ed­win Drood. So, when the Steads pick up Twain, you can be­lieve it. And, while the pub­lisher says the book is meant for ages 8-12, you can be­lieve this lat­est episode of Twain sto­ry­telling will cap­ture the imag­i­na­tions of read­ers of all ages.


Au­thor Mark Twain in a 1907 photo.


Philip and Erin Stead have com­pleted a Mark Twain fairy tale.

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