Welcome back, Mark Twain!
New authors finish, illustrate bedtime fairy tale
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.