When Mark Twain’s daughters begged for a bedtime story in a hotel in Paris in 1879, he began a fairy tale about a poor boy named Johnny. Later he jotted down 16 pages of notes, only to leave the project unfinished.
Fast forward to 2014, when Doubleday acquired the rights to the story, working with the Mark Twain House and Museum and the Mark Twain Papers. The publisher turned to husband-and-wife team Philip and Erin Stead, the author and illustrator of the Caldecott Medal-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee. The result of this years-in-the-making, grand collaboration is the highly unusual, lively The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.
The story rolls right along, focusing on dirt-poor Johnny (and his pet chicken, named Pestilence and Famine), who, after a series of misfortunes, shows kindness to an old beggar woman. As for the titular princely hero, he only makes a brief appearance near the end, as a demanding, narcissistic young man holding a band of poor outcasts hostage in a cave.
There’s also a king and queen and a menagerie of talking animals, including an elephant that will remind fans of the Steads’ Amos McGee pachyderm. Erin’s trademark illustrations combine a variety of techniques (wood carving, ink, pencil and laser cutting) in muted colors to convey sadness, humor and immediacy, serving to pace the lengthy tale perfectly.
Not surprisingly, both pictures and words hold magic here. How could Philip pay homage to Twain while crafting his own tale? The solution: Philip interrupts chapters with imagined exchanges between himself and Twain, as they sit, sip tea and argue plot points. Somehow the whole thing works beautifully, providing readers with an intriguing look at the creative process.
This is a noteworthy publishing treat, one best shared and read aloud. Readers can imagine Twain sitting back, nodding his head and smiling as he admires this new, deeply imaginative rendition.