Prather’s Pick: A new book by Mark Twain
March 27, 2018
My favorite author is Mark Twain. I've read all his works, visited his boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, and taught a class on Mark Twain at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Craig. So, when my sister, Darlene Blackford, gave me a new book by Mark Twain, I was thrilled. I was also surprised, because, after all, Mark Twain has been dead a long time.
It turns out that author Philip Stead used some notes found in the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California to write "The Purloining of Prince Oleomargaine, " a tale for children. Erin Stead created the book's illustrations, using woodblock printing, pencil, ink and laser cutter.
In a "Note from the Editor" at the end of the book, the reader learns Twain had a nightly routine with his daughters. Each night, the girls found a picture in a magazine, and their father told a story based on it. One night, the picture inspired a story about a young boy named Johnny. Twain wrote down some notes about this story, presumably as a future tale for children, but it was never finished.
The notes ended up with the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California. They were discovered by Dr. John Bird when he asked to look through a file that contained the word "oleomargarine." (Bird was hunting for food-related material for a possible Twain cookbook.)
Eventually, Doubleday Books for Young Readers acquired the rights to create a new book based on the notes. That's when Philip and Erin Stead, recipients of the Caldecott Medal for a previous work, came into the picture.
One of the things I like about the book is the creative way Stead included Twain as one of the authors. Forty-two pages into the book, Twain and Stead come together at a cabin on Beaver Island in the middle of Lake Michigan. As Twain drinks tea and Stead drinks coffee, Twain tells the book's story (according to Stead, "three-quarters of it, anyway"). Twain comments on other things, too. Stead has done an incredible job of accurately capturing Twain's style.
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In the story, Johnny lives in "a hard-to-find-and-difficult-to-pronounce land, a land not all that far from here — not all that far but hard enough to find that you're likely to never get there." Judging by the illustration, the land is barren and desolate. The reader meets Johnny when he stops to rub his toe. He has just stubbed it on the roots of an old, withered apple tree.
Pestilence and Famine, a white chicken, is Johnny's only companion. Johnny's only family is his grandfather, who is a bad man. Grandfather curses often, and the home is unhappy — so unhappy, in fact, that once, a flock of pigeons dropped dead on the roof from despair.
Eventually, Johnny leaves home and embarks on an adventure, complete with talking animals, an old woman who gives Johnny some magical seeds, a king and queen who order him to find Prince Oleomargarine and two ornery dragons.
"The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine" is a superb book, and if I didn't know any different, I would believe it was all written by Mark Twain. The illustrations are wonderful.
You can find the book at Downtown Books. It costs about $24.99 in hardcover, but it is a large book of about 152 pages.