Mark Twain Is Back With a Previously Unpublished Children’s Story

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I’ll be honest. When I first heard about this, I wasn’t too sure how to feel. It’s 2017, and we really shouldn’t be seeing a newly published book by Mark Twain. But here we are.

Last week, Doubleday Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books) announced that they’re publishing a previously unreleased, unfinished children’s book by Twain: The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. Calling it “unfinished” is a bit of a misnomer, too, since the story is based on only 16 pages of notes Twain wrote for a story he never even began.

In a hotel in Paris one evening in 1879, Mark Twain sat with his young daughters, who begged their father for a story. After the girls chose a picture from a magazine to get started, Twain began telling them the tale of Johnny, a poor boy in possession of some magical seeds. Later, Twain would jot down some rough notes about the story, but the tale was left unfinished… until now.

Plucked from the Mark Twain archive at the University of California at Berkeley, Twain’s notes now form the foundation of a fairy tale picked up over a century later. With only Twain’s fragmentary script and a story that stops partway as his guide, author Philip Stead has written a tale that imagines what might have been if Twain had fully realized this work.

It’d be all too easy to write this off as a publicity stunt, especially since I’m sure many of us are still smarting from Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. But Random House has put some serious muscle behind this book.

Philip and Erin Stead (who have written and illustrated several children’s books, including the Caldecott Medal-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee) completed the text and illustrated the book, framing the narrative as a story “told to me by my friend, Mr. Mark Twain.” The book even includes occasional interruptions by an imagined meeting over tea between Philip and Twain.

Philip, obviously, had a few reservations about stepping into shoes as large as Twain’s: “Of course any person in their right mind would be terrified of this project. But having the support of the Twain House allayed some fears… and then I had a good long walk-and-talk with my dog about it, and she assured me I had her full support, and that I was the right man for the job–provided it did not cut into our twice-daily ambles through the neighborhood, mealtimes, or the hours set aside each day for lying on our backs with our bellies in the air.”

So, despite my immediate reservations, I, for one, am eagerly anticipating this book.

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine will be an 11-chapter, 152-page illustrated storybook for all ages, and it is set to release on September 26, 2017. Its publication will also take place during the 150th anniversary of Mark Twain’s very first book, a collection of 27 previously published stories titled The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches.

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