“But I’d say your version lacks credibility.”
“And yet,” said Twain, “here we are just the same–“
Yep. It’s a brand-new book by Mark Twain. No need to check your calendars; it’s still 2017. And Twain has still been dead for 107 years. But nevertheless, here we are, looking at a new children’s book from one of America’s finest storytellers.
The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine was an “unfinished” story based on only 16 pages of handwritten notes Twain wrote for a story he never even began. Like many of us, Twain routinely put his daughters (Clara and Susy) to bed with a story. But when you’re Mark Twain, you don’t simply read the closest picture book that might be at hand. You let your daughters choose an image in a magazine as a point of inspiration and then spin an original tale from your world-famous imagination.
And so it was, in Paris in 1879, that Twain began the story of Johnny, his chicken, and the spoiled Prince Oleomargarine…which he stretched out over the course of five successive nights. In what was apparently an anomaly, Twain later sketched out the basic notes for the story, which were not much more than words and phrases to remind him of the story he told.
He never returned to the notes, which he left unfinished with this tease: “It is guarded by 2 mighty dragons who never sleep.” Twain told countless bedtime stories to his daughters, but this was the only one he bothered to write down and keep.
Nevertheless, those notes essentially disappeared for more than 130 years. Probably forgotten by Twain, they eventually went to the Mark Twain Papers archive at the University of California, Berkeley, after his death. In 2011, Twain scholar Dr. John Bird was conducting research for a possible Twain cookbook and was drawn to the mention of “margarine” in the title.
Needless to say, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is not about margarine. In fact, it’s not even really about Prince Oleomargarine, since he only shows up about 3/4 of the way into the book. The story follows young, destitute Johnny as he is forced to sell his faithful chicken (named Pestilence and Famine) and the adventures that ensue. Along the way, Johnny eats a magical flower that grants him the ability to talk to animals, and he sets out to rescue the missing prince.
Think of it a bit like Jack and the Beanstalk or Into the Woods but without the singing and oversized foliage. This is, through and through, a fairy tale by way of Mark Twain’s sensibilities and humor.
The story is a mere 10,000 words, which is long for a children’s picture book but decidedly short for a Twain story. And that’s because this isn’t REALLY a Mark Twain story. It’s inspired by Twain, sure. But Caldecott Medal-winning author and illustrator Philip and Erin Stead deserve the lion’s share of the credit here.
Philip Stead took those 16 pages of original notes, fleshed them out to a story that is remarkably faithful to Twain’s style, and added an ending. He framed the narrative as a story “told to me by my friend, Mr. Mark Twain” and includes occasional interruptions by an imagined meeting over tea between himself and Twain.
The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine breaks the fourth wall in almost every way imaginable, especially when the story reaches the point at which Twain’s notes end (remember those two dragons?). There are points where the narrative seems to stumble or skip ahead. This is intentional, but it can be slightly jarring if you’re reading this aloud to your kids.
Holding it all together, though, and bringing the world and its characters to life are Erin Stead’s illustrations. They’re pure magic. They lift the words off the page and elevate the book beyond gimmick – beyond the expected. Many spreads are thankfully given over entirely to her spare illustrations, which is why this 10,000-word story clocks in at 150 pages.
Without her art, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine would be an intriguing footnote to Twain’s career. An interesting fragment of literary history. Thankfully, it is so much more.
The world is beautiful and dangerous,
and joyful and sad,
and ungrateful and giving,
and full of so, so many things.
The world is new and it is old.
It is big and it is small.
The world is fierce and it is kind,
and we, every one of us,
are in it.