Once upon a time, more than a hundred years ago, a great writer sat down to tell his daughters a bedtime story. This was a magical tale of a little boy, seeds with superpowers, talking animals, sleepless dragons and a kidnapped prince.
The writer’s inspiration? An anatomical figure drawing his daughters showed him in a magazine.
Samuel Longhorne Clemens – or Mark Twain, as we know him – jotted down bits and pieces of this story before he died 30 years later. His notes end abruptly just 16 pages later: “It is guarded by two mighty dragons who never sleep.”
This unfinished story, told in 1879 in a hotel room in Paris, is now an illustrated children’s book titled The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, and the tale of how that came to be is equally magical.
The handwritten notes were discovered at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California, by Dr John Bird, a Mark Twain scholar and professor at Winthrop University. In 2014, publisher Doubleday Books for Young Readers acquired the rights to the work with the Mark Twain House and Museum and the Mark Twain papers to create a book using the notes as its foundation.
The publisher went to husband-and-wife duo Philip and Erin Stead, who had won the Caldecott Medal for their illustrated children’s book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Together, they created a story with the magical qualities of a fairy tale in the lessons of kindness, courage and honour that it seeks to deliver, but also a tale relevant for Twain fans of all ages.
Classic Twain, with a twist
The book’s protagonist is Johnny. Johnny is a poor, luckless, lonely boy with a rude, foulmouthed grandfather and pet chicken named Pestilence and Famine. By sheer accident, Johnny embarks on an adventure that lets him escape this wretched life. In many ways, he is very much like one of Twain’s most popular characters, Huckleberry Finn.
Except that the Steads made Johnny a little black boy who lives in a “hard-to-find-difficult-to-pronounce land” in America, which they call There. How would Twain have written the story if his Johnny was black, in the years soon after slavery was abolished in the United States of America? (The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that ended slavery came into effect in 1865.)
The Steads made a bold choice by making the character black, but they do not answer the question of what it must have been like for a black boy in 1870s America. However, they do throw in subtle hints and clever lines to describe violence, danger and inequality in Johnny’s land. To make the distinction more pronounced, the authors talk of two worlds, Here and There.
Here – the United States, where the “luckless and hungry are likely to stub a toe, look down, and discover at their feet a soup bowl full of gold bullion”. And There — Johnny’s land, where they would only discover the “dried-up root of a withered, old apple tree”.
The authors use Here and There repeatedly, to paint a picture of Johnny’s journey from his home to the King’s castle through a road with “wildness, cruelty, and the threat of violence on either side”.
Where Twain meets the present
Writing this book must have been tricky business. First, the authors needed to imagine Twain’s voice from the fragments he left behind. And then, they had to retell the story while being faithful to the style of a writer considered by many to be America’s greatest.
As you read, you realise the Steads have done it seamlessly. You will hardly notice where Twain ends and the Steads begin. Helping their cause is Twain himself.
The chapters in the story are buttressed with several “notes from the author”, in which Philip Stead imagines a conversation with Twain. The conversation takes place in a cabin in Beaver Island near Michigan. It has Stead questioning Twain’s tale, its possibilities and impossibilities, and Twain asking him to write his own story if he found it so hard to believe.
“Let’s try not to interrupt, shall we,” Twain says in one conversation. And, later: “Then perhaps write your own story...”
The world of Erin Stead
Johnny’s is a simple story with straighforward morals. Morals like these:
“There are men who cannot hear animals. And then, there are are men who cannot hear anything at all.”
“Then he opened his mouth and discovered the words that could save mankind from all its troubles, if only mankind could say them once in a while and make them truly meant. He said: I am glad to be here.”
What make it extraordinary are Erin Stead’s illustrations. She uses techniques like wood carving, ink and pencils to create a world that has travelled through time.
Johnny’s is a world where good beats evil, and where kindness, compassion and friendship are seen as the ultimate wealth – the kind of world that “could save mankind from all its troubles”.
The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, Mark Twain and Philip Stead, with illustrations by Erin Stead, Doubleday.