cover image The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

Mark Twain and Philip C. Stead, illus. by Erin Stead. Doubleday, $24.99 (160p) ISBN 978-0-553-52322-5

Working from notes Twain made after telling an especially successful bedtime story, Philip C. Stead completes the tale of gentle Johnny, whose heart is pure despite his bleak surroundings and cruel grandfather. A magic flower gives him the power to understand the speech of animals, and a menagerie of kindly creatures helps him win the reward for finding the kingdom’s lost Prince Oleomargarine—an insufferable twit, as it turns out. In postmodern fashion, Johnny’s odyssey is often interrupted by imagined banter between Twain and Stead, who sit outside an island cabin and argue about how to proceed. Erin Stead’s exquisite woodblock-and-pencil prints give the creamy pages an ethereal feel; her detailed close-up portraits of the main characters create a sense of intimate acquaintance. Even the action spreads have the stately appearance of medieval tapestries, as when Johnny and his animal family appear before the king: the tiny monarch, a tad defensive about his stature, sits on a throne that elevates him almost to the ceiling, putting him face-to-face with the delegation’s giraffe. At the story’s heart is a plea for honesty and kindness, expressed in its purest form by Johnny, who—unlike his voluble authors—doesn’t say much. “Then he opened his mouth and discovered the words that could save mankind from all its silly, ceaseless violence.... He said: ‘I am glad to know you.’ ” Stead stays faithful to Twain with a cast of eccentric characters, celestially fine writing, and a crusade against pomp that doesn’t sacrifice humor. Ages 8–12. Agent: (for the Mark Twain House and Museum) Tina Wexler, ICM; (for the Steads) Emily van Beek, Folio Literary Management. (Sept.)