After winning the Caldecott Medal for A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Roaring Brook/Porter, 2010), Philip and Erin Stead, the husband-and-wife writing-and-illustrating team, received a number of book requests, but none as mysterious as an offer from Doubleday via their agent. “All they could tell us was that it involved Mark Twain,” Philip recalls. “We were intrigued enough to say yes, even though we didn’t know what we were saying yes to.”
Six months later the Steads received a 16-page typescript of handwritten notes for a children’s fairy tale by Twain. A scholar had found the notes, about a boy who can talk to animals, in Twain’s papers, which are archived at the University of California at Berkeley. Though Twain often told his daughters bedtime stories, this is believed to be the only one he ever started to record.
“It was a bit terrifying when the notes arrived, and we realized it was actually happening,” Philip says. “I was completely overwhelmed.” His reaction was to retreat by himself to a borrowed cabin on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, a community first settled in the mid-19th century by Mormons, whose leader, James Jesse Strang, declared himself king of the island. Even today, there is no cell phone reception, so the only conversations Philip had were one-sided ones with Mark Twain. “I told him all about James Jesse Strang—about his brief and unlikely kingdom,” Philip wrote in an afterword to the book. “Then I told him all about my Good Idea, which was: Make Beaver Island a part of the story.”
In two weeks Philip had a draft of The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, which will be released on September 26 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Twain’s first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (C.H. Webb).
Though Doubleday pitched the project as a picture book, that was not precisely what the Steads delivered. Philip spent four months revising it before handing the manuscript to Erin to illustrate. The text had grown to 10,000 words. (By way of comparison, A Sick Day for Amos McGee contains fewer than 450 words.)
“Even before we negotiated the contract, we said we couldn’t commit to a 32-page book,” Erin says. “It wasn’t just that Twain wouldn’t have written a picture book in the first place—picture books didn’t exist when he wrote this—the story had too much of an arc to condense it to 32 pages. But we never imagined it would be five times longer than a regular picture book.”
The finished work is a story framed with “as told to me by my friend Mark Twain,” who comments on the narrative. It is 152 pages long. “It could’ve been a middle grade novel, but we’re picture book makers,” Erin says. “It was just natural for me to break up the text with a lot of page breaks and white space.”
Erin used a limited palette of mostly earth tones, as is her style, creating the images with woodblocks, printed with oil inks and drawn over with pencil. Each of the 11 chapter headings was carved in wood using a laser. “This was written more than 100 years ago, and I wanted the illustrations to reflect that, and to make it very American without hitting on any single period,” she says. She also hid Twain Easter eggs throughout.
Philip and Erin Stead will appear with Frances Gilbert on Friday, April 7, 2–2:45 p.m., in Clackamas & Clark.