In his diary, Mark Twain described a typical evening in which his daughters requested he tell them a story, and the author concocted a fairytale about Johnny, a poor boy who is given magical seeds and an important mission. In 2011, more than 100 years later, John Bird, a scholar perusing archives at the University of California, Berkeley known as the Mark Twain Papers, came across Twain’s fragmented notes that sprang from that bedtime storytelling session. Philip and Erin Stead, author and illustrator of the Caldecott-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee, stepped in to bring Twain’s story-in-progress to life in an illustrated storybook, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, which is due from Doubleday on September 26.

After Bird’s discovery, Tina Wexler of ICM Partners, representing the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn., contacted Frances Gilbert, associate publishing director at Random House Books for Young Readers. “She told me she had an unusual project—a recently discovered, unfinished manuscript of a children’s story by Twain,” Gilbert recalled. “I said I was interested in seeing it, and she sent me a handwritten manuscript that I read on the subway home that night. I had a delayed reaction to the enormity of this project—I suddenly stopped reading, looked around the train, and thought, ‘Does anyone know what I’m holding in my hands?’ It was thrilling!”

Knowing that the story needed an author to finish it and an artist to illustrate it, Gilbert created a Word document to compile a list of prospective writers and illustrators. It contained two names: Philip and Erin Stead. “I’ve always admired their work, and I knew this was an incredibly complicated project, and that having them work together as a team would be enormously beneficial,” she explained. “Phil is an extraordinary storyteller and we were all mindful of what kind of story Twain would have written—and that this was an old-fashioned fairy tale that needed some long-form storytelling. And I thought back to Erin’s art in A Sick Day for Amos McGee, in which people and animals share such a deep connection and empathy, as they do in The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. [Philip and Erin] are both huge Mark Twain fans, and they very quickly jumped on board.”

“Since Twain’s manuscript was far from complete, there was a lot of opportunity for us to collaborate with this American icon,” said Philip. “Though Erin and I both felt we weren’t qualified to pull this off, we knew we had to say yes. We knew almost immediately what the ending was, and spent the majority of our time figuring out the beginning—and figuring out who these characters are and why we care about them. We knew we had to make sure we got that right—and that’s what kept us up at night.”

A Tale Takes Shape

Philip initially sequestered himself on Beaver Island, in the middle of Lake Michigan, to plunge into his manuscript. “I knew I had to get something written down quickly, thinking it would be too big and scary to tackle later,” he recalled. In what he called “a stroke of luck,” his remote retreat provided him with unexpected inspiration: “I discovered that, while Brigham Young took his followers to Utah, a rival Mormon leader, James Strang, settled on Beaver Island with his followers—and in 1850 declared himself king.” Given that the story that Twain had begun and Stead was finishing involved a boy and his animal friends on a quest to rescue a stolen prince, despite a bullying tyrant king, Beaver Island serendipitously “became part of the story.”

Philip framed The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine (the title derives from the name on the folder Bird found in the archives—“Oleomargarine”—which likely refers to a magazine ad that his daughters showed Twain as a prompt for the tale) as a story “told to me by my friend, Mr. Mark Twain.” Finding Twain’s voice, he reflected, “was very tricky, especially since I wanted to steer clear of it as much as possible. That may sound counterintuitive, but I didn’t want to mimic Twain. Rather, I wanted to convey what it would have been like if Twain told me a story, and I retold it, and was the one setting it to paper. So there are elements of myself in there as well.”

Twain’s presence, Erin reported, was also evident as she and her husband collaborated. “We both felt there was a ghost in the room the whole time,” she recalled. “As we made decisions, about things like how to break up the text and which parts of the story could be told just through the pictures, we were aware that Twain would probably like the idea of still publishing, but hate the idea of someone collaborating with him. So we approached the work on both sides—the story and the pictures—cautiously, wanting to make him as pleased as possible, yet knowing that a little part of him would still be irritated.”

Philip added that there were others he was more concerned about pleasing as he and his wife worked on the book, which was originally conceived as a 64-page volume and came in at a hefty 160 pages. “I was more interested in making [Twain’s] daughters happy,” he noted. “At the age of 12, his daughter Susy [who died in 1896 of spinal meningitis at 24] wrote her own biography of her father, which was one of my most important sources. She wrote about what she saw as shortcomings in his storytelling, especially to children. She thought The Prince and the Pauper was a decent story, but not as good as he could have made it. She complained that her father had a kind and sympathetic nature, but he seemed to shy away from that aspect of his character—he was too concerned with being clever.”

The Steads took this into consideration in their portrayal of Twain. Philip recalled, “Erin and I said, ‘We can do that—we do kind and sympathetic in our books all the time, and it’s something we do quite well. If we can add that side of him and make his daughter a happy person, let’s do it.’ ” In fact, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, which Doubleday will launch with a 250,000-copy first printing and an extensive marketing campaign, is dedicated “To the Clemens Girls.”

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain and Philip Stead, illus. by Erin Stead. Doubleday, $24.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-553-52322-5