The upcoming publication of "The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine," the first children's book ever published by Mark Twain, will be "a huge springboard into Twain's novels" for youths, says a prominent local children's book author.
Pegi Deitz Shea, who wrote the Connecticut Book Award-winning "Tangled Threads" and "Noah Webster: Weaver of Words," says children who read "Oleomargarine" may be more inclined to explore Twain further than those not exposed to his stories as children.
"If this launches them into the Twain oeuvre sooner, that is tremendous gift to young readers," said Deitz Shea, who also teaches writing for children and young adults at UConn and at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. "Anything that gets kids opening books and and interacting with literature and language is a plus."
The publication of "Oleomargarine" is the result of a discovery, in 2011, of a fragment of a Twain story in a California archive. That story has been fleshed out by acclaimed children's book creators Philip and Erin Stead. The Steads have turned Twain's brief, unfinished manuscript into an 11-chapter, 152-page storybook full of illustrations, which will be released on Sept. 26 by Doubleday Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House.
Deitz Shea called the Steads "the latest incarnation of the gold standard in the children's book world."
"This book is getting the royal treatment by someone who deserves it," she said.
Deitz Shea pointed out that a 152-page book is an anomaly in today's world of children's picture books. "The whole trend is in minimal wording these days. ... It's going to be really interesting to see how much wording they're actually going to be using," she said. "Editors and agents used to be telling us picture books should be under 500 words. Now they're saying, under 300. ... One-hundred-fifty-two pages is going to be interesting."
When Twain's family lived in Hartford from 1874 to 1891, Twain told his daughters an original bedtime story every night. All the stories were inspired by two paintings in the parlor, one of a cat wearing a ruff and another of a girl called Emmeline. He never wrote the stories down.
Twain, whose real name was Sam Clemens, continued the tradition when his family was staying in Paris in 1879. There, he told stories inspired by a magazine illustration of a boy. Twain named the boy Johnny. He didn't write those stories down, either, except one time. "Oleomargarine" is based on this fragment of one of the "Johnny" stories.
John Bird, an English professor from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and the author of "Mark Twain and Metaphor," found the "Oleomargarine" manuscript in 2011, while visiting the Mark Twain Papers & Project at the University of California at Berkeley. Bird was looking for material for a Twain-themed cookbook he was researching.
Bird said he found reference to "Johnny" stories Twain told in Paris in 1879 in "A Record of Small Foolishnesses," a running account Twain and his wife, Livy, kept of their daughters' activities. Twain and Livy Clemens had two daughters at the time, Susy and Clara. Jean was born in 1880.
Twain's tale, as written on the manuscript, tells of a dying old widow who gives her son, Johnny, some magic seeds that she got from a woman she believed to be a fairy. She tells him to plant them. When the seeds flower, Johnny must eat them, but only when he is in great need and at a certain time. Then she dies and Johnny suffers from great poverty, humiliation and disdain from his neighbors.
Johnny retreats to the forest with the animals and one day finds a handbill offering a reward for the return of little Prince Oleomargarine, who has been kidnapped, probably by giants. The story continues a bit before Twain's manuscript ends.
"It's very clear that this is probably the only surviving record of the bedtime stories that he told his daughters," Bird said.
Bob Hirst, the director of the Berkeley archive, said the manuscript's existence was well-known to the keepers of the archive, but Bird gave it new meaning when he found it. "These papers have been here since 1947 and have been open for everyone to see since 1953. That manuscript has been known, catalogued and published on microfilm in 2001," Hirst said. "This is what happens in an archive. There are things you think you know the meaning of, you think you understand, then something comes along to tell you something you didn't know."
Bird was granted permission to flesh out the story and publish it. In the end, the Twain House in Hartford approached Random House about creating the final publication. Random House set aside Bird's write-up and hired the Steads. Erin Stead won the Caldecott Medal, the nation's most prestigious award for children's book illustrators, in 2011 for "A Sick Day for Amos McGee," which was written by her husband, Philip Stead.
Cindy Lovell, former executive director of the Twain house, said that the Steads came for a daylong visit, with Frances Gilbert of Random House, to get inspiration for how they would finish the story. Lovell said the Steads understand the monumental task of fleshing out a Twain story.
"To try to write like Mark Twain, no matter how good you are, is really risky," she said. "They wrote it as if Mark Twain popped in for a visit."
The Twain house's current interim executive director, Amy Gallent, said that the house will hold events in the fall to celebrate the book's publication.
The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford will receive a portion of the book's profits.