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The Tale Behind Mark Twain's New Fairy Tale

When veteran children's book author Phillip Stead was asked to write a book from 16 pages of notes scribbled by Mark Twain in the 1880s, he wasn't sure he was up to it.

"My first reaction was a little bit of panic," says Stead from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich. "It's not really a job anybody is necessarily qualified for."

But Stead fleshed out the story into a 152-page book, titled "The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine," which is illustrated by his wife Erin Stead. It is due to hit book stores Sept. 26.

The Steads 2010 book, "A Sick Day for Amos McGee," won the Caldecott Medal, one of the most prestigious prizes in the children's book world.

To write the book, Stead secluded himself on Beaver Island on Lake Michigan to be alone while he finished the first draft. But before he did that, he and Erin researched Twain to hone in on his character.

"Our experience with Twain was very similar to the average American's. We both read 'Huckleberry Finn' in high school. We both read various short stories. We both had seen the Ken Burns documentary," he says.

Reading Twain's recently published autobiography and a biography written by Twain's daughter Susy Clemens — "Papa: An Intimate Biography of Mark Twain" — were most valuable, he says. "The autobiography was dictated. It was not written prose. It was Mark Twain's actual speaking voice. That was just pure gold. How he put sentences together when he was speaking naturally was important to us. ... It was about understanding the rhythm of how a real person talks."

The Susy Clemens book, he says, "was a window into how his own family saw him and a window into what his home life was like. It was a window into the sweetness and gentleness that existed in Mark Twain that he was hesitant to reveal in his other writing."

Stead did not want to mimic Twain in the way he told the story of Prince Oleomargarine. He wanted to think of him as a collaborator.

"He couldn't just be an icon. We needed to tell him when we thought he was wrong and agree with him when we thought he was right," he says.

Bedtime Stories

The family of Twain — whose real name was Samuel Clemens — lived in Hartford from 1874 to 1891. He told his daughters an original bedtime story every night. "Oleomargarine" was told to his daughters when they were staying in Paris.

Twain's manuscript tells the story of a dying widow who gives her son, Johnny, magic seeds that she got from a woman she believed was a fairy. Johnny plants the seeds and eats the flower that grows. In hunger and despair, Johnny goes into the forest to die. In the forest, he discovers that the flower has given him the ability to understand the language of animals. Then he and the animals travel to the royal palace to help the king find Prince Oleomargarine, who has been kidnapped by giants. Twain's story ends as the animals are telling the king how to find the prince.

Stead kept many elements of Twain's story and changed others. The Steads turned the kind widow into a cranky grandfather. Johnny gets the seeds from a stranger. Johnny's friend, a kangaroo, is changed to a skunk.

"Kangaroo is a laugh line. You say the word 'kangaroo' and kids laugh," Erin Stead says. "We needed the character to be serious. She was going to save Johnny."

One interesting element which was not in Twain's manuscript surfaces in the book. Johnny, whose race Twain never specified, was illustrated as an African American by Erin Stead.

Throughout the book, Stead channels Twain in a variety of ways. The skunk is named Susy and Johnny's pet chicken is named Pestilence and Famine, which was the name of a cat owned by Twain. Throughout the book, Stead placed conversations between himself and Twain, with Twain commenting slyly on some changes Stead made and never finishing his version of the story, just as he did in real life.

Homages To Twain

Stead's most subtle homage to Twain is the insertion of several comments that, while not spoken by Twain, could very well have been:

"A great many of the world's tragedies, big and small, were first thunk up in the minds of optimists."

"Every now and then the gods take an unexpected holiday, and for a short time forget their obligation to add misery to the lives of the miserable."

"Honest men and women speak plainly, and at normal volumes."

Philip Stead cited his reading of the autobiography. "It was important to me to not take actual words verbatim out of his mouth," he says. "There's a middle ground that allows me to speak like him."

However, Philip Stead believes the book's ending is "the most Twain and the least Philip and Erin Stead," because it relies on the unlikability of a character.

"In all of our books I don't think we ever made a character who was unsympathetic. Twain would have no problem with an unsympathetic character," he says. "We thought it would make him laugh."

Found In 2011

John Bird, author of "Mark Twain and Metaphor," found the 16-page Oleomargarine manuscript in 2011 at the Mark Twain Papers & Project at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's very clear that this is probably the only surviving record of the bedtime stories that he told his daughters," Bird says.

Bird got permission to finish the story and publish it. He sought assistance from Cindy Lovell, former director of the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. Lovell landed a publishing deal with Doubleday Books for Young Readers. Doubleday chose not to publish Bird's version and hired the Steads to do it.

The book is geared toward ages 8 to 12. Much of the humor is more sophisticated than that demographic. Stead says that doesn't worry him.

"I think back to things I loved as a kid. My favorite movie when I was 8, 9, 10 years old was 'Animal Crackers' with the Marx Brothers. I watch that movie now and I realize how little I understood. But the spirit of the movie was completely understood by me," he says. "That's true of Muppet movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons. They're filled with jokes that are just too difficult to understand if you don't have all the knowledge necessary. But it's the spirit."

Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford will receive a portion of the profits from the book.

To celebrate the book’s release, the city will hold what officials at the Twain House call "the shortest, grandest parade in Hartford" on Tuesday, Sept. 26. It steps off at noon from City Hall, 500 Main St. Mayor Luke Bronin and a marching band will march to the building next door, Hartford Public Library, where Bronin will proclaim the day "Prince Oleomargarine Day." At 4:15 p.m. that day, "Better Connecticut" host Kara Sundlun will read the book at the museum, 351 Farmington Ave. Admission is free.

The museum has announced that Lincoln Financial Foundation awarded the museum a grant for an after-school creative writing program using “Prince Oleomargarine” in Hartford middle schools.

Two events will be held in November to mark the publication. On Nov. 4 at 6 p.m., the Mark Twain House will hold a gala to introduce the book at The Hartford Club, 46 Prospect St. marktwainhouse.org.

On Nov. 16, the Mark Twain Library in Redding — the town where Twain lived in the last two years of his life — will hold a book signing with Philip Stead. marktwainlibrary.org.

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