By Danuta Kean
A 16-page note about a fairytale told to Mark Twain’s daughters is to be published this year, on the 150th anniversary of the Huckleberry Finn author’s first book. The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is based on handwritten notes by Twain of a story told to his young daughters one night in Paris in 1879. In the story, a young boy who can talk to animals recruits some creatures to help him save a kidnapped prince. The long-lost tale has been completed and illustrated by author and illustrator team Philip and Erin Stead. Publisher Doubleday said the tale explores themes of charity, kindness and bravery in the face of tyranny, with sharply drawn satire and touching pathos.
A scholar spotted the story in 2011 among archive materials when he visited the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the University of California at Berkeley. Although Twain told his young daughters countless bedtime stories, made up on the spot as they requested them, it is believed that this was the only time he recorded one. Frances Gilbert, associate publishing director at Random House Books for young readers, who edited the book, said: “To publish a new Twain story is an incredible literary event. When I first got the chance to read this unpublished story, I couldn’t believe what I was holding.”
The book will be published on 26 September, which coincides with the 150th anniversary of the publication of his first book: the 1867 short-story collection The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches. Philip and Erin Stead have already completed the manuscript, which the publisher said would be framed as “told to me by my friend, Mark Twain”. The award-winning duo are among the best-known names in US children’s writing, behind books like A Sick Day for Amos McGee.
Publication of rediscovered stories by the giants of children’s literature has become one of the nicest little earners of recent publishing history. Last year, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots shot to the top of Amazon’s book charts as soon as the discovery was announced, eight months before its publication, becoming a centrepiece of celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth.
Discovered by publisher Jo Hanks in the V&A archive, the long-lost story about “a well-behaved prime black Kitty cat, who leads rather a double life”, featured some of the author’s most beloved characters, including Mr Tod, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Tabitha Twitchit as well as an “older, slower and portlier” version of Peter Rabbit.
An illustration from Potter’s The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots. Photograph: Quentin Blake/Image courtesy Frederick Warne & Co. & the V&A Museum. Huckleberry Finn author made up numerous stories for his children, but The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is the only one to survive
Illustrated by Quentin Blake, it has gone on to sell 36,400 copies since its publication in September, according according to the latest figures from Nielsen Bookscan. That is small beer compared to Dr Seuss’s What Pet Should I Get?, which sold 200,000 copies in just a week in the US after it was published in 2015. The rhyming guide to choosing an animal companion might not have been up with with Seuss’s most famous works, such as The Cat in the Hat or Sam I Am, but the outpouring of enthusiasm included a rhyming review from New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani: “Seuss never spoke down to his readers, no matter how small. / His tales were told with vim, vigor and zest. / What Pet Should I Get? entertains us just fine. / Who cares if this book’s not really his best?”
In 2011, an unfinished manuscript by children’s illustrator Richard Scarry was finished off by by his son, Huck, and published as part of the 50th birthday celebrations for Scarry’s The Best Word Book Ever. Featuring one of Scarry’s best-loved characters, the alpine-hatted, uniped Lowly Worm, who drives around in an apple, it was published in classic hyperbolic Scarry tradition as The Best Lowly Worm Book Ever. Scarry’s books – in which Lowly Worm often appeared as a squiggle in the corner of a page – are reported to have sold more 100million copies since their first appearance in 1963 and, like Potter and Dr Seuss, have never been out of print. They do, however, point up the tension between publishing for nostalgists – who may rue the fact that the cats and dogs of Scarry’s anthropomorphic Busytown are no longer dressed as cowboys and Indians as they were in days of yore – and a new readership of children for whom such cultural references have become taboo.
One of the most controversial children’s authors in this respect is Enid Blyton, whose Famous Five books were updated in 2010 in an attempt to to increase their appeal to modern children, which publisher Hodder Children’s Books admitted last year had been unsuccessful. She remains perennially popular with nostalgists, who powered a series of parody books to the top of the 2016 christmas charts. But the initial excitement caused by the rediscovery in 2011 of Mr Tumpy’s Caravan, 180-page fantasy story about the adventures of a caravan with feet and a mind of its own, among papers bought at auction by the Newcastle upon Tyne children’s centre Seven Stories, fizzled out when no plans were announced to publish the tale. The typewritten story was described by Seven Stories collection director Sarah Lawrance as “the only known full length unpublished story by Enid Blyton”.
It dates back to the early 1930s, more than a decade before the publication of a different story, Mr Tumpy and His Caravan, in 1948. “I think it would be fair to say that she got better. said Lawrance. “Also children have changed in the 80 years since it was written so If we brought it out right now it would be a collectors’ item rather than a book for children.” Mark Twain stands apart as an author whose appeal spans all ages and was described by William Faulkner as “the father of American literature”. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, he was most famous for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, his ability to combine humour, social realism and commentary about the vanity of mankind earned him his reputation as the greatest American novelist and humorist of his age.
But Twain too has met his share of controversy in recent years, because of his racist language. According to the American Libraries Association, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, alongside Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, regularly top the list of books that parents want banned from US school curricula. In December 2016, Huckleberry Finn was removed from classrooms in Virginiaafter a complaint by a parent. The parent complained that the frequent use of the N-word in the book was problematic for her biracial son. The anti-censorship lobby group the National Coalition Against Censorship responded to the move in a post on its Kids’ Right To Read website, writing: “By avoiding discussion of controversial issues such as racism, schools do a great disservice to their students.” The books were later reinstated in classrooms across the state.
Source: The Guardian, 23 January 2017 issue.