Rona Sue London, The Ivy Bookshop’s children’s section curator, chats with Caldecott-winning husband and wife team of Philip and Erin Stead about their latest work — a never-before-published, previously unfinished Mark Twain children’s story.
The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine: A Conversation with Philip and Erin Stead
Rona: This is such a tender book with such gentle illustrations. The text and drawings complement each other perfectly. How do you work together to make the connections between the two so seamless?
Philip: Really the answer is that we just spend so much time together. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers and picture books have been our co-obsession since the beginning. Because we work so closely together all day every day, every aspect of the book is made as a team. Sometimes Erin will suggest a change in the text to allow for a certain approach to the art. Likewise, I’ll sometimes ask for an illustration to behave in a certain way to call attention to a piece of text. Most authors and illustrators don’t have this luxury. In fact, most authors and illustrators never even speak to each throughout the book making process!
Rona: The book has a larger picture book format, with glorious illustrations, and the length and sophistication of a middle reader. When you envision your book being read, who do you picture reading, to whom is it being read and in what setting?
Philip and Erin: From the beginning, we’ve thought about this book as one that ought to be read aloud. It began as a piece of oral tradition—a story told spontaneously by Mark Twain to his young daughters. It was always meant to be spoken aloud. Because of that, there is some element of performance to the story. We worked from notes left by Mark Twain, but undoubtedly some of those notes are actually written evidence of interruptions and suggestions from his daughters that would’ve happened in the moment. It makes us happy to know that the story can continue to evolve and change in this way each time it’s told to a new child. While the language may be a bit difficult for, say, a child under the age of 10, we have a lot of faith in the abilities of young children to understand complex stories with the help of visual context. In fact, picture book readers might just be the most sophisticated readers out there.
Rona: What emotions did you experience when you learned you would be entrusted to bring Mark Twain’s ideas to fruition?
Philip: Mostly panic. And a desire to flee. I actually did flee in a certain sense. Shortly after we received Mark Twain’s notes, I left to be alone for a while at a secluded cabin on Beaver Island, a sparsely populated patch of land in the middle of Lake Michigan. I needed time alone to reckon with the enormity and ridiculousness of what we had just signed up for. To my surprise, it was the island itself that suggested a path forward for the writing. Beaver Island holds an interesting and bizarre place in American history. The more I learned about the island, the more I thought, Wow, Mark Twain would love this! And so Beaver Island’s strange history began to weave its way into the plot.
Rona: How did the idea develop of the book within the book, with you and Twain chatting?
Philip and Erin: It began on the very first day that we saw and read Twain’s notes. So much of what Twain left us was perfect. There were some things, though, that just didn’t seem right to us. For example, Twain had made one of his main characters, Susy, a kangaroo. We were hesitant to allow that because every child knows that kangaroos only live in Australia. If you’ve got a kangaroo in your story, you’ve just accidentally placed your whole story in Australia. We wanted the setting to be more ambiguous. So, the kangaroo became a skunk. But it didn’t seem right to just make changes to Twain without giving him a say. So imagined conversations began to unfold. The conversations allowed Twain to have his say while also allowing us to follow our own storytelling instincts.
Rona: Congratulations! You have a new baby. The seeds for this book came from a bedtime story that Twain shared with his daughters, Clara and Susy, in 1879. Can you envision the kind of bedtime stories you will tell your child? Do you feel that the essential nature of storytelling has changed in the 138 years since the notes for this book were jotted down?
Philip: I think storytelling for children has changed dramatically over the last century or so. Erin and I often talk about this change as the difference between stories told for children and stories told at children. Sometime around the 1960s, there was a real attitude shift in the world of children’s books. Books no longer had to be instructive and they no longer had to have a moral. They could just be for children. Book makers found that they could speak directly to the concerns of a child. Prior to that, most children’s books were meant to instruct and illuminate. The closer you get to the 19th century, the more didactic children’s books become. They are, in a sense, books written at children. Twain, though, was a storyteller first and a moralist second. I believe he respected his own children enough to tell them an honest story. And I don’t think he would have been satisfied if the story didn’t entertain them and respond to their real concerns. I hope to have the same respect for my daughter by the time she’s old enough to ask for a story of her own.
Rona: In a world so replete with cynicism, what is the role of books like this one that celebrate honor, grace and dignity?
Philip and Erin: We’d like to believe that a good story can be powerful enough to change the mind of a cynic but, in reality, that’s probably a long shot. What a good story can do, though, is provide hope to those that are worn down by cynicism. In the times we’ve felt most hopeless about the state of the world, we’ve always turned to books to make us feel right again. Kurt Vonnegut, George Saunders, Roald Dahl, Flannery O’Connor, JK Rowling—authors like these have given us hope to keep working when the going gets tough. If we’ve done our jobs right, then we can give that same hope to people when they need it most.
Meet the authors!
The Ivy Bookshop and Friends School of Baltimore are thrilled to host the Steads at noon on Sunday, November 12, in Friends’ Lower School Multi-Purpose Room. The event is free and open to the public. Registration is not required. For more information, please call 410-377-2966.
Photo of Philip and Erin Stead by Nicole Haley. Provided by The Ivy Bookshop.