The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain and Philip Stead

Book – This is the curse of children’s literature: a new Harper Lee book for adults becomes one of the most buzzed-about subjects in America for weeks after its arrival, but a new book from Mark Twain–Mark Twain–goes almost unnoticed even among bibliophiles just because it happens to live in the juvenile section.  The unfairness only becomes more pronounced when the book in question is as breathtakingly wonderful in every way as The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.

Twain scholars have long been aware of Twain’s fragmentary notes in his journal of a bedtime story he told his daughters, but only in 2011 did a researcher put the pieces together and match up that outline with an unfinished story draft in a Twain archive.  The project was handed off to Caldecott-winning author-illustrator pair Philip and Erin Stead, who, undaunted by posthumous collaboration with arguably the greatest American author of all time, have produced an absolutely beautiful book.  In length, style and feel it reminds me most of The Little Prince, and is suitable for a similarly unlimited audience: it would make an excellent family read-aloud, as well as a fine solo read for every age.  And as with The Little Prince, it’s difficult to describe exactly what The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is about.

It’s a fairy tale, certainly, about a young boy in a difficult circumstance, learning to talk to animals and finding family, but the ‘what’ is almost irrelevant; its charm is in the telling.  Stead’s insertions, rather than aiming for a seamlessness that would be almost impossible to achieve, are instead embroidered in with a playful and metafictional sweetness that enhances the mood rather than breaking it.  As with any Twain story, this one is funny, wry, compassionate, honest and humane.  You owe it to yourself to make the trip into the children’s department for this one–it’ll be the most magical hour you spend with a book for months.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy

Book – As a book-lover, “what’s your favorite book?” is my least-favorite question. Do you mean my favorite book I’ve read this year? The book I recommend to other people most often? The childhood favorite I still re-read when I’m having a bad day? But then, beneath and beyond all of these, there are those books I read so frequently and at such a young age that I can no longer remember not having read them. They’re just a part of the world, like water and air.

Those are the books that Handy writes about – The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, Ramona the Pest, Where the Wild Things Are, The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s hard to imagine childhood without them, but most of us (unless we have children who like to be read to) haven’t read them in years, or maybe decades. Handy argues that we should, that these books have as much to teach us about the human condition as the canonical great classes, and that they’re just as enjoyable, too.

A book like this runs the risk of being sentimental, and there are some moments that tug at the heartstrings – but Handy isn’t afraid to mention those times his own children didn’t understand the appeal of a favorite book, or when he finally read a classic that he just didn’t enjoy. For anyone who has loved books for most of their life, this is a delightful exploration of some of the books that may have inspired that love in the first place.