Children's Bookshelf: The Perloining of Prince Oleomargarine

Nov 6, 2017

This week on The Children's Bookshelf, Dr. Sue Ann Martin reviews "The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine," written by Mark Twain and Philip C. Stead. She recommends it for children ages 10 to 13.

THE PURLOINING OF PRINCE OLEOMARGARINE written by Mark Twain and Philip C. Stead with illustrations by Erin Stead is a fairytale first told by Twain to his young daughters in 1879, never published and recently found among his papers but unfinished. It is finished cleverly here with a wink and a nod by Philip Stead who brings Mark Twain along with him to a cabin in Northern Michigan to collaborate.

The hero of the story is a poor boy named Johnny who lives alone in a barren world with no family, no friends and no food except one magic seed. When Johnny plants it and eats the flower that sprouts he is given the ability to talk with the animals!  Susy the Skunk leads him to a lush and green world deep in the forest where the animals prepare a banquet of berries and nuts in his honor and build him a home.

Erin Stead’s soft, other- worldly pictures are totally captivating with their sheer beauty. Animals populate the pages in delightful groupings and with ever increasing species. The quiet picture of an Ox daydreaming is memorable. The  tangle of ornery dragons adds to the visual fun when Johnny and the animals go to rescue the disagreeable Prince. The illustration of the animals eating with Johnny at the banquet is full of gentle interactions---except for the tiger who has no appetite for berries and nuts. “She had a different kind of tooth.”

The two authors humorously argue about the plausibility of the plot throughout the book. Stead’s storytelling is playful and full of irony and contains clever descriptions of human nature’s shortcomings. And there’s more fun when Mark Twain goes looking for another cup of tea and never returns leaving the fairytale to Stead to finish.

THE PURLOINING OF PRINCE OLEOMARGARINE written by Mark Twain and Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin Stead is a gorgeous book in words, pictures and design about friendship and community for ages 10-13.  (Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 2017).

Questions and Activities for The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

Susy the skunk is one of the most important characters in this fairytale. Think about how she moves the story along. Why did the authors select a skunk, an animal that people and other animals normally run away from, to be a caring leader?

Go back through the pages and enjoy the pictures of the animals once again. How did the pet chicken get its name? What do you think the ox is daydreaming about? Why does the tiger not eat at the banquet? What is the smallest animal at the banquet? How does the nightingale’s song relate to the story? When the king is on his throne what animal can look him straight in the eyes?

The book is full of ironic situations. They often contain humor and satire. For instance, the tiger cleverly talks the spoiled young Prince into riding home on his back. The Prince has one idea of what is going to happen but the tiger has a completely different idea! Can you find other ironic situations in this book?

The animals welcome Johnny into their community and build him a house out of materials found in the forest such as vines and branches. What could you gather from your backyard and other green areas if you were to build a house for Johnny? Don’t forget branches, leaves, ferns, moss, rocks, pebbles, wildflowers and nuts and berries. Use your imagination and draw your picture of Johnny’s house.