This recently discovered Twain fairy tale finds life as a picture book.
Completing a story penned by arguably America’s greatest author is no easy feat, but the Caldecott-winning author-illustrator (and husband-wife) team proves more than equal to the task, transforming Twain’s jotted notes in an 1879 journal entry about a story told to his daughters into a beautifully illustrated fable that showcases the exemplary talents of all three artists. The tale follows the adventures of Johnny, a kindhearted African-American child being raised by his cruel grandfather. Forced to sell his only friend—a pet chicken—Johnny, rather like Jack before him, instead acquires seeds, the flowers from which enable him to converse with animals. When Prince Oleomargarine—the kingdom’s heir—is kidnapped, Johnny and his animal friends mount a rescue. Interwoven through the fairy tale is a series of author’s notes detailing a fictitious meeting between Twain and the author, from which this story emerges. Twain’s presence in the narrative allows Philip Stead to both acknowledge his literary debt and retain the freedom to make the tale his own. He is aided by Erin Stead’s sublime print illustrations, which demonstrate her masterful ability to create physical presence and characters’ emotions as well as landscapes; the muted greens, soft blues, and light pinkish-brown hues of her double-page spreads set a magical tone for a world that mirrors, but is not quite, our own.
A pensive and whimsical work that Twain would applaud. (Picture book. 8-adult)