MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Mark Twain has a new book out this week, a fairytale called "The Purloining Of Prince Oleomargarine." Yeah, OK, we know Twain died in 1910. But notes he made about a bedtime story he once told his daughters were recently discovered. Those notes mention a boy and a magic flower that lets him talk to animals - and not a lot else. So Random House asked the author-illustrator duo of Philip and Erin Stead to turn the notes into a book.
PHILIP STEAD: You know, I think there are two ways - at least two ways to approach this project. One was to try to predict the exact way that Mark Twain would've told this story in 1879.
ERIN STEAD: I think we were hesitant to do that particularly because you'd fail right away. We had to be able to feel like this was a collaboration. Because the story was told orally, it would've changed, and ebbed and flowed, and I think that's how Phil approached how we would tell the story on our end.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: One of the decisions that y'all made that has proven a little bit controversial was you made the hero, who's a little boy named Johnny, black. And there's no textual evidence that Mark Twain intended for him to be black. So why did you make that choice?
P STEAD: Well, I think it would be a little bit ridiculous for there to be textual evidence. That said, we were treating Twain as if he were a living person and as if he were a person collaborating with us in the year 2017. And I think anybody who's studied Twain knows that he was certainly progressive, but he didn't necessarily begin progressive, and he evolved and changed over time. And I think if Twain could've lived through the 21st century, he would make his choices a lot differently than he may have earlier in his career.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: Erin, jump in here since you're the one who actually decided what Johnny was going to look like. How did you come at the decision?
E STEAD: To be honest with you, it was one decision within a myriad of other decisions. And he was the kid I saw. And I think we're talking about it right now particularly because we are living in a very politically charged time at the moment.
P STEAD: Yeah, three years ago, when we began the project, it wasn't a political decision. That said, it - I think it's very unfortunate that if we had chosen a white character as the main character, I'm not sure that we would be answering these questions. I don't think that white children and white people in general are asked to be symbols of anything. And for some reason, people of color are often asked to be symbols, and they're not necessarily allowed to just be characters within a story.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: The original audience for this bedtime story - as Mark Twain originally was reading it his head - would've been his daughters, as we said. And you, in a lovely gesture, dedicate this book to the Clemens girls along with your own daughter. What do you think they would've made of it?
P STEAD: I hope they would've liked it. There's a fantastic quote from Susy Clemens, who may have been Mark Twain's favorite daughter. And in one little passage of her biography that she wrote of her own father, she wrote that, I have wanted papa to write something that reveals something of his kind and sympathetic nature. And so those are the things that we tried to help Twain bring into this book to help please Susy and to help please his other daughters as well.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: And Erin, did you have them in your mind as you drew?
E STEAD: I did. I think if we had set this book out to please Mr. Twain that we would've failed, and I think we knew that from the get-go. And I think he'd be happy to be published today. And I think that he'd grumble that we collaborated with him because we're not qualified, and we're not. But I think that we were qualified to make Susy happy, and so that's how we approached the book - was to try to make Susy happy.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: That's Erin Stead and Philip Stead speaking to us about how they collaborated with the late Mark Twain on "The Purloining Of Prince Oleomargarine." Thanks so much to you both.
ERIN STEAD AND PHILIP STEAD: Thanks for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE GREENCARDS' "ALMOST HOME")
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