Philip & Erin Stead Talk with Roger

Philip & Erin Stead Talk with Roger

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An unpublished bedtime story by Mark Twain? Not exactly. The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is based on some notes Twain made on a story he was telling his daughters. While too elliptical, fragmentary, and unresolved to even be called an outline, these notes gave Philip and Erin Stead plenty of room to play.

Roger Sutton: When a celebrated adult writer decides to write a children's book, it's almost invariably a bedtime book. I don't know about you all, but at the Horn Book we say oh God, not again.

PS: Yeah, it can be kind of a groaner when that happens.

RS: And yet you have one here from Mark Twain's archive, unpublished. How promising did the manuscript that would become The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine seem when you first looked at it?

PS: We were actually a bit nervous at first. We had to say yes to the project before seeing the actual material.

RS: Yikes.

ES: We could always back out. That was what we told ourselves.

PS: We said yes, and then the material arrived, and we were pleasantly surprised by what was there. It was pitched to us as being—

ES: An outline with no ending.

PS: But actually there was more there than people had maybe realized.

RS: And what an ending! The Twain manuscript leaves off with the purloined Prince guarded by dragons. What do you think happened? Did a page go missing?

PS: We've had a few years to think about that, and our opinion — which is not official — is that there was no ending.

ES: He never finished it.

PS: Which was very much something that Twain would do. I don't think he was all that interested in endings in general. With Huck Finn, you've got one half of it that may be one of the greatest pieces of American literature ever, but by the time he had to come up with an ending, he completely dropped the ball.

RS: Do you think he hoped his kids would just forget about this bedtime story and move on to a different one?

ES: I think at the time it had an ending, or maybe the story just kept going.

PS: It's hard to say, but we've really gotten to know Twain over the last three years, not as an American icon but as a collaborator. And the more I've gotten to know this guy, the more I've realized that the process was what was interesting to him, not necessarily the destination. If you read his autobiographies or his travelogues — or, really, most of his work — I think that sort of spirit is evident.

RS: Phil — I'm going to have another version of this question for you, Erin — how did you make decisions about where it was appropriate to barge in and where you had to leave Twain alone?

PS: That was a very tricky balance. Whenever possible I tried to leave his notes intact — which is probably not what he would have done if he had ever set this story down on paper, because for him they were just notes. But a lot of his notes were quite beautiful, so whenever possible I lifted exact sections. However, there was a lot to fill in, and at times we felt like Twain's lack of experience as a children's author somewhat hampered his ability to tell the story properly.

RS: Can you give me an example?

PS: One of the main characters in his notes was a kangaroo named Susy, named after one of his daughters. On the very first day, we ran a red line through that. If you make a character a kangaroo, you've just automatically set your story in Australia. It's too specific; every kid knows where kangaroos come from. I think he picked a kangaroo because he thought it was silly and funny and fun and his daughters would like it, but neither of us felt comfortable using the kangaroo as a character because it would narrow the world instead of broadening it.

ES: This character is the first animal who can speak to Johnny. A kangaroo just felt too silly. It's similar to what you were saying about celebrities writing bedtime books. It's a choice you make in real time because it makes the kid laugh, but in a picture book you have to be cautious about those decisions. It can seem like you're talking down to your audience instead of talking with them.

RS: And that is exactly the problem we see with so many celebrity bedtime books, this kind of unbridled whimsy. If you guys wrote a book like that, your editor would say, "No effing way am I going to allow that in."

PS: I'm going to write a book called No Effing Way.

RS: So Erin, where did you decide to barge in and where to leave things alone?

ES: That was one of my hardest decisions, because I knew I wanted to illustrate this like a picture book. That was always the plan, even when Phil came back with chapters. So I decided, as the third voice in this strange trio, that I would barge in when pauses were needed or when the description wasn't as full. A lot of times, between Phil and Twain, they really describe the scene, and those are the times I decided to stay out of it. But when there are characters introduced or moments that I thought could use a pause or a page turn, that's when I would interject. Those were the times I got a little handsy.

RS: It's an amazingly free-looking book, in that you don't sense that there's any formula about "here we're going to have a lot of text"; "here we're going to have a wordless spread." It all seems organic.

PS: Yes and no.

ES: That is partially true. It took me the longest time to break up the text. That was the part I really had to pause over. I'm the one who made the book as long as it is. It's my fault.

PS: The book did keep growing in size. It was originally supposed to be 64 pages, and then it was 96, and then 122, and then eventually we landed at 152. And we didn't know if Random House was going to be okay with that. Luckily they never said no.

RS: Erin, how do you make a dummy for something like this?

ES: The first thing I do is take an early version of Phil's manuscript and start marking it up with pencil, like an editor — but as an illustrator, so my marks are very strange. Then I'll start laying it into a document and thinking about page turns and how I want the book to sound. I begin with the text, with the rhythm of it, before drawing anything.

RS: Do you think of this as a picture book?

ES: Yes.

PS: Yes.

RS: I was on the Hugo Cabret Caldecott committee, where we got accused of overstretching the boundary of what a picture book could be. So tell me, for my own edification, why this is a picture book? Give me a paragraph. Each.

PS: A paragraph?

ES: Each?

PS: The distinction between this and something I would not consider a picture book is that the page turns really matter. A picture book is anything that can't be told properly without the images being paired with the text in a very specific way. You can't re-illustrate this book. You can't condense it or abridge it and have the book function the same way with all the same emotional notes.

ES: For me it's a picture book any time an illustrator is allowed to interject within the text. Rather than spot illustrations where you're, for lack of a better term, decorating a chapter, you're instead manipulating the text, and to me that makes a picture book. I'm pulling some strings, too.

PS: The length of the book allowed us to do things that are difficult to do in a more traditional 32- or 40-page picture book, but that doesn't necessarily make them things that don't belong in picture books. For example, Erin used portraiture in this book.

RS: Why wouldn't you see that in a picture book?

ES: Most of the time it's because you’re battling the 32-page restriction, which I actually believe makes us all better picture-book makers; I don't think we should be regularly making 160-page books. Often you have to move a story along without the luxury of saying, "This is the chicken. This is exactly what the chicken looks like." I allowed myself a lot of fun that usually I have to edit out because we only have 32 pages to work with.

PS: And that's where Mark Twain came in. If we didn't have Mark Twain's name on this, we would not have been able to take the creative liberties we did.

RS: I'm still stuck on portraiture. You're making me think about how a portrait is a subset of "pictures of people." Not all pictures of people are portraits.

PS: A picture book traditionally depicts action in some way. Erin and I have always played with that a little bit. Some of our books are very static. In a book like A Sick Day for Amos McGee, there's a lot of standing or sitting around. It wasn't a huge leap for us to then completely remove context and action and have a floating head in this story.

ES: The portraits evolved out of this idea that Phil was having a conversation with Twain, and I wanted to have a conversation with his characters. I imagined these illustrations as though the characters were sitting for portraits with me. I got to take that beat of a portrait and do it with a little wink.

RS: The space here gives you more luxury for that. If you stop in a 32-page picture book for a portrait of somebody, you might stop everything.

ES: Right. That's the idea.

RS: So, what do you think Twain would think of this book?

ES: We talk about that a lot. I think he'd be happy to be published again, although he'd probably wryly criticize us in public.

RS: That's my job now.

ES: But we did the best we could to make him happy.

PS: From the get-go we viewed the project as something a bit different than your standard posthumously published book, because it was originally a piece of oral tradition, something that was told spontaneously in the moment.

ES: And it was for his daughters.

PS: Yes. We felt that it was in-bounds to pick it up and tell it our way, the same way that any piece of oral tradition changes over time based on the tellers. We also felt that, as important of an American writer as Mark Twain is, he was a little bit too early to fully understand picture-book writing and writing for children. We felt like we could actually provide a service for him in that way.

ES: The best we could.

PS: At the beginning of the book there's a quote from his daughter Susy. "I have wanted Papa to write a book that would reveal something of his kind sympathetic nature." Susy wrote a biography of her father when she was twelve or thirteen years old, and in that biography you can find little criticisms. One was that she felt like he was always just a little bit too clever—

ES: For his own good.

PS: Especially when it came to writing for children. Susy felt that he came closest to letting his guard down when he wrote The Prince and the Pauper. I guess vulnerability is the key word. Twain was a lot of things, but one thing that he was reticent to be in public was vulnerable. It seems from his writings about his home life he did allow himself to be vulnerable at home. We felt that that is our strong suit.

ES: Instead of making a book to make Twain happy, which we felt like we probably couldn't do, we tried to make a book to make Susy happy.

More on Philip and Erin Stead from The Horn Book

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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