Mark Twain Unfinished – The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

61q+5s8-QzL._AC_US218_In the spirit of great unfinished work – Schubert’s unfinished symphony, Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia – an unfinished children’s story by Mark Twain, now titled The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, was discovered among Twain’s papers in 2011.  Like other unfinished art, contemporary masters often take up the task to finish; in this case, the Newbery Medal winners Philip and Erin Stead provided the art and supplemental text to Twain’s scribbled notes and skeletal outline of a bedtime story he had created for his young daughters over several days.

The story has a little boy on a quest with a chicken and a skunk named Sally. A magic flower when eaten has him able to communicate with animals. The King with a short man complex has banned anyone taller than he is, the willowy Queen sits knitting below his high throne, and someone had kidnapped the Prince. Conversations between Philip Stead and Mark Twain interrupt the action periodically, and Twain’s story ends with the Prince in a cave guarded by dragons.  

Erin Stead draws a beautiful assortment of animals in muted watercolors with the chicken and skunk taking on special roles.  Her moving portraits of the queen and the boy will remind you of someone you care about.

Recently watching the Mark Twain Prize presented to David Letterman, I thought about Twain’s role in American humor.  Twain was well known for mixing his humor with truth; reading Twain can be fun for children and philosophical for adults.  Although the action seems a little slow, the Steads completion of this unfinished story adds another piece to Twain’s impressive canon.

The satisfying ending the Steads provide is timely and poignant.

“…the words that could save mankind from all its silly, ceaseless violence, if only mankind could say them once in a while and make them truly meant…

I am glad to know you.”

If only…

The 2017 Newbery Books

Each year I anticipate the winner and honor books for the Newbery Prize. Past winners have included authors I regularly seek out, like Kate DiCamillo  (Flora and Ulysses). Among my favorite winners are a book about a gorilla (The One and Only Ivan) and Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpernia Tate.  One quote from that tale of an eleven year old budding scientist still rings true: “It was too bad, but sometimes a little knowledge could ruin your whole day…”

This year’s winner and honor books include a fantasy – The Girl Who Drank the Moon -magic is often a theme in Newbery books.  As a fan of “The Canterbury Tales,” I look forward to reading the Honor Book – The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz.  Another honor book, Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow found its way into book club discussions, as its theme of bullying and discrimination mirrored present-day angst.  Finally, Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan, completed this year’s winners, with the music of poetry and the rhythm of song telling a story of history.

Read them all – it won’t take much of your time – and you will find satisfying tales written well.  Sometimes a good children’s book can be better than one written for adults.

9781616205676_p0_v4_s192x300   The Girl Who Drank the Moon

This year’s winner of the Newbery Prize – Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon – delivers other worldly magic – we all need some right now. In a world similar to Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery,” one person is sacrificed each year to appease an evil witch and keep the rest of the village safe – for another year.  Unknown to the villagers, the baby is rescued each time by a good witch of the Forest, who safely whisks the child off to a new family in a safer place, while the evil witch, disguised as mother superior in the local convent, thrives on the sorrow and despair of the sacrificing town.

One year the good witch, Xan, who shares her home with an ancient Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, keeps the baby.  When Xan accidentally feeds the baby girl light from the moon, instead of the usual fare of stardust, Luna becomes enmagicked with amazing powers.  Xan subdues Luna’s powers until she is thirteen, when she joins forces with her mother, imprisoned all these years in a tower, whose magic changes paper birds into lethal weapons,  and Antain, a young man from the village with a good heart whose baby would be next on the list to be sacrificed.  Of course, evil is defeated and a new world order of hope replaces the misery.

Each minor character has notes of the familiar in everyone’s life.  Antain disappoints his mother’s ambition for him by leaving the head Council and following his own yearning to be a carpenter.  The little dragon never seems to grow up, until a crisis tears away his youthful outlook and forces him to deliver.  The old Swamp Monster offers steady and sage advice and comfort when needed.  But, my favorite character in this story is Ethyne, who knows the evil witch from her days as a novice, before she left to marry Antain.  Ethyne’s outlook is always positive and cheery, with a steady sense of self which she uses to steer both her husband and the despairing villagers as well as her former subservient connections in the Convent.  Ethyne is that voice of common sense who might bring you a cup of tea when you are down, or suggest a plan to overcome your inertia when you need motivation.  She is someone everyone should have as a friend.

Related Review:  Wolf Hollow


West of the Moon

9781419708961_p0_v1_s260x420A contender for the Newbery Award, Margi Preus’ West of the Moon channels the enchantment of a Norwegian fairy tale of a white bear who turns into a prince in her story of  a Norwegian girl who finds her way to the New World.  Unfortunately, the old goatherd who bargains for orphaned thirteen year old Astri is no prince, and the poor girl finds herself dreaming of freedom while shoveling out dung and keeping house among the goats.  With a mix of historical background and magical story telling, Preus weaves a tale for young readers that manages to inform while capturing the imagination.

When Astri is faced with marriage to the old goatherd, she orchestrates a daring escape, rescues her little sister from the cruel stepmother, and sails to America for a new life.  A real girl, Astri questions her own worth, as she is forced to lie and cheat to protect herself and her future, but her inner star shines through, and the reader knows she will be a success as she grows into her own.

Entertaining, informative, and a pleasure to read – West of the Moon should at least be on the short list for next year’s awards.  For me, it was a welcome respite.

2014 Newbery Award Winner

Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery Award again – this time with Flora and Ulysses.

Read my review below:

9780763660406_p0_v2_s260x420Newbery Medal winner Kate DiCamillo’s newest contribution to wonderful children’s stories – Flora and Ulysses – involves the adventures of a young girl with a superhero squirrel.  When the squirrel survives getting sucked into a vacuum cleaner, he attains superpowers: he can fly, think (mostly about how hungry he is), type, and write poetry.  After a series of hilarious missteps, Ulysses saves the day and reunites Flora’s family.

DiCamillo combines humor with pathos as she targets the anxieties of Flora and her friend William, who are both suffering through changes in their families.  K.G. Campbell’s artwork adds to the story with cartoon frames interspersed into the narrative.  In this story, the adults learn the lessons of love, patience, and perseverance from the children, and, of course, from Ulysses, the poetic squirrel.

A book a child could share with a favorite adult – maybe even read aloud.

Other Books (reviews) by Kate DiCamillo:

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Children’s Books by Former Newbery Medalists – Mister Max and The Thing About Luck

Mister Max and the Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt

Best known for the Newbery Award winning book Homecoming,  a compassionate and adventurous tale of a lost family of abandoned children, Cynthia Voigt has written a number of children’s books since her first success, with her most recent – Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things – as the first in a new series.  The premise is familiar: Max’s parents mysteriously disappear, leaving him behind to live with his librarian grandmother.  Young Max pursues a series of detective jobs to earn money as the search for his parents continues.

I persevered through Max’s search for a lost dog and his disguises in his actor parents’ costumes (they own the Starling theater), but when he “solves” the case of the mysterious missing spoon by finding that it had fallen behind the cabinet, I skipped to the last few pages to see if Max found his parents. He does – sort of.  Since this is the first of three in the series, Voigt creates a scenario to tease readers into the next book.  Unfortunately, the action is too slow, the crime-solving is tedious, and I found myself not interested in Max’s story.

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata9781416918820_p0_v6_s260x420

Author of the Newbery winning book, Kira-Kira, Cynthia Kadahata’s new children’s book – The Thing About Luck – again taps into the Japanese family ethic, offering cultural insights as the 2013 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature.

With the hard life of the combine operator who follows the wheat harvest as the catalyst for the story, Kadohata taps into the thoughts of a twelve-year-old girl as she changes into a responsible adult.  Although the details of machine operation and time-sensitive crops were more than I needed, the family dynamics of Summer with her Japanese grandparents who work on a wheat-harvesting crew mix well with the occasional pithy advice.  Overcoming her fears of mosquitos, boys, and growing up, Summer manages to save the family – with a little humor and a lot of inner courage.