On any given evening Mark Twain saw the day out by spinning a story for his two daughters as they got ready to pull up the covers and blow out the lights. This is a story he made notes for but never published. When the notes were discovered, the idea of completing a Mark Twain story ignited. That Everest-like task was left to a fellow storyteller, a gentleman by the name of Philip C. Stead. Illustrations were required and luckily the fair Erin Stead, she of the surgical pencil, was available.
Our story begins. We have the delight of meeting a young boy named Johnny who is sent to town to sell a good friend of his, a chicken by the name of Pestilence and Famine. (Clearly there were once two chickens but we have just the one now and that's how it is.)
The two friends, boy and chicken, set off on their sad task, only one of them knowing their true mission. Adventure overtakes them. Seeds are given to them by an old woman. (Ahhhh...the seeds...) Johnny is given the gift of being able to speak to and understand animals, wild and domesticated.
Skipping ahead to the part where things go poorly....
Summoning his bravery, Johnny and his animal compatriots make their way to the castle where the king and queen have lost their son, the prince. Johnny assures them he will bring the fair prince back to his sorrowful royal progenitors and then sets off to confront and confound the evil, dangerous giants who have kidnapped said prince.
Yes, a rollicking, intelligent good time is had by all. In this day and age when stories often reach less than a fingernail into anything that matters and rely on a poor cousin called primitive comedic timing, our children are left hungry for a true tale that respects them, entertains them and honors their understanding that the world doesn't always add up sensibly.
No more. Here is a tale of worth. A sprawling, rambling adventure of wit and wisdom and best of all an imagination that stretches us most satisfactorily. Save it for the most antsy rainy day and then read it over and over again when spirits need replenishing.
This is the stuff childhood requires. This is the stuff on which we build worlds and futures. It's called truth.
160 pages 978-0553523225 Ages 8-12
Recommended by: Barb Langridge, abookandahug.com
A never-before-published, previously unfinished Mark Twain children’s story is brought to life by Philip and Erin Stead, creators of the Caldecott Medal-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee.
In a hotel in Paris one evening in 1879, Mark Twain sat with his young daughters, who begged their father for a story. Twain began telling them the tale of Johnny, a poor boy in possession of some magical seeds. Later, Twain would jot down some rough notes about the story, but the tale was left unfinished . . . until now.
Plucked from the Mark Twain archive at the University of California at Berkeley, Twain’s notes now form the foundation of a fairy tale picked up over a century later. With only Twain’s fragmentary script and a story that stops partway as his guide, author Philip Stead has written a tale that imagines what might have been if Twain had fully realized this work.
Johnny, forlorn and alone except for his pet chicken, meets a kind woman who gives him seeds that change his fortune, allowing him to speak with animals and sending him on a quest to rescue a stolen prince. In the face of a bullying tyrant king, Johnny and his animal friends come to understand that generosity, empathy, and quiet courage are gifts more precious in this world than power and gold.
Illuminated by Erin Stead’s graceful, humorous, and achingly poignant artwork, this is a story that reaches through time and brings us a new book from America’s most legendary writer, envisioned by two of today’s most important names in children’s literature.