The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine Book Poster Image
Found Mark Twain fairy tale made vibrantly new and classic.

Parents say

age 5+
Based on 1 review

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Introduction to work of Mark Twain. New vocabulary in context: "purloin," "proclamation," "perpetuity," "prowess," "cacophony." Art includes texts of proclamations and handbills, old-fashioned silhouettes. Fairy tale elements: dragons, fairy, talking animals, magic seeds. Discussion in text about story construction.

Positive Messages

Help arrives in unexpected ways. There are those who are kind and extend a hand. True friends are the most valuable riches of all. Animals and nature are our friends. "The world is beautiful and dangerous, and joyful and sad, and ungrateful and giving, and full of so, so many things." Johnny discovers "the words that could save mankind from all of its troubles, if only mankind could say them once in a while and make them truly meant. He said: 'I am glad to be here.'"

Positive Role Models & Representations

Protagonist Johnny is kind, tries to save the chicken, bravely ventures into the dragon's lair. Fairy is kind and gives Johnny magic seeds. Queen is also kind, clothes Johnny with a scarf she knit. Animals are helpful and make sure Johnny has food and shelter.

Violence & Scariness

A man strikes an ox. The boy's whipped by his grandfather. A relative dies. The tiger probably eats someone, though that's implied and happens offstage. None of the violence is graphic or belabored.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is a beautifully produced, illustrated chapter book based on a story Mark Twain told his kids. Notes for the tale were found in the Twain archives, and it's been fleshed out and illustrated by Caldecott winners Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead (A Sick Day for Amos McGee). The story's a fairy tale, complete with a helpful fairy, talking animals, magic seeds, dragons, and a foolish king and prince. It's told in chapters, but is something of a hybrid: 160 pages, but with elements of the layout and look of a picture book. The Steads have done a beautiful job preserving the classic feel of Twain's original text while updating it and making it diverse; the protagonist pictured in the art is a boy of color. This new tale with venerable origins makes the perfect read-aloud, keepsake, or gift book.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byJeffrey P. November 15, 2017

Mark Twain surprisingly lives

More than a surprise, Phil Stead embodies the spirit of Twain so effortlessly that you are sure they are genetically “ entwained”. Erin Stead’s illustrations s... Continue reading

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What's the story?

THE PURLOINING OF PRINCE OLEOMARGARINE tells the story of Johnny, who lives a hardscrabble life with his cantankerous grandfather. When the grandfather sends Johnny off to sell the chicken, Johnny meets a kind old woman who gives him a handful of magic seeds. The seeds grant Johnny the ability to understand the language of animals, who help him after a prince is captured and the king offers a reward for finding him. 

Is it any good?

Mark Twain is a national treasure, and it's a happy day when his old work finds new life thanks to a star author-illustrator team. The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is a magical mixture of old and new. Co-author Philip C. Stead has done the near impossible, turning Twain's extensive notes for a kids' story into a fresh and modern classic. Twain's work (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper) is dense, and Stead opens it up. The book is formatted much like a picture book, liberally illustrated, with some blocks of text isolated. Stead preserves the classic style, sometimes addressing the reader directly, as well as Twain's wry eye, filtering it through a modern lens. For instance, our forefathers "first burgled this land from its Original Citizens." He conceives of the task as a conversation between himself and Twain, interspersing the story with their fictional discussion about the story, and somehow, against all reason, this works beautifully.

The illustrations by Erin E. Stead are lush and gorgeous. Her animals are charming, her portraits of faces arresting, and her palette is subdued and calming. The main character is a boy of color. There's lots of white space, and some of the story is communicated via the art; for instance, we see that the kind old woman has fairy wings. This book feels like a beautiful, extended picture book and would be treasured in any home library.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the unusual structure of The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. Since the book has two authors who worked on the story nearly 140 years apart, which elements do you think originated with Mark Twain, and which do you think were developed by Philip C. Stead? Are there clues in the story?

  • Why do you think Philip C. Stead wrote the conversations he imagined between himself and Mark Twain? Did those sections distract you from the main thread of the story, or did they deepen the experience for you?

  • What do you know about Mark Twain? What other books has he written? Do you know anything about his life?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fairy tales and read-aloud stories

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