The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain and Philip Stead with Illustrations by Erin Stead; Doubleday Books for Young Readers, 160 pages ($24.99) Ages 8 to 12.
This wonderful, beautifully illustrated volume takes some notes and a bare outline of a story Mark Twain made up for his daughters in a Paris hotel in 1879 and fleshes it out into a marvelous entertainment inhabited by the spirit of Sam Clemens himself. (In fact, the story is partly framed as a conversation between the author and Mark Twain over tea on an island in Lake Michigan.)
In this Twainian upending of a traditional fairy tale, a young boy named Johnny, living on a miserable farm, is ordered by his miserable grandfather to go to market and sell his only friend, a chicken named "Pestilence and Famine." There he meets an old woman who takes the chicken in exchange for a handful of magic blue seeds. Johnny's adventures take him to a castle - a band of wild creatures in his wake - and then in search of a kidnapped prince. Philip Stead brilliantly captures Twain's style, his homespun humor, his wordplay, his biting wit, his sympathy for the powerless and his disdain for the mighty. Just one example: "Ever since a boatful of bunglers first burgled this land from its Original Citizens, it has been our sacred duty to pave it all flat and crosscross every wilderness in rivers and streams of concrete. Amen!"
The story itself is marvelous, but the book is beautiful thanks to the delicate, poignant illustrations in wood block printing and pencil by Erin Stead, a Caldecott Medal-winner for her "A Sick Day for Amos McGee" picture book collaboration with Philip Stead. With muted colors and pencil lines, Erin Stead brings to life the lonely landscape of the miserable farm, the marketplace, the castle, a lovely menagerie of animals. A scene of Johnny's grandfather's violent reaction to the blue seeds is done in silhouette. Erin Stead also sketches minimalist but marvelous portraits of the rich cast of characters, fromJohnny, a slender African-American waif in a cap, to the old woman (depicted with fairy wings in one panel) to the king, the queen, the animals and the prince. Twain's handwritten notes appear on the inside covers against a light blue background. The death of Johnny's horrible grandpa is depicted simply with a drawing of feet in wornout boots, a crow perched atop one boot.
An editor's note at the end tells the marvelous story of Twain's habit of reading to his daughters (this one was based on an anatomical figure drawing they found in a magazine) and the serendipitous manner in which the notes were discovered in the Mark Twain Papers archive when a Twain scholar, searching for material for a possible Twain cookbook, came across a reference to "Oleomargarine."
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera; HarperCollins, 368 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up.
This moving, inspiring tear-jerker of a novel takes place in the space of 24 hours, as two strangers - 18-year-old Mateo Torrez and almost 18-year-old Rufus Emeterio - get a call from the heralds at Death-Cast, just after midnight, that they both are going to die today. They aren't told how, or when, only that this is their End Day and death is a sure thing. Mateo is alone in the world, with his father in a coma in the hospital, his mother dead and his only friend a single mom with a year-old baby. Rufus, who ended up in foster care after surviving an accident that killed his parents, gets his call when he's in the middle of beating up his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend. Through an app called Last Friend, they find each other and challenge each other in different ways to live a lifetime in a single day. This novel from the author of "More Happy Than Not" and "History Is All You Left Me" offers the pacing of a thriller along with a searing exploration of loneliness and a poignant and realistic depiction of the beauty of finding a real human connection.