My daughter, almost six now, is hungry for big books these days — she still likes a few pictures here and there, but they are not essential. And she loves a long, meaty story. Yet there are still picture books that we return to on a regular basis, and I hope we do so for some time. Among our (or maybe my?) favourites are William Steig’s books, with deliciously dark but also tender themes.
In The Amazing Bone, Pearl, a very girly I-love-everything pig clad in pink bonnet and dress, is abducted by a suave suited fox, and locked into an empty room in his hideaway while he sharpens his knives by the stove that will roast her if she doesn’t escape. A talking bone she has found along the way is her only ally — it can speak in any language and imitate any sound there is. The premise is totally bizarre, which even Pearl realizes.
“You’re a bone,” she says. “How come you can sneeze?”
“I don’t know,” the bone replies. “I didn’t make the world.”
I love that line, and the way Steig examines the baffling human condition to resonate with adult and child alike. Pearl’s story is full of contrasts: the bright, beautiful spring, in which Pearl “could almost feel herself changing into a flower”; the band of masked highway robbers she encounters, carrying pistols and daggers and demanding her purse. It’s heavy stuff — you could easily take the skeleton of this story and turn it into a terrifying thriller, but the pretty pig and the talking bone and the flowers soften the edges just the right amount.
It seems Steig understood he’d have a lot more freedom with his stories if his characters were animal rather than human. In The Minstrel Steig, Roger Angell’s New Yorker article about Steig’s life and career, Steig says, “I realized that I could get crazier with animals and have them do stranger things.” So many authors have done this — but Steig does it with wit, dignity, and style, in a highly original way.
In Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Sylvester is a donkey who, in a fearful moment, uses his magic pebble to wish himself into a rock, only to find that he can’t escape back into donkeyness again. As day changes to night, season to season, doomed Sylvester loses hope and falls into “an endless sleep.” His parents grieve, wondering what’s become of him. They weep, and they look everywhere for him as the months pass. Finally it seems impossible he will ever return.
“They tried their best to be happy, to go about their usual ways. But their usual ways included Sylvester and they were always reminded of him. They were miserable. Life had no meaning for them anymore.”
This brilliant story was Steig’s second book for children — it won the Caldecott Medal and was selected as one of the 100 Best Books of the Century by the National Education Association. The illustrations glow, and the story captures every family’s worst fear — that somehow child and parent will be separated. But there’s a happy ending, with the lovely double-all line, “They all had all that they wanted.”
Steig wrote and illustrated more than thirty novels and picture books for children, including the Doctor De Soto series, featuring a dentist mouse, and the Shrek! story, so enormously successful on film. My personal favourite, though, is the quieter Brave Irene, which features a human girl as the main character, charged with delivering a Duchess’s ball gown in a snowstorm because her mother falls ill with a cold and can’t do it herself.
So many of Steig’s stories seem in essence to be about courage and survival. What’s refreshing is that they are never sentimental, or condescending to the child reader. Steig uses words like “odoriferous,” which kids likely won’t know, but he trusts them to get what he means anyway. And they do. They have for decades.
Steig was in his sixties by the time he wrote his first children’s book. By then he’d already had a long career as a cartoonist with The New Yorker. He sold his first drawing to the magazine in 1930, and continued to contribute late into his life. So though it was a different market, I’m sure it came as no surprise that his children’s drawings were wonderful — but beyond that, he was a superb storyteller. Early in his newfound career, he wrote to an editor, “I hope you’ll understand if I tell you that I tend to be a bit ‘uptight’, even neurotic perhaps, about being edited. It’s not vanity — I don’t think I’m a great writer, or even a good one (in fact, I’m not a writer) — but I like to sound like myself when I talk or write.”
Just a week after his death in 2003, his wife Jeanne wrote a touching essay about him in the New York Times, calling him both “a champion worrier” and “the most cheerful man alive.” She claimed, “He drew from an impulse that went straight from the heart to his moving hand — and he always watched that hand with delight, wanting to see what it was up to. The interpretations others might bring surprised him. Really? he’d say, and make haste to forget whatever metaphysical visions had been assigned to him. He didn’t need them; they got in the way.”