Steig, William 1907-2003
(Full name William H. Steig) American illustrator, cartoonist, juvenile novelist, and author of picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Steig's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLR, Volumes 2 and 15.
Considered among the most gifted authors and illustrators of twentieth-century children's literature, Steig is perhaps best known as the creator of such classic picture books as Roland the Minstrel Pig (1968), Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969), and Shrek! (1990). Steig launched his writing career at the age of sixty-one, after working nearly forty years as a revered cartoonist for the New Yorker. Regarded as a masterful storyteller, Steig structured several of his picture books and juvenile novels around heroic quests, incorporating traditional elements of fairy tales, including mysticism, dreams, and wish-fulfillment. He infused his narratives with tongue-and-cheek humor, urbane language, inventive wordplay, and a respect for nature. Steig's works function on multiple textual and visual levels, exploring such metaphysical concepts as self-discovery, death, and the nature of existence, while entertaining young readers with magical transformations, ingenious escapes from disaster, and touching reconciliations. Emphasizing the importance of resourcefulness, bravery, loyalty, morality, and respect, Steig's stories and illustrations present an optimistic and insightful view of the world, often through the wide-eyed perspective of a child.
Steig was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 14, 1907, and spent his childhood in the Bronx. His father, an Austrian immigrant and a house painter by trade, dabbled in fine arts in his spare time, as did his mother. As a child, Steig was inspired by his creative surroundings with an intense interest in painting
and was given his first lessons by his older brother, Irwin, who was also a professional artist. In addition to painting, his childhood imagination was captured by the romance of many other creative works that crossed his path—Grimm's fairy tales, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Charlie Chaplin movies, Howard Pyle's Robin Hood, the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Englebert Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel, and especially Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio. As a young man, Steig found an outlet for his talent by creating cartoons for his high school newspaper. Throughout his youth, he also excelled at athletics, and during college, he was a member of the All-American Water Polo Team. After his high school graduation, Steig spent two years at City College, three years at the National Academy, and five days at the Yale School of Fine Arts before dropping out. Before Steig started writing children's books, he was well established as a noted cartoonist in The New Yorker. Steig published several collections of his cartoons throughout his career, including Man about Town (1932), Small Fry (1944), and Continuous Performances (1963). During his early days as a freelance artist, he supplemented his income with work in advertising, although he intensely disliked it. During the 1940s, Steig's creativity found a more agreeable outlet when he began carving figurines in wood; his sculptures are on display as part of the collection in the historic home of Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York, and in several museums in New England. Writing books for children was a career Steig began relatively late in life, and it came about by chance rather than intention. In 1967, Bob Kraus, a fellow cartoonist at The New Yorker, was in the process of organizing Windmill Books, an imprint for Harper & Row. Kraus suggested that Steig try writing and illustrating a book for a young audience. The result was Steig's letter-puzzle book CDB! (1968). Steig followed CDB! that same year with his first narrative picture book Roland the Minstrel Pig. In 1969 Steig was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which was also nominated for the National Book Award. Throughout the next thirty years, Steig continued to win popular and critical acclaim for his body of children's works. He published a number of picture books in collaboration with his wife, Jeanne, primarily adaptations of classic myths and legends, including Old Testament Made Easy (1990), A Handful of Beans: Six Fairy Tales (1998), and A Gift from Zeus: Sixteen Favorite Myths (2001). Several of his stories have received film adaptations, most notably Shrek!, whose 2001 animated adaptation from Dreamworks Pictures was awarded the 2002 Academy Award for best animated feature. The film spawned a sequel, Shrek 2, which was also nominated for best animated feature in 2004. After nearly seventy years of energetic work, Steig died on October 3, 2003, at age ninety-five in Boston, Massachusetts.
Steig structures his works as genial burlesques of folk and fairy tale conventions and such literary forms as the picaresque novel and the Robinsonnade. His prose style, which blends a formal, courtly tone with inventive wordplay, is often noted for its eloquence and for the timeless quality which it gives to his stories. As an illustrator, Steig favors watercolors and swift pen-and-ink lines, demonstrating particular talent in delineating subtle facial expressions and the seasonal changes of nature. His most recurrent themes involve the importance of friends, family, loyalty, and love, as well as magic, mysticism, and transformation. Despite his young audiences, Steig infuses his works with his own life-long search for answers to the immense questions of existence—morality, greed, fear, survival, love, danger, sadness, and even death.
Many of Steig's tales involve the protagonist's adventures on a journey—either by the character's own design or through fate—and the lessons and changes that are inevitable as a result. In Roland the Minstrel Pig, the title character, a musically talented balladeer and trustworthy individual, agrees, on the advice of his loyal friends, to seek his fame in the world. The romantic wandering minstrel, wearing a velvet hat with a feather plume, traveling without meeting another living soul, becomes lonely and sings a sad song. Innocent Roland then meets evil personified in the form of Sebastian the fox, who, luring him with promises of an audience with the king, plots accidents that will provide him with a meal. The king, a lion, rescues Roland from death by cooking and gives him a position of honor in the court after Roland proves himself by his talent. Roland becomes the kingdom's poet laureate, and the fox is given his due in the dungeon. Steig began his recurring examination of the theme of magical transformation with Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the author's portrait of Sylvester Duncan, a donkey who collects unusual pebbles as a hobby and eventually discovers one that can grant wishes. After being cornered by an angry lion, Sylvester wishes that he could transform into a rock, which he does, although he is then unable to change back. Sylvester's loving and forlorn family waits for his return as Sylvester remains trapped in rock-form as the seasons change around him. The Duncan family eventually goes on a picnic, unknowingly placing their food on top of Sylvester, and when Sylvester's mother wishes for her son's return, Sylvester is magically turned back into a donkey.
In a tale centered around Steig's muted illustrations of seascapes, Amos and Boris (1971) features a mouse named Amos who yearns to explore the ocean. When his boat is cast adrift by a storm, Boris the whale comes to his rescue. The two become close friends and tell each other their dreams, ambitions, and hopes. Years later, Amos returns the favor by rescuing Boris with the help of two elephants. When the two friends part the second time, they tearfully realize that they might never see each other again. Steig reprised his journey theme in his first illustrated juvenile novel, Dominic (1972), which follows another wandering musician—this time, a dog—who, after complaining that he is bored with his life, is thrust into one devastating adventure after another; the most terrifying of which is the attack by the Doomsday Gang, a collection of stoats, weasels, cats, and other creatures symbolically associated with trouble throughout the history of children's literature. Steig utilized the novel format again for The Real Thief (1973), the tale of a goose named Gawain, a treasurer in a courtly kingdom, who is framed for the theft of the crown jewels.
Purported to have been one of Steig's personal favorite works, Abel's Island (1976) finds Abel, a domesticated Edwardian mouse, washed ashore on a deserted island after an attempt to retrieve his beloved wife's kerchief. Abel has been well taken care of by his mother's money, comfortable in his urban home, and has never "lived" in the strictest sense of the word. Alone on his island, Abel discovers that he is a part of creation and has a relationship with the earth and sky and forces of nature, drawing from sources within himself that astound him. For The Amazing Bone (1976), Steig chose a female protagonist for the first time, portraying a dreamy pig named Pearl, who wears a pink dress and bonnet. The overly-optimistic Pearl never dreams that harm can befall the beautiful world she lives in until strange things begin happening to her. She finds an "amazing bone" that can speak any language and suddenly becomes the target of a smooth-talking fox who wants to make Pearl into his dinner. Solomon the Rusty Nail (1985) continues Steig's thematic exploration of transformation. A rabbit named Solomon discovers that if he wiggles his toes and scratches his nose at the same time, he can turn himself into a nail. This proves to be a useful trick when he is threatened by Ambrose, a one-eyed cat, who sees him as a possible meal. Although he doesn't understand the transformation, Ambrose takes the nail home, puts it in a cage, and waits for it to change back to a rabbit. The frustrated Ambrose eventually pounds the nail into his house, and Solomon transforms back into a rabbit and is able to sneak away.
Among Steig's later works, Spinky Sulks (1988) concerns a boy named Spinky and his sulking depression following some unkind and inconsiderate words from his family. After a living outside in the rain for several days and rejecting the family's attempts at reconciliation, Spinky eventually makes peace with himself and creates a present for his family, having learned that holding a grudge is self-defeating. Shrek! follows the ugliest ogre in the world who loves to terrorize those of a weaker constitution. During his journeys, he meets a witch who tells him he will find and marry a princess who is even uglier than he is. When Shrek finally meets his foretold princess, they both fall in love at first sight: "Your horny warts, your rosy wens, / Like slimy bogs and fusty fens, / Thrill me." Potch and Polly (2002) is the story of Potch, a portly, bald man who falls in love with Polly, a skinny socialite with big feet and a gigantic head. Assuring readers that there is someone out there for everyone, Potch loses the girl and then wins her back, but not without a series of slapstick efforts. Steig's last book, When Everybody Wore a Hat (2003), is an autobiography of his early years, charting his happy, albeit sometimes tempestuous, childhood. In one particularly evocative image, Steig and his sister cower as they overhear their parents engaged in a terrible fight in the next room. Rare for a children's book in that it honestly portrays some of the difficult realities of childhood, it nonetheless is a positive remembrance of Steig's own childhood in 1910s New York, recreating a virtually unknown and foreign era for his young audiences. A happy reminiscence of a man nearing the end of his life, When Everybody Wore a Hat provided Steig with a positive and well-received final chapter to his impressive legacy of quality children's literature.
Critics have consistently praised Steig for the charm, freshness, and poignancy of his stories of requited love and poetic justice. He has also been lauded for his command of language, the expressiveness of his drawings, the vigor of his narratives, the success of his characterizations, and the wry wit that pervades his work. Although some reviewers have noted instances of plot repetition and an overly consistent use of the magical transformation device, most observers have agreed that Steig's uncommon linguistic and artistic skills have led to the creation of numerous distinctive tales that possess both depth and accessibility. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is possibly Steig's most critically acclaimed work, with Roger Angell describing the book as Steig's "masterpiece." Angell has commented that the "inexorable quiet of [Sylvester] is deepened by the simplicity of the underpopulated landscape illustrations." Though there has been considerable scholarly debate surrounding Steig's use of such literary archetypes as the quest romance and his emphasis on issues of childhood development, the majority of critics have noted again and again how imperative Steig's direct and emotionally honest text and illustrations are to the continuing success of his oeuvre. Bernie Goedhart has observed that Steig "has a powerful grasp of—and great respect for—the written word, and he never writes down to a child." In his assessment of Steig's career, Edward Sorel has argued that "[i]f we consider his entire oeuvre: his prolific output; the inventiveness of his stories, so often involving transformation; his precise and demanding language; and the sheer beauty of his pictures, then his legacy can only be described as unprecedented."
Steig received countless awards and accolades throughout his varied career. In addition to the Caldecott Medal, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble garnered the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1978 and the Spring Book Festival Award in 1969. Some of his other notable awards include: Amos and Boris was named the New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book of the Year, a New York Times Outstanding Book, and was awarded ALA Notable Book designation and the National Book Award in 1971. Steig was presented with the Christopher Award in 1972, the National Book Award in 1973, and the William Allen White Children's Book Award in 1975, all for Dominic. The Real Thief was named a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year and an ALA No-table Book in 1973. Abel's Island was declared the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year in 1976, a Newbery Honor Book, a Children's Book Showcase title, and an ALA Notable Book. The work also received the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award. The Amazing Bone was a Caldecott Honor Book, a Children's Book Showcase title, and an ALA Notable Book, as well as garnering the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award and the Art Books for Children Award in 1978. Gorky Rises (1980) was named the New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book and won the Irma Simonton Black Award for best children's book in 1980. Doctor De Soto (1982) was named as a New York Times Outstanding Book in 1982 and won the National Book Award, the Parents' Choice Illustration Award, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award in 1983. The book was additionally identified as a Newbery Honor Book and as an International Board on Books for Young People Honor Book. Steig was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1988. He also won the Parents' Choice Picture Book Award and the Reading Magic Award for Shrek!
Man about Town (cartoons) 1932
The Lonely Ones (cartoons) 1942
Small Fry (cartoons) 1944
The Rejected Lovers (cartoons) 1951
Continuous Performances (cartoons) 1963
CDB! (picture book) 1968
Roland the Minstrel Pig (picture book) 1968
The Bad Island (picture book) 1969; revised as The Rotten Island, 1984
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (picture book) 1969
The Bad Speller (picture book) 1970
An Eye for Elephants (picture book) 1970
Amos and Boris (picture book) 1971
Dominic [author and illustrator] (juvenile novel) 1972
The Real Thief [author and illustrator] (juvenile novel) 1973
Farmer Palmer's Wagon Ride (picture book) 1974
Abel's Island (picture book) 1976
The Amazing Bone (picture book) 1976
Caleb and Kate (picture book) 1977
Tiffky Doofky (picture book) 1978
William Steig: Drawings (cartoons) 1979
Gorky Rises (picture book) 1980
Doctor De Soto (picture book) 1982
CDC? (picture book) 1984
Yellow and Pink (picture book) 1984
Solomon the Rusty Nail (picture book) 1985
Brave Irene (picture book) 1986
The Zabajaba Jungle (picture book) 1987
Consider the Lemming [illustrator] (children's poetry) 1988
Spinky Sulks (picture book) 1988
Old Testament Made Easy [illustrator] (mythology) 1990
Shrek! (picture book) 1990
Alpha Beta Chowder [illustrator] (picture book) 1992
Doctor De Soto Goes to Africa (picture book) 1992
Collected Drawings (cartoons) 1994
Zeke Pippin (picture book) 1994
Grown-Ups Get to Do All the Driving (picture book) 1995
Toy Brother (picture book) 1996
Toby, Where Are You? [illustrations by Teryl Euvremer] (picture book) 1997
A Handful of Beans: Six Fairy Tales [illustrator] (fairy tales) 1998
Pete's a Pizza (picture book) 1998
Arthur Yorinks's The Flying Latke [illustrator] (picture book) 1999
Wizzil [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (picture book) 2000
A Gift from Zeus: Sixteen Favorite Myths [illustrator] (mythology) 2001
Toby, What Are You? [illustrations by Teryl Euvremer] (picture book) 2001
Potch and Polly [illustrations by Jon Agee] (picture book) 2002
Which Would You Rather Be? [illustrations by Harry Bliss] (picture book) 2002
When Everybody Wore a Hat (picture book) 2003
William Steig, Jeanne Steig, and Steven Kroll (interview date 28 June 1987)
SOURCE: Steig, William, Jeanne Steig, and Steven Kroll. "Steig: Nobody Is Grown-Up." New York Times Book Review 92, no. 26 (28 June 1987): 26.
[In the following interview, Steig discusses his influences, his career, and the inspirations behind such works as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Amos and Boris.]
William Steig is 79 years young. For Mr. Steig, this is not a euphemism. It is the truth. He greets me at the bus, a solid, energetic, instantly engaging fellow with a craggy face, brush-cut hair and a street kid's mischievous grin.
He is endlessly curious, and his house in the hills of western Connecticut is filled with marvelous things: rows of tiny animals, his wife Jeanne's small wooden sculptures, delicate little puppets, swan and duck soaps, paintings by family members from several generations. There is an atmosphere of energy and delight, of an adult world in touch with the spirit of childhood.
"I like to monkey around outside in good weather," he says. "There are times when I miss the fact that my work is not physical."
"He doesn't like restraint," Mrs. Steig says. "He doesn't go to movies because he can't talk and move around."
There's a touch of sadness about him, too, a concern for the mess the world is in and worry about getting older. Much of his cartooning career has involved children, but when I wonder why he didn't do his first children's book until he was 60—and then only because Robert Kraus of Windmill Books asked him to—he replies with the candor of someone who had to go out and support his parents at the age of 22: "I'm very commercial-minded, and it wasn't until I knew I could sell the book that I decided to do it."
But these matters are incidental. He will try to distance himself from his connection to childhood: "I think there's a point at which you remember the past vividly, but the more you deal with these memories, the more you're remembering the memories and not the original thing." Then he admits: "I don't think anybody's grown-up…. I guess I'm still innocent, still wondering what it's all about….Youdecide you're writing for kids and you forget about it, but you know all those things."
William Steig knows all those things, and because he can let a story tell itself—"I usually start out by deciding I'll make the main character a pig, for example, and then start rambling around with that character in mind"—his children's books evoke a wonderfully complete world of childhood.
He knows that children like animals and animals can represent children, especially when they are endearing mice, dogs, pigs, rabbits, frogs, geese or donkeys. "Animals thrive better in the country and are country types," he says. "I was a city kid, and to me the country was where the romance was."
In the country you are more aware of the weather, and Mr. Steig knows children are interested in that. So his books are filled with weather and seasonal variations that reflect a character's mood, from the idyllic early summer of Gorky Rises to the icy winter in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble , which won the Caldecott Medal in 1970.
Of course it's the color that makes those changes so successful. Mr. Steig finds doing the pictures for his books more rigorous than the inspired "doodling" of his New Yorker drawings, but he does enjoy "putting the color down…. I draw all the pictures first. They're really colored drawings, not paintings…. And then the color starts."
And there are the noises! Mr. Steig knows children are just beginning to experience language and love weird sounds. "Yibbam sibibble!" says the bone in The Amazing Bone. "Jibrakken sibibble digray!" In Farmer Palmer's Wagon Ride the thunder "dramberamberoomed. It bom-BOMBED!"
Beyond the noises, there is a rich, wonderfully rhythmic use of language. When Mr. Steig was growing up in the Bronx, he "used to dream occasionally about being a writer." The impulse to draw was really "a writing impulse." How clear that is in his very first illustrated story, Roland the Minstrel Pig , as Roland and the fox walk along with "Roland dreaming and the fox scheming."
Just as Mr. Steig knows that children love language, he realizes they sometimes need adult reassurance. In his 1950 book of cartoons, The Agony in the Kindergarten , defenseless children were bombarded by adult pronouncements. In the children's books the narrator's interjections are benign: "I don't have to tell you how these old friends felt at meeting again in this desperate situation," says the narrator as Amos the mouse finds Boris the whale stranded on the beach, in Amos and Boris.
Then there is the matter of luck and coincidence and beneficial magic. Mr. Steig uses magic and coincidence in so many of his books "because kids love that," but the success of these themes goes deeper, and into how children want the world to be. Mr. Steig understands that need for wish fulfillment and follows it through in several ways.
Children want secure, devoted families and able friends. When Sylvester, Farmer Palmer, Abel, Pearl, Gorky, Solomon and Irene eventually get home, their families are all waiting, and beginning with Amos and Boris , friendship is celebrated in story after story. The child also dreams of being independent, fearless and adventurous. Of such stuff are mythic heroes made, and the Steig characters fit the part. Most prominent is Dominic, the dog adventurer of his first novel. "As a kid, I loved heroes," Mr. Steig says.
In "Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children's Literature," Jonathan Cott maintains that it was not until Mr. Steig started making children's books that he was really headed down the Wilhelm Reichian path of "truth-loving wonder." The phrase was Mr. Steig's own. He had been in therapy with Reich, and to Mr. Cott the earlier cartoon collections, Small Fry (1944) and Dreams of Glory (1953), were "imitating the path he was about to take." To Mr. Cott, Mr. Steig's excitement in "the doing of things" reveals him as "a true Reichian." He sees Dominic as a Reichian "unarmored" character.
Mr. Steig, of course, sees it slightly differently. "Reich is the most important man I ever met, and he had a big influence on me … but he didn't give me my way of thinking."
I'm inclined to go along with him. It even seemed to me that Dominic was very like the artist himself, with or without Reich. He disagrees, says Dominic is like his father, whose overly effusive "lust for life" was sometimes hard to take. But Mrs. Steig agrees with me, and eventually Mr. Steig admits that he had always felt "saddled" by his early family responsibilities and would have preferred going off like Dominic, free as a breeze.
Whatever the parallels, Dominic plugs into the child's world of wish fulfillment. And with Brave Irene , Mr. Steig's latest book, such a character is a real child for the first time. "I think it's the way a kid would imagine herself," he says.
But there's a new development. In The Zabajaba Jungle , to be published this fall, the dauntless hero is again a child, this time a boy. Many of the familiar elements appear, but now the parents need the child's help!
The implications are tantalizing, but William Steig pays no attention to such things. He just tells his stories, and everything he does is magic.
William Steig and Roger Angell (essay date 20-27 February 1995)
SOURCE: Steig, William, and Roger Angell. "The Minstrel Steig." New Yorker 71, no. 1 (20-27 February 1995): 252-61.
[In the following essay, Angell outlines the development of Steig's career as an acclaimed children's book author and illustrator, offering commentary on several of Steig's best-known works and interview excerpts with Steig himself.]
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William Steig and Leonard S. Marcus (interview date 1998)
SOURCE: Steig, William, and Leonard S. Marcus. "1970: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig." In A Caldecott Celebration: Six Artists and Their Paths to the Caldecott Medal, pp. 26-30. New York, N.Y.: Walker and Company, 1998.
[In the following interview, Steig discusses the motivations and biographical influences behind the creation of his Caldecott Medal-winning picture book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.]
[Art] … enhances the sense of wonder. And wonder is respect for life.
—William Steig, Caldecott acceptance speech for
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
"Why a donkey? You're going to ask me why?"
Ordinarily William Steig does not like to say too much about the books he has created for children since 1967, or about the countless drawings he has made, including many for the New Yorker magazine, since the 1930s. He thinks that a good story doesn't need to be explained. And he believes that artists don't always know why they do their art one way rather than another.
Even so, Steig has some idea why Sylvester Duncan, the hero of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble , his third children's book, may have turned out to be a four-legged fellow with fetlocks, long, pointy ears, and a tuft at the end of his tail.
"Donkeys," he says, "are my favorite animals. For some reason, every time I see a donkey I get pleasure from it. They're charming animals. They're like horses, but smaller. They're not overwhelming like horses. They seem lovable—though I never had a donkey. And they work hard. I like working people better than I like idlers, too."
Steig has worked hard for a very long time. "During the Great Depression, my father was broke, my older brothers had already married and left home, and my younger brother was just a kid. So it was up to me, at age twenty-three, to support my family. That's how I got into cartooning." He was soon selling cartoons regularly to the New Yorker, the magazine that every American cartoonist dreams of drawing for.
Born in Brooklyn, Steig grew up in the Bronx, the third of four sons. Both parents were amateur painters, and both were socialists. They taught their children to love beauty and to respect honest labor. Young Bill did cartoons for his high school paper, and when he decided a few years later to become an artist, his parents were pleased.
Ever since his childhood, Steig's favorite children's book has been Pinocchio, the story of a puppet that longs to become a living boy. At one low point of Pinocchio's fantastic adventures, he runs away from school. As punishment for his naughtiness, a pair of donkey ears magically sprout at the top of his head.
Steig wasn't much of a student, either. But as a gifted artist, he became famous for his cartoons, books of drawings for adults, and for the many advertisements for which he also drew pictures.
He never liked advertising. Ad work paid well, but using art to sell things did not feel right to him. Art, Steig thinks, should give enjoyment. It should be playful and mysterious. It should express true feelings and offer fresh ideas. When a publisher (and fellow cartoonist) named Robert Kraus asked whether he might like to do "a kid book," Steig replied, "Sure." At nearly sixty years old, he wanted very much to try something new and to escape from advertising.
Steig found he had a great many ideas for children's books. Kraus's Windmill Press published Steig's first picture book, Roland the Minstrel Pig , in 1968. "Drawing pigs is easy," Steig says, as if to explain how he chose his subject. That same year Windmill also published his CDB! —a sort of game book consisting of short sentences formed (as is the title) from letters that sound like words. For his next project, Steig wanted to tell another story.
The first thing Steig knew about Sylvester was that it was going to be the story of a donkey. He thought carefully about the story, and when he finally wrote it down, it hardly needed any work. But it needed a title. Steig made a list: The Magic Pebble; The Pebble and the Rock; The Pebble, the Donkey, and the Rock; and The Donkey Who Became a Rock.
He sketched a dummy and quickly made sample drawings to show his editor. (Unfortunately, neither Steig's dummy nor any of his early sketches for Sylvester have survived.) Drawing animals that behave like humans is always a bit tricky. How human should the animals be made to look? Steig was unsure at first whether Sylvester and his parents should stand upright or walk on all fours. He redrew Sylvester until the young donkey's expressions looked less like a grown-up donkey/person's and more like a child's.
Other details worried him. Steig wrote his editor, "I've been wondering how that rock should look. Sometimes I think it should resemble a donkey and sometimes I don't. One can't go wrong if it doesn't resemble a donkey, and one might go wrong if it does. On the other hand, it might add something if the kids can vaguely discern a donkey. It's a hard decision to make."
When he made his final illustrations, he first completed all the black-and-white drawings, then methodically painted in the colors one by one—all the reds, then all the blues, and so on. That way, he could be sure not to mix up the colors of his characters' outfits from picture to picture.
In Sylvester and the Magic Pebble , Steig told a story filled with strong feelings—feelings that in some ways may have mirrored his own at the time. The artist was divorced, and his young daughter Maggie had gone away to live with her mother. He missed Maggie, just as Sylvester's parents miss their young son when he's gone. Steig finished Sylvester in May 1968, just before Maggie was due to return home for a long visit. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was published in February 1969. Steig thought the printing had gone badly and was pleasantly surprised when friends liked the book anyway. Reviewers and fans of his work also delighted in Sylvester. And when Steig heard the news that he had won the Caldecott Medal, he was overjoyed: Being chosen for the award encouraged him to feel that picture-book making—an art still quite new to him—had already become a good and worthwhile use of his talent.
"It's a good story," Steig says, browsing through a copy of Sylvester years later. "It seems to have some meaning. Don't ask me what it is!" But then Steig squarely faces the question, and gives his response: "The feelings are genuine."
Signe Wilkinson (review date 15 November 1998)
SOURCE: Wilkinson, Signe. "Some Pepperoni on Your Little Boy?" New York Times Book Review (15 November 1998): section 7, p. 24.
[In the following review, Wilkinson offers positive assessments of Pete's a Pizza and A Handful of Beans, commenting that Steig's illustrations are as "sumptuously patterned as late Matisses."]
The one indispensable manual every American parent needs for successful child rearing has been, of course, Russell Baker's autobiography, Growing Up. Now, William Steig's equally helpful Pete's a Pizza must be added to the strategic bedside shelf of parenting advice. Just as Baker cleverly disguised his how-to-raise-a-nonpsychotic-child primer as a gently humorous memoir, Steig disguises his how-to-be-a-non-psychotic-parent treatise as a gently humorous children's book. Actually, the little gem works brilliantly as both.
The Pete in Pete's a Pizza presents himself as the classic child in a funk, seriously sulky because rain has spoiled his chance to go out and play with friends. Confronted with such an inconsolable child, the typical parent might logically decide to
A) rush to Penelope Leach and look up clinical depression;
B) rush to the mall for the latest Sony Playstation;
C) rush to refill Pete's Ritalin prescription;
D) rush to the Cineplex to catch the latest Bruce Willis catastrophe flick;
E) relax and make the kid into a pizza.
While William Steig never directly addresses or speaks ill of the first four well-used options in American parenting, he strongly recommends the pizza alternative. Helpfully, he illustrates his technique with simple drawings that make busy parents want to put down their IBM Think Pads and pick up a child. In Steig's drawings, Pete's bemused parents look to be about 75 years old, which is, perhaps, why they don't take the youngster's foul mood seriously. Instead, they scoop up the miserable Pete, plunk him down on the kitchen table like a ball of dough, knead him, twirl him in the air, stretch him out and then start sprinkling on the toppings, like oil (water), flour (talcum powder) and tomatoes (red checkers). By the time the pizza is baked on the couch and ready to slice, it's laughing and running away. Like the thunderstorm outside, Pete's dark cloud disappears.
Steig's strategy relies on a couple of old-fangled ideas. First of all, there are two parents, and neither is taking a meeting. There's a house with a sturdy kitchen table that isn't so important to the decorating scheme that a little stray talcum powder will hurt it. And there are checkers, apparently indicating that it's a house in which people actually sit down together and play games that don't need batteries. It's a joyful house, and Pete's a Pizza is a joyful little story. America will be a better place if the Steig family pizza party catches on.
When the 90-year-old Steig isn't writing parenting manuals, he seems to have time to illustrate stories by his wife, Jeanne. In A Handful of Beans , the Steigs pair their well-matched talents to retell six classic fairy tales. Like directors approaching Shakespeare and making him seem fresh, the Steigs manage to retell and reillustrate these well-known stories without either taking them too reverentially or trashing their original intent.
Thanks to Jeanne Steig's faithfulness, an evil stepmother is still an evil stepmother in "Hansel and Gretel." Jack still goes for the gold in "Jack and the Beanstalk." And Little Red Riding Hood is still a ditz about stopping and talking with strangers.
Jeanne Steig includes plenty of colorful detail (that's a lime tree the princess in "The Frog Prince" is sitting under) without padding or dragging out the simple tales. Each story ends with a sprightly rhyme, like Rumpelstiltskin'sAnd as for the King,
Rapacious old thing,
He got all the loot—
And a princess to boot!
William Steig's colorful full-page drawings, looking as sumptuously patterned as late Matisses, are interspersed among full pages of text. Though charming as always, they don't reveal any new territory, either for him or for the stories. But so what? Coming upon one is as delightful as coming upon a bright candy house after a long walk through the dark woods. At first, Steig's characters look disconcertingly similar. It's hard to get used to a world in which the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" and the princess in "The Frog Prince" are about equally attractive. When the eyes adjust, however, both dames seem equally believable. His male characters are slightly more individual, with his wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood" having the satisfyingly creepy look of Jeremy Irons.
A Handful of Beans is a pleasant collection, and, as Pete's parents would probably attest, it's always a good idea to have some well-written fairy tales on hand for the nights when everyone is too tired to make pizza.
Bernie Goedhart (essay date 30 January 1999)
SOURCE: Goedhart, Bernie. "Steig's World Is a Charming Place to Visit." Montreal Gazette (30 January 1999): J4.
[In the following essay, Goedhart provides a critical overview of Steig's career while offering commentary on several of Steig's works, including Amos and Boris and A Handful of Beans.]
At first glance, Amos and Boris (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 32 pp), by William Steig seems an unassuming volume. The thin paperback offers only limited colour at a time when most children's picture books are a riot of attention-grabbing shades, and the scratchy childlike drawings are a far cry from the slick, airbrushed or computer-generated art adorning too many contemporary volumes.
But note the original publication date—1971—and remember that this book is still in print. No mean feat! Now open it and read about Amos, a mouse who lives by the ocean and who, after much thought, decides to build a boat and go exploring. He's seasick for a day, then finds that he's a natural sailor well suited to his ship.
One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all. Overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of everything, he rolled over and over and right off the deck of his boat and into the sea.
Amos squeaks for help and lunges desperately for his ship (named the Rodent). "But it evaded his grasp and went bowling along under full sail, and he never saw it again."
Meet William Steig, author/illustrator par excellence in the field of English-language children's books. He has a powerful grasp of—and great respect for—the written word, and he never writes down to a child. Nor does he sugarcoat a story. It is typically Steigian to take a lyrical description of Amos's night on board ship, lull readers into a dreamlike state with it, and then roll the hapless mouse off the boat and into the drink. The matter-of-fact finality of "he never saw it again" ensures that the story must now get down to serious business.
Suffice to say, it does. Amos meets Boris, a whale, who sees him safely to shore with only a few minor mishaps and much sharing of confidences. The trip takes a week, during which time they develop a mutual admiration. "Boris admired the delicacy, the quivering daintiness, the light touch, the small voice, the gem-like radiance of the mouse. Amos admired the bulk, the grandeur, the power, the purpose, the rich voice, and the abounding friendliness of the whale. They became the closest possible friends."
This is, in fact, a powerful story of friendship. Rich in emotion, it speaks strongly to both child and adult. It is a talent Steig has long held, this ability to span generations—and to do so with respect and humour, with love and honour.
The man has more than 30 children's books to his name, most recently Pete's a Pizza (HarperCollins, 32 pp), aimed primarily at preschoolers, and A Handful of Beans (HarperCollins, 143 pp), an elegant little book of fairy tales retold by the illustrator's wife, Jeanne, for a somewhat broader age group. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble , published in 1969, won Steig the Caldecott Medal for illustration, while Doctor De Soto (published in 1982) won him the Newbery Medal for text.
Thirty-plus books, in themselves, are nothing to sneeze at—but neither are they a unique achievement. What is noteworthy is that Steig didn't begin publishing these books until 1968, when CDB! was published; and that he was then 61. His two newest books appeared the year he turned 91. He "shows little sign of slowing down," biographer Lee Lorenz notes in The World of William Steig (Thomas Allen, 208 pp), a stunning new book about Steig's work that's worth every penny of its hefty price tag.
Printed on quality stock and rich in beautifully reproduced illustrations (about 400 of them, encompassing Steig's 70 years as an artist), it offers rarely seen insights into Steig's world—as well as a unique glimpse of the process of illustration itself, both in book and magazine format. Because before Steig turned to children's books, he had already spent a lifetime in the world of magazine illustration—specifically, the rarefied world of the New Yorker.
The son of socialist parents who came to America from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1904, Steig was born three years later. Although he has said he never intended to become an artist, it was no surprise that the New Yorker should recognize Steig's talent when he knocked at its door in 1930.
This was the legendary New Yorker—with Harold Ross at the helm, E. B. White (author of Charlotte's Web) writing Talk of the Town, and Katherine Angell (eventually to become Katherine White, E. B.'s wife) editing, among other things, the magazine's cartoon captions. Steig joined a stable of cartoonists that included such stars as Peter Arno and James Thurber. Within two years Steig published his first collection of cartoons, Man about Town , and was "one of the brightest stars in the New Yorker's firmament." (It's a position he continues to occupy; his most recent cover graced the Nov. 30, 1998 edition and the magazine's Jan. 18, 1999, issue ran a page of Steig illustrations titled "Dining Out.")
His ability to connect with childhood showed itself long before he tackled children's books; it emerged even in the '30s, when he first published his Small Fry cartoons in the New Yorker. In 1939 he published the first of what he called his "symbolic drawings," collected in a book titled About People. "Influenced by such figures as Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee, Steig brought notions of symbolism and abstraction to mainstream audiences," writes Lorenz, who was art editor at the New Yorker from 1973-93 and its cartoon editor until 1997. These drawings, and the scratchy, childlike illustrations of later New Yorker spreads, set the stage for the wildly free-flowing, intricately detailed, richly patterned and colourful illustrations that mark his later work.
In the '30s, Steig was part of the bohemian scene of Greenwich Village, joining the likes of Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy and Edna St. Vincent Millay at parties held by New Yorker colleague Philip Hamburger. Steig also befriended members of the Harlem Renaissance, including Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes. In 1936, at a downtown gathering, Steig met Liza Mead (sister of the anthropologist Margaret Mead)—an artist, musician "and enchantingly free spirit" who would become his wife and the mother of his three children: Lucy, Jeremy and Maggie—all of whom turned out to be artists in their own right. (Steig's second wife, Kori Townsend, was also artistic, as was Jeanne, his fourth. Lorenz makes no mention of Steig's third wife.)
Steig married Jeanne in 1973, beginning a partnership he has described as "the richest and happiest" of his life. That partnership took a literary bent with the 1988 publication of Consider the Lemming (FSG, 48 pp), a collection of Jeanne's verse and Bill's drawings. It was followed in 1990 by The Old Testament Made Easy (FSG, 64 pp)—a wickedly funny collection of which the shortest verse is titled "Dispensation" ("Unless you like stats, / Just skip the begats")—and a "tongue-twisting alphabet" book in 1992: Alpha Beta Chowder (HarperCollins, 46 pp).
Their latest collaboration, A Handful of Beans , offers Jeanne's adept retelling of six fairy tales, partnered with full-colour illustrations that attest to Steig's continuing talents. The handsome volume is a fitting showcase for Steig's artwork; the glossy paper is quality stuff, the colour reproduction is spot-on, and each full-page illustration is printed on its own page (i.e., no print on the other side that could possibly bleed through).
The author's text, while not devoid of humour, is written in a style befitting the stories. But fans of her verse, take heart; the jacket notes are written a la Jeanne's rhymes: "Six fairy tales are told anew, / And spiced with pictures—quite a few. / It took a pair of Steigs to do 'em: / 'Twas Jeanne who wrote them, / William drew 'em. / Here's Rumpelstiltskin, in a rage; / The Frog Prince hops right off the page; / Hansel and Gretel thwart the witch; / Jack slays the giant (and gets rich); / Red Riding Hood and Gram survive; / The Beast and Beauty wed, and thrive. / The book's a gem, the book's a killer. / To say more would be idle filler."
SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE (1969)
Leonard S. Marcus (review date November-December 2000)
SOURCE: Marcus, Leonard S. "Future Classics." Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 6 (November-December 2000): 652.
I have chosen a picture book because I think that, of all literary genres and formats, the thirty-two-page picture book is likeliest to retain its essential appeal in traditional ink-on-paper form. A century from now, children and their parents (if children still have parents) will still have arms, laps, and (let us hope) feelings of tenderness for each other. They will be as capable as ever of enjoying the basic act of cozying up to a read-aloud book with illustrations worth sharing.
My particular choice is William Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble because it is about magic contained within small, overlooked, and undervalued things. One hundred years from now, books in general may be overlooked and undervalued. An encounter with Steig's beguiling tale just might be enough to prompt future nonreaders to take in hand or hoof other long-shut books gathering dust in and around the geodesic dome, and to find out what they are good for.
THE REAL THIEF (1973)
Sondra Gordon Langford (review date January-February 1991)
SOURCE: Langford, Sondra Gordon. "A Second Look: The Real Thief." Horn Book Magazine 67, no. 1 (January-February 1991): 26.
[In the following review, Langford calls for a critical reevaluation of The Real Thief, lamenting that the novel failed to attract the "really huge and enthusiastic audiences" it deserves.]
William Steig's The Real Thief (Farrar) is one of those secret treasures that stay in print, go into paperback, and do sell—but fail to attract the really huge and enthusiastic audiences they eminently deserve.
Someone is stealing the gold, gems, and even the world-famous Kalikak diamond from King Basil the bear's Royal Treasury. Since only the king and chief guard Gawain the goose have keys, Gawain is put on trial. With the king as prosecutor, judge, and jury, everyone turns against Gawain, and he has to fly through a window to escape incarceration.
Pure-hearted Gawain—definitely an allusion to the Arthurian knight of the same name—hides in a cave while the king's soldiers beat the bushes nearby, searching for him. Meanwhile, the real thief, a mouse named Derek, is tortured by guilt. After the trial, he steals again, just to prove that the thief cannot be the missing Gawain; finally he returns all the stolen loot through the chink in the cobblestone floor of the Royal Treasury known only to him.
Derek hunts Gawain down in his sylvan hide-out and confesses. The two decide to keep the truth a secret, believing that the king and citizens' willing acceptance of circumstantial evidence makes them unworthy of knowing who the real thief is and how the crimes were committed. Gawain is greeted with guilty relief by the king and the populace and promoted to Royal Architect in charge of building an opera house in the shape of an egg—his favorite form.
The book is replete with typical Steigian charm. Alliteration is everywhere: "[Gawain] sat in the cell on the cold stone floor in a state of shock, wondering why a good goose who had done his duty was now confined in a dirty dungeon." King Basil the bear smells of honey, his breath smells of honey, his robes smell of honey, his fur smells of honey. Prime Minister Adrian the cat is a proper villain who snidely reminds the king that "'only you and your beloved goose have keys [to the treasury.]'"
Derek is a study in self-justification as he feels, at first, that he is "taking, not stealing"; "as far as he was concerned, a criminal was a ruffian," and he is not. Surrounded by the ducats, rubies, and other gems, Derek believes he is "a worker, a collector, a decorator." Desirous of living up to his new surroundings, he digs up truffles and with them imbibes "a mellow Burgundy three years old." This once-impoverished mouse adapts quickly to his new lifestyle, and Steig shows us how easy it is to let ourselves believe we are what we know in our hearts we can never be.
There is loneliness, too. Gawain has no one to talk to when he is in hiding; the king is lonely in his splendidly royal isolation; Derek can never invite anyone into his beautifully decorated home. Steig is a master in this book, as elsewhere, at exposing the secrets of the heart.
But The Real Thief is basically about trust and the loss of it. Is trust one of our modern values? Popular films and television sitcoms do not laud it. Yet who would deny that trust is the basis of all good relationships? Steig eloquently shows what happens when we cease to trust one another, when we are unable to trust ourselves, when we lose the trust of friends. Suffering is the result, and the suffering of the king, Gawain, and Derek is heart-rending.
Steig's animals excel in expressing loss, whether it be the loss of home and wife in Abel's Island (Farrar), of child and parent in Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (Simon), or of trust and friends in this book. Like the two better-known books, The Real Thief shows the depth of pain such loss can end in. Behind each of these stories lies the plea to value what we have and to maintain a happy status quo through working together. Survival is possible, Steig's books say over and over, only when we believe in ourselves and love one another.
Can just anyone be a survivor? The Real Thief says "Yes" as it shows even the minuscule, self-conscious, guilt-ridden Derek working out his problems, happier in his plain little home, at last, than he was when it was decorated so lavishly. Gawain survives and is healed, as King Basil is, by allowing himself to forgive.
The Real Thief is a corking adventure that deserves to be out in front—on display in libraries and read aloud to children. As Chris, a fourth-grader I once taught, wrote in a letter to Steig, "It has all the best words in it."
"That," responded Steig, "is the best review I ever had."
THE AMAZING BONE (1976)
Jane Smiley (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Smiley, Jane. "The Amazing Bone: Any Book Can Offend Someone." In Censored Books II: CriticalViewpoints, 1985-2000, edited by Nicholas Karolides, pp. 39-41. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.
[In the following essay, Smiley discusses the controversial aspects of The Amazing Bone—most notably, Steig's unflinching depiction of the more brutal elements of children's fairy tales—and the resulting censorship of the work.]
The Amazing Bone at first seems an unlikely target for censorship. Pearl, the child-figure, is happily enjoying a spring day; her idleness and her choice to take a long walk home through the woods aren't very cautious, but they are understandable, and the book can be read as a conventional cautionary tale about what happens when a child wanders off without telling any adults. Censorship, or attempted censorship, of The Amazing Bone by William Steig illustrates as much as anything that almost any book can give offense to someone or other, and that almost anyone can generate a rationale for attacking or defending any children's book.
Children's books are always first and foremost assertions about the nature of children, and since almost all of them are written by adults, they are adult projections of what children need to know or what might entertain children. They are, therefore, a subtle form of propaganda. Each book generally supports one of two ideas—either that children are innocent and need to develop the strength to resist temptation, as Pearl does, or that the moral nature of children is as variable as the moral nature of adults and that they need to understand themselves and their world in order to make moral choices. Almost no children's books promote amorality or immorality. The only choices are between different paths to the good and the true, to inclusion, collaboration, and love. This is undoubtedly a reflection of adult understanding of a child's need for care and nurturing, but nevertheless, it is propaganda, because it has a manipulative goal—to train the child to think in accordance with community norms.
The Amazing Bone shows Steig's loyalty to the world of fairy tale and folktale. While the characters of the story are dressed in modern fashion, the story itself makes use of "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Hansel and Gretel," tales that have such widespread appeal that Steig no doubt considered them part of the universal language of children's literature, ripe for creative variation. It can be said that the parents who objected to The Amazing Bone seem to not understand narrative themes that are among the most traditional we have, but it is also true that folktales and fairy tales are often more gruesome in their traditional versions than modern parents can tolerate—in one traditional version of "Snow White," for example, the evil queen is punished by being forced to dance to death in fiery shoes at Snow White's wedding to the Prince. Modern versions of the tale have gotten rid of this vengeful aspect of tradition because it doesn't fit in with our notions of justice. Parents who object to Steig's robbers and to Pearl's abduction, I think, are reading the story's fairy-tale elements literally, when standard fairy-tale literary theory suggests that they are more appropriately read as projections of wild thoughts and ideas that children generate themselves. However, standard theory, based in Freudian and Jungian psychology, and therefore Freudian and Jungian premises about childhood sexuality and so forth, is also controversial. It may be that the cruelty of universally told fairy tales and folktales reflects not the natural content of the childish mind, but the callousness of the traditional societies that originally composed the tales. To tell a tale like "Hansel and Gretel" or "Little Red Riding Hood" is to promote the second theory of childhood mentioned above—not that children are innocent, but that children have urges toward sexuality and violence that need to be expressed in order to be made sense of and controlled.
Of course, the world of children's literature is one in which all issues are more contentious because members of the community are alert to ways in which the children of the community might be led into disagreeing with or challenging prevailing norms, and the conflict over what children are and what their needs are cannot be resolved once and for all in a culture as diverse as ours. There can only be an ongoing discussion that sometimes rises to the level of argument. The attempts of various parents to exclude The Amazing Bone from school curricula and libraries have to be seen as the expression of a negotiating position. In every case, their positions have been overridden by other parents who agree with Steig's view of childhood or find it harmless, and people in authority, such as school boards. The negotiation has thus been decided in favor of the author's position. But have the dissenting parents no right to state a position? Even though I do not support censorship, and find nothing controversial in The Amazing Bone , and am glad that the authorities in question have not caved in to the parents' position, I would never challenge the right of these parents to state their position. Neither the rights of the author nor those of the community are absolute—the author has a right to express himself, but not to go unquestioned. The community has a right to criticize the author, but not to suppress access to his work by others. I would, in fact, say that these private citizens have benefited themselves and their communities by seriously engaging with the book, by reading it, and by formulating ideas about its content and weighting those against the institutional support that the book receives as a prizewinner and a staple of children's literature. Citizen objections to a book are not the same as government attempts to suppress freedom of speech or thought; they are disagreements, not oppression.
For the fact is that children inevitably grow toward freedom, and that literature of all kinds always serves their growth. For most readers, myself included, The Amazing Bone is more witty than frightening. The drawings of the robbers make them look like little more than bullies, the fox is rather rueful about the necessity for eating Pearl, Pearl is frightened but unharmed, and her parents receive her with love and gratitude, thereafter giving honor to something so humble as a bone. Steig's world is a benign one, where danger comes from likely quarters and miracles occur. One of the dilemmas of children's literature, indeed, of literature in general, is that the interest of the plot always demands jeopardy of some sort. Stories proceed by way of dramatic tension. Children, no matter what their parents think, know this. In addition, forbidden books that children read in secret mold their minds not only because of what they learn from them, or how they enjoy them, but also because they have to keep them secret. They help children define who they are by contrast to who their parents seem to be. A child's difference from his parents will inevitably express itself, and literature, as an attractive artifact of the world outside the family, will promote that growth. Censorship of children's literature is bound to fail.
Discourse in America is often contentious, not only because of diversity, but also because the roots of American life are philosophical and ideological. The thread of self-justification and ideology therefore runs through many aspects of American life, including literature, children's literature, and education. Each mini-culture is sometimes appalled at the attitudes and ideas of the mini-cultures around it. But as long as the discourse remains open and structured, as long as the government takes no position, but leaves it to the citizens to decide, then the individual author and the communal audience will have a good chance of finding where they can make a truce, or even find real peace, with one another.
Steig, William. The Amazing Bone. New York: Puffin Books, 1976.
Miriam Martinez and Marcia F. Nash (review date January 1992)
SOURCE: Martinez, Miriam, and Marcia F. Nash. Review of Shrek!, by William Steig. Language Arts 69, no. 1 (January 1992): 65.
Shrek is different than the other books reviewed in the column. It isn't a spin-off or extension of a single identifiable piece of folk literature. Rather, Steig takes the basic structure, features, and characters found in folk literature and turns them upside down. The result is a story that is great, good fun. Shrek is no handsome prince. Instead, he is the ugliest monster ever seen; even the flowers bend aside and the trees lean away when Shrek walks by. As in any good fairy tale, there is a witch, and in this case the witch sends the hero off into the world to find his princess (one who is even uglier than Shrek). The search for the princess results in a series of adventures played out with unexpected twists and turns that culminate in a "horribly ever after" ending, though of course it is an ending that delights the like of Shrek and his princess.
ALPHA BETA CHOWDER (1992)
Publishers Weekly (review date 12 October 1992)
SOURCE: Review of Alpha Beta Chowder, by Jeanne Steig, illustrated by William Steig. Publishers Weekly 239, no. 45 (12 October 1992): 76.
This animated alphabet book (Alpha Beta Chowder ), abuzz with crazy characters, brings a crooked charm to the frequent drudgery of learning one's ABCs. Jeanne Steig's verse bubbles merrily along, drolly blending abundant alliterations with downright silliness in a wonderful celebration of language. William Steig's lighthearted illustrations perfectly complement the keen wit while they add depth to the numerous people and animals conjured up in the poetry. From "Amphibian, avoid thy fate. Slither off. Absquatulate!" to "Zelda's fire has fizzled out," there is never a dull moment. In addition to their comical content, several verses offer a tongue-twisting tour de force: "''Twas a year ago yesterday,' yammered the yak, 'That a youth with a yataghan jumped on my back,'" and all demand to be read out loud. The Steigs have created a splendid collaboration (similar in many respects to their Consider the Lemming ), a veritable linguistic chowder that invites readers not to sip but to plunge whole-heartedly in.
ZEKE PIPPIN (1994)
Publishers Weekly (review date 21 November 1994)
SOURCE: Review of Zeke Pippin, by William Steig. Publishers Weekly 241, no. 47 (21 November 1994): 76.
[Zeke Pippin ], a deeply funny picture book, immediately joins the ranks of Steig classics. When a harmonica falls from a garbage truck onto Zeke Pippin's trotters, the young pigs life changes completely. At every opportunity he practices his scales ("even out in the rain") until he is ready to serenade his family. But he has scarcely begun his premiere performance ("regaling them with the prelude to La Traviata") before his audience is snoozing and snoring. Outraged, Zeke leaves home. On a precarious journey downstream he soon discovers that the mouth organ puts absolutely everyone to sleep. As he hastens home he is beset by bands of baddies with only his trusty harmonica to help him out. Sensitive Zeke with his musical hopes and wounded pride is a pig with plenty of child appeal—especially amusing are illustrations of him stalking archly away from his sleeping family ("How can I go on living under the same roof with such nincompoops?"). Steig adds some nifty wordplay to his already exuberant language (e.g., "with the half-moon half helping, Zeke threaded his way through a confusion of trees and tangled vines"). The gleeful narrative simply sparkles.
Ann A. Flowers (review date January-February 1995)
SOURCE: Flowers, Ann A. Review of Zeke Pippin, by William Steig. Horn Book Magazine 71, no. 1 (January-February 1995): 55.
Still delving into the noble vein of his greatest picture books, Steig has written a new book [Zeke Pippin ] in the genre of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and The Amazing Bone (both Farrar). Our hero, Zeke Pippin, an attractive young pig, finds a harmonica that has fallen at his feet from a garbage truck. After vigorous hygienic cleansings of his interesting find and much practice on it, he achieves an unusual degree of musical accomplishment. When, finally, he performs for his family, they are pleased and astonished by his skill, but they soon fall asleep. Outraged by such cavalier treatment, Zeke leaves home with two suitcases of food and starts down the river on a homemade raft. He begins to be suspicious when a bird falls asleep to his music, and his enlightenment is complete when all the passengers on an excursion steamer doze off after a serenade. Horrified now at how distressed his family must be and wanting to bring them "surcease of their sorrow," he starts for home, but is intercepted by two villains and a villainess. Tied up and threatened with death, he asks only for one last tune on his harmonica. After his escape, Zeke is soon the "darling of the town," beloved for his ability to give a good night's sleep to crying infants and hospital patients, and becomes a famous musician—not, of course, on the magic harmonica. Steig's hand has lost none of its cunning; his trademark illustrations are as bold and funny as ever, and the text gives no quarter to the idea of limited vocabulary, featuring as it does such words as nanosecond and carnivore. Another hit by the master.
GROWN-UPS GET TO DO ALL THE DRIVING (1995)
Hazel Rochman (review date 1 April 1995)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Grown-Ups Get to Do All the Driving, by William Steig. Booklist 91, no. 15 (1 April 1995): 1393.
There's no sweet innocence in [Grown-Ups Get to Do All the Driving ,] Steig's view of how kids see adults, no nostalgia for childhood. Like Dickens and Dahl, Steig remembers how it was. His cartoons in line and watercolor show grown-ups as grotesque, posturing, and, above all, powerful. The book title and cover picture say it all: smug, thick, cheery adult holding the steering wheel, child strapped down in the passenger seat, barely able to see out, fuming. Unfortunately, many of the domestic details of fashion, furniture, and manners will seem dated to kids now; several situations feel like insider jokes shared with other adults. If there were a story, kids might be drawn into the world of the book, but there's no development at all, just one cartoon per page, with a one-line caption. Each picture is emotional, absurd, and true, but the audience will be New Yorker readers more than kids.
Malcolm Jones, Jr. (review date 15 May 1995)
SOURCE: Jones, Jr., Malcolm. Review of Grown-Ups Get to Do All the Driving, by William Steig. Newsweek 125, no. 20 (15 May 1995): 60.
Steig's latest book, Grown-Ups Get to Do All the Driving (HarperCollins), provides an excellent chance to see how far he's come. A series of variations on the theme of how children see adults ("Grown-ups make you go to the dentist," "Grownups are always weighing themselves"), the book harks back to Steig's 1944 collection, Small Fry , a series of conventionally drawn comic visions of childhood. In the new book, Steig is not looking at childhood; his identification with kids as underdogs ("Kids have to live with adults," he points out) is complete. More important, the deceptively relaxed drawing, somehow both knowing and innocent, carries more than half the load. You can look at these pictures and never read a caption and still crack up. Small Fry is the work of a talented funnyman. Grown-Ups is the work of a master.
Steig dislikes his publisher's decision to market Grown-Ups for both adults and children. "That book's not for kids," he grumbles. In his mind, there has always been a clear division between his two careers. The drawings embody his art. The kids' books were undertaken to make a living. Anxious to escape the advertising work that he did to help pay the bills (advertising, for Steig, "wasn't a clean thing for an artist"), he turned to kids' books as a more savory way to support his increasingly extended family, which by 1968 had grown to include three children and three ex-wives.
The drawing in Steig's children's books, magically illuminated with watercolor washes, is a simpler, more straightforward version of his work for adults. The big surprise is the stories themselves. Animal tales mostly, they are told in language that somehow manages to be both sophisticated and unpretentious. "His use of crazy, complicated language is what's so charming, because kids love the sound of words," says Maurice Sendak. Steig's readers get to flex their verbal muscles on words like minuscule, odoriferous and avail, but they also get to enter a world that is often dangerous but more often wonderful, not to mention funny. Boris, the beached whale in Amos and Boris , looks "breaded with sand." In Shrek! , the ogreish Shrek accosts a peasant "singing and scything. 'You there, varlet,' said Shrek. 'Why so blithe?'" In Doctor De Soto , a fox with a toothache visits the eponymous dentist, a mouse. "On his way home, he wondered if it would be shabby of him to eat the De Sotos when the job was done."
One of the best explanations of Steig's success with children is that he refuses to be sentimental about them. Asked if he gets many letters from his young readers, Steig says, "Oh, millions of them, but it's not spontaneous. They're made to do it by teachers. And they all say the same thing: 'Dear Mr. Steig, I read your book. I liked the part where the pig does this and that. Sorry, I have to go now.'" Sendak praises Steig's stories for being "marvelously untouched by adult experience," and Jeanne Steig notes a "childlike" quality in her husband. But when the question is put to Steig himself, he just rolls his eyes. "If I say I feel like a child," he mutters, "it just means I'm a little stupid." Spoken like a true kid.
His steely blue eyes are still shrewd; his battleship-gray hair is still bushy; his voice remains firm. But creeping deafness and an emphysemiac's cough are heavy-treading hints that age is catching up with Steig. Still, although he calls himself "retired," he continues to draw, and he has another children's book in the works. And every day, this disciple of the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich still climbs into his "orgone energy accumulator," a metal-lined wooden cabinet designed by Reich to capture "orgone energy," a natural atmospheric force that, according to Reich, can treat ailments ranging from cancer to impotence. A Reich disciple since the '40s, Steig has lately acquired an orgone blanket, and soon, he reports happily, "I hope to get an orgone vest."
About Reich, Steig never kids around. On almost any other subject, you can never be sure. For example, what of his insistence that he is an artist, not a writer, or his claim that he does the kids' books just to make a living and that "it's not a result of inspiration"? Is he serious, or is this sly old artist just doing what he can to keep the gods of pomposity at bay? But he's not finished. "I see very little of kids' books," he insists. "And I'm not interested in the other guys as competition." "Well, you're not a very competitive person," his wife says sweetly. And it's this comment that brings the mask down at last. "Well," he responds, with a sheepish grin, "I do like to be the best."
TOY BROTHER (1996)
Maria B. Salvadore (review date May-June 1996)
SOURCE: Salvadore, Maria B. Review of Toy Brother, by William Steig. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 3 (May-June 1996): 329.
"[In Toy Brother ] Magnus Bede, the famous alchemist, and his happy-go-lucky wife, Eutilda, thought they had a harmonious family." Yorick Bede, however, considers his younger brother, Charles, "a first-rate pain in the pants." As his father's apprentice, Yorick dreams that he will eventually surpass his father's achievements, while Charles chases the chickens and argues with the goat. Yorick thinks very little of his brother until the time he finds he desperately needs Charles's help and protection. One day, while their parents are out of town, Yorick sneaks into his father's laboratory, invents a new potion, and reduces himself to the size of a cockroach. Charles enjoys his new role as big brother, but he quickly realizes the many dangers for Yorick: hailstones and field mice are threats; a bucket of milk is an ocean. Try as he might, Yorick cannot prepare the proper antidote and is forced to tell his parents the shameful story upon their return. Magnus sets out to concoct the cure, but he is thwarted by one missing ingredient. In the end Yorick remembers the critical element, his father runs to the lab, and Yorick is restored. The Bedes resume their lives, essentially remaining themselves. "The two brothers sincerely appreciated each other now. Except when they were having a fight." Steig's tongue-in-cheek language is sophisticated and playful. The story's medieval setting provides a perfect forum for Steig's full-color, cartoonish illustrations. Expressive, slightly frumpy, rounded characters are contained on single and double pages by a thin black line to echo the lines of the drawings. Each illustration is bordered by deep lavender to focus and pull the viewer into the image. The result is a knee-slappingly funny book that will appeal to a broad range of readers. Once again, Steig has created a memorable complement of text and illustration.
TOBY, WHERE ARE YOU? (1997)
Virginia Golodetz (review date January 1997)
SOURCE: Golodetz, Virginia. Review of Toby, Where Are You?, by William Steig, illustrated by Teryl Euvremer. School Library Journal 43, no. 1 (January 1997): 91-2.
Here's a surprise from Steig—a book illustrated by someone else and directed to readers younger than his usual audience [Toby, Where Are You? ]. Toby, a very appealing young weasel-like creature, loves to play hide-and-seek, and in this story young readers can join his parents in trying to find him. Steig's brief text, limited to short dramatic one and two liners, has just the right amount of tension to draw young children into the game; and Euvremer's warm, cozy illustrations encourage them to follow Toby from one hiding place to another—behind the curtain, among the leaves of a plant, and under the rug. When his parents give up trying to find him, Toby joyously shouts "Here I am!" The game is over, and he is rewarded with "quite a few kisses." The detailed illustrations extend the spare text, encouraging conversation about actions that are illustrated but not described. The textured look of the pictures invites touching to feel whether the animal fur and fabrics are as soft as they look. The small size of Toby, Where Are You? is just right for little hands to hold. It is a welcome addition to other popular hide-and-seek titles for this age group, such as Eric Hill's Where's Spot (Putnam, 1980) and the Ahlbergs' Each Peach Pear Plum (Viking, 1979). A note of caution: be prepared to play real hide-and-seek whenever you read this story.
A HANDFUL OF BEANS: SIX FAIRY TALES (1998)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 5 October 1998)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of A Handful of Beans, by Jeanne Steig, illustrated by William Steig. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 40 (5 October 1998): 88.
"A long time ago, when magic was more of an everyday matter…." begins Jeanne Steig's version of "The Frog Prince," an opener that typifies her sly irony and lilting language in this hand-sized volume [A Handful of Beans ]. She and husband William Steig, who previously collaborated on Alpha Beta Chowder , deliver droll retellings and puckish new art for six familiar tales. Though youngsters may wish there were more illustrations to break up the sometimes text-laden pages, they won't soon forget William Steig's interpretation of Rumpelstiltskin, a "bizarre little man with a pickle-shaped nose and a lumpish body," stomping in outrage when the Queen guesses his name, or the snoring giant clutching his gold coins as Jack attempts to lift a few for his trip down the beanstalk. The artist whimsically refashions the well-known cast, exaggerating their fatal flaws or winning attributes, while placing them in everyday settings. Jeanne Steig also keeps the stories immediately recognizable by traveling the traditional plot lines, but she refreshes each of them by wryly rewarding the virtuous and punishing the villainous with equal panache. For example, in "Beauty and the Beast," the friends of Beauty's two superficial sisters wickedly predict the outcome of the duo's move from elegant townhouse to small country cottage: "Let them prance through the fields / In chiffon and high heels, / Raising arrogant brows / At the goggle-eyed cows!" Similarly pithy verse appears throughout these fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel also put in an appearance), each of which concludes with a fitting rhymed couplet. A handful of tales certain to please adults as much as children.
Hazel Rochman (review date 15 November 1998)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of A Handful of Beans, by Jeanne Steig, illustrated by William Steig. Booklist 95, no. 6 (15 November 1998): 589.
"When magic was more of an everyday matter…." It's the sense that fairy tales happen to people like us that will enthrall young children (and those who read to them) in this collection [A Handful of Beans ] of six favorite fairy tales retold by Jeanne Steig. Where large-size, gorgeously illustrated picture books, such as Paul O. Zelinsky's 1998 Caldecott-award-winner, Rapunzel, have the appeal of glorious romance, this small volume has a decidedly down-to-earth, informal tone. There is just one drawback: the fancy type is busy and intrusive, especially jarring with this kind of relaxed storytelling. These are not fractured fairytales—there is no messing with the stories in any way—but the telling is rhythmic, colloquial, and direct ("What are you bawling and squalling about?" Rumpelstiltskin asks the miller's daughter), and the occasional loose line-and-watercolor illustrations in William Steig's cartoon-style bring the dwarves, giants, witches, and princesses right into the kitchen. The elemental drama is always there (everyone will understand why Jack goes to bed "feeling hungry and angry and sorry and sad"). Sometimes it's scary (too hungry to sleep, Hansel and Gretel lie awake and hear their stepmother persuade their dad to abandon them in the forest). There are also sly moments of comedy (the father of the spoiled princess is only too pleased to give his consent to her marriage and immediate departure). Kids will enjoy the way the text often breaks into chanting rhymes, not only when the wicked giant threatens but also when the good live happily ever after ("Their troubles were ended / Life was splendid"). Still, the most memorable line is the king's threat to the girl who must spin straw into gold: "If you fail, you die." What a book to turn kids on to the power of story.
Roger Sutton (review date January-February 1999)
SOURCE: Sutton, Roger. Review of A Handful of Beans, by Jeanne Steig, illustrated by William Steig. Horn Book Magazine 75, no. 1 (January-February 1999): 76-7.
With its modest yet mischievous title an entirely fitting harbinger of the tone and tales to come, A Handful of Beans is an ample demonstration that, yes, we can use another "Jack and the Beanstalk" (and another "Rumpelstiltskin," "Beauty and the Beast," "Hansel and Gretel," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "The Frog Prince"). While fairy-tale parodies and updates are perhaps too much with us these days, Jeanne Steig goes the trend one better in her homely retellings, adding the gentlest touches of wit without ever betraying the story: after the king sees what Rumpelstiltskin has spun the first night, for example, he says to the miller's daughter, "My, my … what a lovely surprise. We must do this again." Steig also provides illuminating detail. When Hansel and Gretel go to sleep in the witch's house, it is under "sheets as soft as a spider's web," and Red Riding Hood's wolf is a suave seducer: "But see here, my girl. Violets are blooming, finches are singing, the sun is tickling the little green leaves, and here you are, tramping along as if you were late for school. Why don't you look around you a bit, and enjoy the world?" As you can easily see, these tales would be great fun for reading aloud, and occasionally bits of verse, beautifully scanned, provide an incantatory charm of their own: "Pardon me, Mistress, the door is so small, / I could never squeeze into the oven at all." William Steig's line-and-watercolor illustrations, four or five per story, are humble and funny, and the book's compact size is just right for a little one-on-one session in cultural literacy.
PETE'S A PIZZA (1998)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 6 July 1998)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of Pete's a Pizza, by William Steig. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 27 (6 July 1998): 58.
Mr. Steig (The Toy Brother ) introduces a game guaranteed to produce a good mood. On a rainy day, title character Pete [in Pete's a Pizza ] flops down on the couch in an attitude of despair. His father notices, and "he thinks it might cheer Pete up to be made into a pizza." Pete allows himself to be carried into the kitchen, where he is kneaded and tossed like dough. "Next, some oil is generously applied. (It's really water.) … And then some tomatoes. (They're really checkers.)" Pizza-Pete bakes on the couch, (a.k.a. the pizza oven), but when it's time to cut slices (with a karate-chop gesture), "the pizza runs away and the pizza-maker chases him." Steig evidently has played pizza before. He substitutes talcum powder for flour and paper scraps for mozzarella; he notes that pizzas struggle when tickled. The text resembles a set of directions, with each step wryly presented as a concise sentence and plainly printed in sans serif capital letters. In keeping with his story's simplicity, Steig creates compact line drawings that are detailed with wild watercolor patterns but symmetrically placed in a spacious white background. The amiable quality of Steig's easy pizza recipe will amuse chef and entrée alike.
Tom S. Hurlburt (review date November 1998)
SOURCE: Hurlburt, Tom S. Review of Pete's a Pizza, by William Steig. School Library Journal 44, no. 11 (November 1998): 97-8.
When Pete [in Pete's a Pizza ] is in an especially bad mood because it is raining and he can't play ball with his friends, his father decides that it might cheer his son up "to be made into a pizza." The boy is placed on the kitchen table where he is kneaded, tossed, and covered with various toppings including oil (water), tomatoes (checkers), and cheese (pieces of paper). His mother comments that she doesn't like tomatoes, eliciting some giggles from Pete. He is then placed in the oven (the couch) and eventually returned to the table to be sliced. At this juncture, he runs away and is pursued by his father who captures and hugs him. By now the sun is shining and Pete goes outside to look for his friends. The interplay between father and son is both entertaining and endearing. The man says, after tickling Pete, "Pizzas are not supposed to laugh!" and Pete responds, "Pizza-makers are not supposed to tickle their pizzas!" Steig's spare line drawings and zany watercolor paintings are centered against a large white background. The wry text is printed in all capital letters, making it look almost like a recipe. From its tongue-tantalizing title to its understated but delightful ending, Pete's a Pizza is a tour de force.
ARTHUR YORINKS'S THE FLYING LATKE (1999)
Teri Markson (review date October 1999)
SOURCE: Markson, Teri. Review of Arthur Yorinks's The Flying Latke, by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by William Steig and Paul Colin. School Library Journal 45, no. 10 (October 1999): 72.
Oy vey! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a UFL (unidentified flying latke)! When Danny's family [in The Flying Latke ] gathers together for the first night of Chanukah, the evening is spoiled by a petty argument that erupts between Uncles Izzy and Shecky over the make of a car. Soon the dinner degenerates into a food fight and a latke misses Shecky and flies out the window into the night, where it is spotted over the New Jersey turnpike and mistaken for a UFO. The Air Force and the FBI investigate; meanwhile the whole family ends up trapped in the house for eight days and nights, where all they have left to eat is a few latkes. Of course, this being Chanukah, they miraculously last for eight days. To illustrate this broad farce, Yorinks has overlaid Steig's painted backdrops with staged photographs of actors engaged in exaggerated dramatic play. The players' facial expressions are often worth a thousand words; however, Steig's charming watercolor interiors are at times overwhelmed by the photographs. The humor depends considerably on prior knowledge of both the holiday and Jewish culture and is often adult in tone. While not a book for everyone, this is a very funny story that simply begs to be read aloud after the menorah is lit and the latkes are just a grease spot on a plate.
Martha V. Parravano (review date July-August 2000)
SOURCE: Parravano, Martha V. Review of Wizzil, by William Steig, illustrated by Quentin Blake. Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 4 (July-August 2000): 446-47.
Old Wizzil the witch's hair sticks up from her head in unkempt spikes; her chosen victim, retired farmer DeWitt Frimp, is bald; but both author and illustrator [in Wizzil ] have let their hair down for this tale of mischief, revenge, and redemption. Bored Wizzil turns herself into a fly to torment DeWitt, but when he almost swats her (he hates flies, and swatting them is his main pleasure in life), Wizzil, "resolved on revenge," turns herself into his work glove, spoiling his aim. "He'd swing and he'd swat, and he'd hear the swatter swoosh, but Wizzil just jerked his arm a tad to this side or a tad to that side … no soap!" Steig's language is utterly unfettered, with alliteration so thick you could spread it, and packed with savory words and phrases such as culprit and kibitz and happy harpy and bald-headed fuddy-dud. In short, Wizzil is literary ambrosia. Blake's pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations, full of energy and humor and movement (particularly when depicting DeWitt swishing his swatter), are sublime. Check out the dead, stiff-legged frog on a plate by Wizzil's bed; DeWitt's beer-bellied son Fred balletically balancing on one foot as he tries to scratch the "unbearable itches in unexpected places" Wizzil inflicts on all the Frimps; or Wizzil and DeWitt gazing goofily at each other after all her "vicious nastiness" is washed away and they fall in love. Kids are likely to groan at the resolution, but feisty Beatrice the parrot has the last word, and manages to counteract some of the icky lovey-dovey stuff: "I guess I'll have to stay here with these humdrum humans," she says. "It'll be a whole new hayride."
Michael Cart (review date 1 October 2000)
SOURCE: Cart, Michael. Review of Wizzil, by William Steig, illustrated by Quentin Blake. Booklist 97, no. 3 (1 October 2000): 337.
Oh, what a world! Wizzil the witch [in Wizzil ]is bored stiff. Is there nothing to do? "Go make somebody suffer," her parrot, Beatrice, squawks. Suddenly inspired, Wizzil turns herself into a housefly and zisses off to plague her neighbor, retired farmer DeWitt Frimp, who happens to hate flies. When Wizzil takes a stroll on the snoozing farmer's face, he reacts badly, nearly squashing the daylights out of her with his swatter. The witch takes this personally, and after some serious scheming comes up with a doozy of an idea for revenge: she turns herself into a left-handed work glove, which so captivates DeWitt that he takes to wearing it all the time. The trouble is, whenever he tries to swat a fly, Wizzil spoils his aim. The frustrated farmer finally flings the glove into the river—with unforeseen consequences. Steig has written a rollicking story so awash with alliteration and exuberant language that reading it aloud will be sheer delight. And Blake, recently named Children's Laureate of the United Kingdom, is a wizard with a scribbly line and a color wash. His illustrations, which are every bit as wonderfully energetic and funny as Steig's text (his picture of DeWitt swishing his swatter like a berserk semaphore is priceless), add texture to the story with their telling use of comic detail, a jar of eyeballs, a seriously dead frog in an ashtray, chicken feet hanging from the ceiling. Like Wizzil, readers need never be bored again.
A GIFT FROM ZEUS: SIXTEEN FAVORITE MYTHS (2001)
Patricia Lothrop-Green (review date June 2001)
SOURCE: Lothrop-Green, Patricia. Review of A Gift from Zeus: Sixteen Favorite Myths, by Jeanne Steig, illustrated by William Steig. School Library Journal 47, no. 6 (June 2001): 181.
Although in many ways this volume [A Gift from Zeus ] is as enthralling as the Steigs' A Handful of Beans (HarperCollins, 1998), in these unexpurgated myths, as in their pagan sources, lurk suicides and other distressing deaths, lust, rape, incest, and human-animal couplings of various sorts. That said, sophisticated readers will be charmed by the lively retellings, blending vernacular ("wiggly, giggly nymph") and elevated diction ("amorous revelry") in focused and fast-moving narratives. Although 16 myths are featured, many more are told in passing. Clever and elliptical brief verses are scattered throughout the text, reminding readers of the connection between myths and songs. William Steig's fierce, funny, faux-naive illustrations add a piquant touch: the irate Demeter, dead bunny and gull at her feet, with a duck bombing to Earth beside her, is particularly delicious. Others are more romantic or celebratory, but all are colorful and carefully composed. For older readers, this book marries two immortals: Steigian art and classical myth.
Janice M. Del Negro (review date July-August 2001)
SOURCE: Del Negro, Janice M. Review of A Gift from Zeus: Sixteen Favorite Myths, by Jeanne Steig, illustrated by William Steig. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 54, no. 11 (July-August 2001): 424-25.
Steig adapts sixteen classical myths (including the stories of Prometheus, King Midas, Leda, Arachne, Venus and Adonis, and Orpheus and Eurydice) into tellable tales with an emphasis on the foibles of gods and men [in A Gift from Zeus ]. Human weaknesses—greed, envy, lust, vanity, hubris—afflict both mortals and immortals, and, while the gods emerge unscathed, most of the human characters are not so lucky. The author embraces the bawdy humor and sexual tragedy of the tales, considering those humans who were unfortunate enough to become entangled in the lecherous pursuits of the gods as well as those who were unfortunate captives of their own desires. Rhyming verse is interjected into the tales to serve as humorous asides to the action (the Chimaera, for example, "was rampaging about the countryside, dining on youths and maidens, which she preferred to the old and leathery. 'Old folks have horrid gristly strips / that bruise a monster's dainty lips,' she explained. And as she devoured the youths, she chanted gleefully 'A tender maid for breakfast, / A toothsome lad for lunch, / Oh, the succulent flesh / Of the young and the fresh! / Crunch, crunch, crunch'"). William Steig's airy line drawings feature imaginatively proportioned (occasionally bare-buttocked) heroes, cavorting (occasionally bare-breasted) maidens, and amorous gods in frequently hilarious positions. This is a witty, sophisticated piece of work, sure to remind adult readers more of Steig's New Yorker cartoons than Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.
POTCH AND POLLY (2002)
Joy Fleishhacker (review date August 2002)
SOURCE: Fleishhacker, Joy. Review of Potch and Polly, by William Steig, illustrated by Jon Agee. School Library Journal 48, no. 8 (August 2002): 170.
This irresistible picture book, Potch and Polly , has it all: a tongue-in-cheek text brimming with deliciously alliterative phrases, wry cartoons that mix visual gags with a comic-book punch, and a plot featuring two lovers who are taunted by twists of fate and turns of slapstick humor. Born with a clown-faced angel cavorting nearby, Potch enjoys a happy childhood and grows into a contented adult. Then one day, he receives an invitation to a masquerade party and goes dressed as Harlequin. He is having a "ball at the ball" when he lays eyes on Polly Pumpernickel and is instantly smitten. Passions build as the couple takes charge of the dance floor. Just when it seems that they will "prance and pirouette" their way to a happy ending, Potch tosses his partner into the air and she accidentally ends up in the fountain, drenched and incensed. Determined to win his lady's hand, he concocts several elaborate and ridiculous schemes to impress her. Unfortunately, something always goes wrong, and it's up to Potch's angel to find a way to untangle the heartstrings of these star-crossed lovers. Steig's delivery is flawless and funny, as outrageous plot turns are balanced by straightforward, almost staccato language that moves along at an exhilarating pace. Highlighted by crayon lines and subtly colored in pastel hues, the hilarious artwork expands and enhances the text. The balding, paunchy Potch and orange-haired, pencil-thin Polly make quite an eyecatching couple, and Agee makes the most of their antics. Dialogue balloons, sound effects, and varied layouts keep the energy level high. A sublimely silly and thoroughly satisfying love story.
Deborah Stevenson (review date October 2002)
SOURCE: Stevenson, Deborah. Review of Potch and Polly, by William Steig, illustrated by Jon Agee. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 56, no. 2 (October 2002): 80.
Potch is an ebullient and jovial soul [in Potch and Polly ]; greeted at birth by "an angel with a clown's face," he has laughed his way through life ever since. When he meets Polly Pumpernickel, he thinks he's found the love of his life, but unfortunately his gleeful rompings misfire: he drops her in the ornamental pool, his elephant lays waste to her rose garden, his fireworks accidentally torch her bedroom. Fortunately, the clown-faced angel cunningly intervenes, tricking Polly into realizing her feelings for Potch and coming up with her own dotty—and successful—courtship maneuver. As he so often does, Steig offers the droll conciseness of a fairy tale ("Even as a grown-up, Potch turned off the lights reluctantly, and always woke up happy to be who and where he was") with unconventional, archetype-rejecting twists ("Polly Pumpernickel, to tell the truth, was no beauty. But to Potch, who was no beauty himself, she was a sugar bowl"). Agee's thick, scratchy lines give a toy-like sturdiness to his figures, and there's a touch of the comics to his taste for panels, speech balloons, and print sound effects; the art parallels the text in its gleeful indifference to traditions (the happy couple are physically disparate as well as a considerable departure from the folkloric ideal). Even kids allergic to love stories will get a kick out of the rambunctious and slapstick-ridden romance of Potch and Polly.
WHICH WOULD YOU RATHER BE? (2002)
Doug Ward (review date 19 May 2002)
SOURCE: Ward, Doug. Review of Which Would You Rather Be?, by William Steig, illustrated by Harry Bliss. New York Times Book Review (19 May 2002): section 7, p. 30.
In William Steig's Which Would You Rather Be? , a boy and a girl sit before a giant white rabbit who pulls from a magic hat everything from an elephant and a crocodile to thunder and lightning. "Which would you rather be?" the rabbit asks. "A stick or a stone? An elbow or a knee? A cat or a dog?"
As in de Regniers's book, the text is spare, just slightly more than 100 words. That allows little room for developing the kind of tale with which Steig has made his mark on children's literature, as the author and illustrator of books like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and The Amazing Bone. Which Would You Rather Be? speaks to a younger audience, but like Steig's previous books, it celebrates imagination, recognizing that in the end not every question has an answer, at least not immediately.
Harry Bliss's pictures are delightfully silly, if often static. I was bothered, though, by the portrayal of the girl, who seems overly passive. That aside, the illustrations work seamlessly with Steig's page-by-page questions. The picture story even takes on a life of its own—starting on the front cover, as the boy and girl peer inside the magic hat, and continuing to the back cover, where the rabbit chases a rogue mouse that refuses to go back into the hat.
Michael Cart (review date August 2002)
SOURCE: Cart, Michael. Review of Which Would You Rather Be?, by William Steig, illustrated by Harry Bliss. Booklist 98, no. 22 (August 2002): 1977.
"Which would you rather be?" a wand-wielding rabbit asks a boy and girl [in Which Would You Rather Be? ] as he pulls a series of choices from tall silk hat. Bliss' pictures, facing the text, present the options and invest Steig's simple words with wit and a sense of story, as when the kids, offered a choice between being an elbow or a knee, watch as a circus strong man squeezes out of the hat—elbows pointed outward, a knee touched by the rabbit's magic wand. When the choice is between being a snake or a crocodile, the kids and the rabbit make hasty exits. Who can blame them? The croc emerging from the hat sure looks hungry! There are 10 choices, though some are represented only by words, and the kids actually reply to only three. That leaves lots of room for eager readers and listeners to respond on their own, and, like the kids in the book, to think about some of the more difficult options: "Which would you rather be? A boy or a girl?" "Alone or together?" No pondering is necessary, however, to know that together Steig's words and Bliss' pictures make a winning choice.
WHEN EVERYBODY WORE A HAT (2003)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Joy Bean (review date 10 February 2003)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Joy Bean. Review of When Everybody Wore a Hat, by William Steig. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 6 (10 February 2003): 184.
With his customary mix of charm and directness, Steig (Which Would You Rather Be? ) reflects on his Bronx childhood [in When Everybody Wore a Hat ]. For the most part, the author pictures events in his trademark ink-line and watercolor images, but readers will be struck by the opening photo of a boy in short pants, climbing a tree: "In 1916, when I was eight years old, there were almost no electric lights, cars or telephones—and definitely no TV." Steig remembers his immigrant parents arguing in "German, Polish, Yiddish and English….Who knows what they were saying? But we learned the important words." In a discomfiting image, two of the four Steig children cower in the foreground while their parents yell back and forth. Later, in more tranquil times, the whole family goes rowing, and "Pop" enjoys a cigar while listening to Caruso on the Victrola. Steig writes in short statements that give the impression of memories sparking to mind. He juxtaposes distant conflict with immediate danger: "There was a big war going on over in Europe. It was World War I. Prince was the janitor's dog. Kids were scared of him." Throughout, his cramped, crabbed and emotive cartoons—as gruff as his voice—indicate the styles and street life of the early 20th century. Indeed, everyone from the burly moving guy to "Mom's best friend" (a wide-eyed lady in a showy dress) wears a chapeau outdoors: "There was no such thing as a hatless human being." The engrossing book closes with a current photo and no syrupy aftertaste; as usual, Steig writes and draws concisely. His autobiography extends the unspoken mantra communicated in all of his books: less is more. He leaves it to readers to bring their own experience to bear in what he leaves unspoken (or undrawn) between the lines.
Edward Sorel (review date 20 April 2003)
SOURCE: Sorel, Edward. Review of When Everybody Wore a Hat, by William Steig. New York Times Book Review (20 April 2003): section 7, p. 20.
Some guys can't seem to do anything wrong. Consider William Steig, born in 1907. It would not be unreasonable to expect, in view of his prodigious output of books for children, that he would produce a clinker now and then. Even van Gogh had his bad days. But Steig never disappoints, and his latest concoction, a witty memoir in pictures called When Everybody Wore a Hat , is especially winning.
It opens with a photograph of 8-year-old Bill in knickers climbing a tree, and tells us what it was like to grow up in the Bronx in 1916. Although I grew up in the Bronx a bit later—during the Great Depression—I share many of the same memories. I too wore knickers (the corduroy ones made squishy sounds when you walked), and I too had a Victrola that required cranking (but in our apartment it wasn't Caruso I heard, it was Aaron Lebedeff singing "Rumania, Rumania").
Like Steig's, my parents came from the old country, and mine also quarreled in a multitude of languages. When I came to the page showing young Bill and his sister clutching each other in fear while their parents yelled at each other in the next room, I tried to remember if I had ever seen a book for young children that acknowledged the fact that parents sometimes fight. I couldn't think of any, yet it must be reassuring to children to know that they are not the only ones who have to endure this trauma.
Urban old-timers reading this book to their grandchildren will recognize much. There are the muscle-bound moving men lugging furniture up flights of stairs in buildings that have no elevator; tenants banging on the radiator for more heat; and photographers walking the streets with a horse and a tripod camera to shoot Bronx boys who want to pretend that they are cowboys.
There are also the sad memories of seeing his mother cry after hearing news from the Old Country, and brother Henry laid low with Spanish influenza. (The little ones will be surprised to learn that once upon a time doctors made house calls.) To give some sort of ending to what is, after all, just a series of random memories, Steig comes full circle and shows a photograph of himself as he looks now. He is looking straight at us and smiling. He looks like a man who enjoys telling funny stories.
To illustrate those bygone days the author has fiddled with his natural drawing style to evoke the look of children's art. Perspective is delightfully askew, and anatomy does amazing tricks, like having two arms on one side of the body. It is a style that Steig has employed often over the last half-century, and never has it seemed more appropriate than here, where his childhood is being recalled. Because there are no continuing characters in this stream of memories—different relatives and friends make an appearance for a page and are not heard from again—Steig is liberated from the tiresome task, hated by all illustrators, of duplicating faces exactly. As a result the drawings in When Everybody Wore a Hat are at their loose-as-a-goose spontaneous best.
Like all great comic artists—and make no mistake, he's right up there with Wilhelm Busch and Peter Arno in the cartoon pantheon—William Steig has one theme he can't help returning to over and over: the agonies and the joys of childhood. Children have been his chief subject from the very start of his career. He began drawing cartoons and covers for The New Yorker in 1930. (At last count, the number of covers he has produced for that magazine stood at 117, and half of them have been about children.) His drawings over the years, both in his cartoons and in his more than 30 books for children, have evolved into a more spontaneous style. Although my personal favorite remains Dreams of Glory , the small black-and-white adult book he did back in 1953, I recognize his need to take his art into more sophisticated (and perhaps less time-consuming) directions. It is, as we know, the sophistication of his illustrations that make his children's books such favorites with parents. Steig, after all, was doing "crossover" books like CDB! long before the term was invented.
In view of the number of storybooks Steig has written and illustrated, it will surprise many to learn that he didn't begin writing for children until 1968, when he was 61. His third, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble , which won a Caldecott Medal, is considered by some to be his masterpiece, though others prefer Amos and Boris, The Amazing Bone or Spinky Sulks. Now 96, Steig is clearly in a nostalgic mood, and with When Everybody Wore a Hat he has left us a charming souvenir of his boyhood.
But, of course, he has left us a good deal more. If we consider his entire oeuvre: his prolific output; the inventiveness of his stories, so often involving transformation; his precise and demanding language; and the sheer beauty of his pictures, then his legacy can only be described as unprecedented.
Peter D. Sieruta (review date May-June 2003)
SOURCE: Sieruta, Peter D. Review of When Everybody Wore a Hat, by William Steig. Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 3 (May-June 2003): 370-71.
When William Steig was a boy, everybody wore a hat. In this clear-eyed, affectionate look backward [When Everybody Wore a Hat ], the author-illustrator remembers life in 1916 when he was eight years old. Some of his memories describe the era ("Even fire engines were pulled by horses"), but most are specific to his own experiences as a child of immigrants growing up in the Bronx ("There were times when sad news would come from the Old Country. It made us scared to see Mom cry"). The often whimsical text randomly recalls rowboat rides and visits to the barbershop, as well as "the prettiest girl on the block"—each brief reminiscence accompanied by a watercolor and ink cartoon that blends humor and warmth in equal measure. At the end of the volume—which is framed by two photographs of Steig, one as a youngster and the other as a nonagenarian—he tells us he had two childhood ambitions: to be an artist and a seaman. Although he never went to sea, "I did become an artist." As this volume proves, the world of children's books continues to be richer for that.
Burns, Mary M. Review of Pete's a Pizza, by William Steig. Horn Book Magazine 74, no. 5 (September-October 1998): 602-03.
Notes that the square book format used in Pete's a Pizza represents a stylistic departure for Steig.
Cummins, Julie. Review of A Handful of Beans, by Jeanne Steig, illustrated by William Steig. School Library Journal 44, no. 12 (December 1998): 116.
Argues that Steig's illustrations in A Handful of Beans "have less sprightliness and charm than the retellings."
Dirda, Michael. "Steig: Nobody Is Grown-Up." Washington Post Book World (14 October 1990): X10.
Assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Shrek!
Lorenz, Lee. The World of William Steig. New York, N.Y.: Artisan, 1998, 207 p.
Traces Steig's life and career, featuring hundreds of color and black-and-white illustrations and a portfolio of previously unpublished pieces selected by Steig.
Steig, William, Jeanne Steig, and Leonard S. Marcus. "William Steig with Jeanne Steig." In Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book, pp. 182-96. New York, N.Y.: Dutton Children's Books, 2002.
Steig discusses his motivations for certain stylistic and creative decisions evident throughout his picture books.
Zvirin, Stephanie. Review of Pete's a Pizza, by William Steig. Booklist 95, no. 3 (1 October 1998): 323.
Declares that Pete's a Pizza is one of Steig's "most joyously appealing picture books."
Additional coverage of Steig's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 2, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80, 224; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 21, 44, 119; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 61; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; and Something about the Author, Vols. 18, 70, 111, 149.