William Steig: An Appreciation

“The fact that kids like a book is not proof of its merit. They also like all kinds of dreck confections with names like yo-yos, and animation full of senseless violence. Every kid is a potential genius but also a potential yuckapuck.” — William Steig.

I love William Steig’s books, his picture books (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Amazing Bone, Doctor De Soto) as well as his longer works, such as Abel’s Island and Dominic.

Amazingly, Steig published his first children’s book at the vintage age of sixty. I often think that’s what helped make his voice unique, singular. Like many people who reach that state of grace — I’m thinking of any number of old grandpas on the front porch, talking about how the world really works — Steig didn’t seem to care what anybody thought. He was free from all those concerns. Sure of himself, Steig worked to please himself, confident in the knowledge that by doing so, he would almost certainly please others. Or not — whatever!

I admire, too, his faith in his own imagination, his aspirations to make true, lasting Art. Yet he was never pretentious about the writing process. Said Steig, “I just ramble around and discover for myself what will happen next.” He also said: “I can’t truly say that I am ever inspired to write a book. It’s the last thing in the world I think of until I have to do it. And then I count on my imagination to make things happen.”

His artwork serves the text, and often sublimely, perhaps never moreso than in The Amazing Bone, which seems like it sprang from the palette of a French Impressionist. I’m staring at a two-page spread that depicts the book’s porcine heroine, Pearl, as she serenely settles amidst the wild flowers of a forest. She breathes in her surroundings, at one with nature.

Wrote Steig:

Later she sat on the ground in the forest between school and home, and spring was so bright and beautiful, the warm air touched her so tenderly, she could almost feel herself changing into a flower. Her light dress felt like petals.

“I love everything,” she heard herself say.

Despite the artwork, it was Steig’s singular use of language that separated him from the pack. He refused to pander to the perceived interests of young readers; instead, he lifted readers up, selecting the right word even if it wasn’t the easiest word, trusting in his readers’ intuitive intelligence. Children encounter rich, vivid language in his books, words like cantankerous and recumbent. As J.K. Rowling proved in the Harry Potter books, the grandiosity of the language did not turn readers away, but rather heightened the mystery and atmospherics of the telling. Steig’s books serve as an eloquent rebuttal to today’s misguided tendency of “dumbing down” children’s literature.

There’s also sensitivity in his stories, poignancy, a profound sense of wonder. The way Sylvester’s parents, heartbroken and unyielding, never stop searching for their lost child, never surrender hope. Or when Pearl in The Amazing Bone finds herself in the clutches of a cruel fox:

“Be brave,” the bone whispered. Pearl could only tremble.

Steig was a true believer in the immediacy of the creative impulse. He said, “It’s only when you’re consciously aware of what you’re doing in a book that you’re in trouble.” He followed, that is, his own muse. There is nothing cynical about his work, nothing deliberate. I believe he never once tried to figure out the market, never wrote simply to sell, never chased the latest trend, but instead followed his heart. It is why his books are timeless and enduring.

In Dominic, a dog sets out to see more of the world. Soon he must choose between two paths: a road with “no surprise, nothing to discover or wonder at,” or another road that promises to lead him to “where things will happen that you never could have guessed at — marvelous, unbelievable things.”

Like the book’s creator, Dominic chose the second path. Every reader who has opened one of William Steig’s books knows that feeling. For he invites us along on that same journey of surprise and adventure. And away we go, willingly, happily, in the hands of a master.

POSTSCRIPT: A librarian friend — okay, my ex-wife, Maria, who remains my friend — just sent me a cool link. There was a recent celebration of William Steig’s art at The Jewish Museum. To get more info, and to hear Meryl Streep read Spinky Sulks, just follow the link. This presentation of his work from The New Yorker is also awesomely cool.

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