Published: Apr 11, 2013
“Shrek” --- yes, William Steig wrote and illustrated the book that led to the movie that became the marketing. But let's set that mega-hit aside, please, so we can look at the artist who, time after time, created books for kids that adults honestly love to read.
William Steig was the son of a house painter and a seamstress. His parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants; inevitably, they migrated to the Bronx. When the Depression battered them, their 23-year-old son Bill was the family's financial hope.
But there was a problem. "My father was a socialist --- an advanced thinker --- and he felt that business was degrading, but he didn't want his children to be laborers,” Steig recalled. “We were all encouraged to go into music or art."
Well, he'd had art training. And he did like drawing. So William Steig sent a cartoon to The New Yorker in 1930 --- a picture of a prison inmate telling another, ''My son's incorrigible, I can't do a thing with him.'' It sold. “I earned $4,500 the first year, and it was more than our family, then four of us, needed,'' he said. Later, he put his early success in more Steigian terms: ''I flew from the nest with my parents on my back.''
Steig would become the magazine's most prolific, longest-running contributor. In 67 years --- he died, at 95, in 2003 --- he published more than 1,600 drawings and 117 New Yorker covers. It takes a dozen books to collect his cartoons.
That art is major. Steig invented a kind of free-form psychological style that has steeped into the craft so completely no one can recall a time when cartoons were just stark realism. And W. H. Auden compared his drawings to Goya's "Disasters of War.”
But Steig did more.
Greeting cards. He claims to have re-invented them: “They used to be all sweetness and love. I started doing the complete reverse --- almost a hate card --- and it caught on.”
And then, in 1968, when he was 61, Steig started to write and illustrate children's books.
They're not like other books for kids, and that's not because of their style --- Steig didn't think about people as others did. He believed:
"People are basically good and beautiful, and neurosis is the biggest obstacle to peace and happiness."
"I'm sure we know almost nothing about what a natural child would be if there were one. But I do know that we have a lot of cute, handed-down ideas about what is good for kids. Our healthy childhood lasts only so long as it takes to destroy it, and the memory of it is buried.”
“The child is the hope of humanity. If they are going to change the world, they have to start off optimistically. I wouldn't consider writing a depressing book for children."
Put those views together, and you get books that treat kids as smart and aware and verbal --- and fully capable of asking the grownups if they don't know the words. And not just any big words. I mean lunatic, sinuous, palsied, sequestration, ensconced, cloaca and cleave. Stranded on a beach, a Steigian whale is' 'breaded with sand.'' A fox feels “shabby” for his evil dreams. Like that.
Originality? “CDB!” has given generations of pre-schoolers a book they can “read” --- like this:
R U C-P?
S, I M.
I M 2.
And the stories! In “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” a frightened donkey turns himself into a stone, but can't reverse the process. In “Dr. De Soto,” a mouse who is an excellent animal dentist takes a huge chance and accepts a fox as a patient. in "The Real Thief," a goose is false accused of stealing a royal ruby.
But even more, the moral and ethical sophistication in Steig's books astonish me.
In “Amos & Boris," a mouse falls off his boat and contemplates death in terms never before seen in a kids' book: "He began to wonder what it would be like to drown. Would it take very long? Would it feel just awful? Would his soul go to heaven? Would there be other mice there?"
And the thing about Shrek isn't that he's a really gross ogre, it's the completely unexpected --- but totally Steigian --- moment when Shrek has a nightmare that he's being kissed by happy kids in a lovely field: "Some of the children kept hugging and kissing him, and there was nothing he could do to make them stop."
His favorite book, “The Real Thief,” ends with this zinger: “There was peace and harmony in the kingdom once again, except for the little troubles that come up every so often even in the best of circumstances, since nothing is perfect.”
Over and over, I find just the sort of affirmation I hope for in kids' books (hell, in all books). Nature heals. Friends matter. The family is a warm blanket. And quests are worth taking. And life isn't simple or easy.
Steig began a book with a quotation from William Blake:
The Angel that presided o'er my birth
Said, "Little Creature, formed of Joy and Mirth,
Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth.”
I can see how Steig might feel that way; I can see how we all do. But then there are these books. They are Joy and Mirth, and they overflow with love and creativity, and any parent who has ever read them at bedtime will tell you --- they do more than help.
To buy “CBD!” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “The One and Only Shrek” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Doctor De Soto” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Doctor De Soto Goes to Africa” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “The Real Thief” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Gorky Rises” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Dominic” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Amos & Boris” from Amazon.com, click here.