Thursday, October 04, 2007

William Steig

Lawyers, Guns, and Money (there’s a song I seem to back into very half-decade or so) notes that it’s been four years since William Steig died.

When my oldest was three or four, I went through phase of total Steig immersion – all other picture books seemed too bright, too phony, and too falsely ingratiating to me compared to books like Solomon and the Rusty Nail, The Amazing Bone, and, of course, Shrek!. Everything just tried too hard, whereas Steig’s books were comfortably bizarre and full of deadpan wierdness.

L,G&M notes the misanthropy that seems to run through some of the books. Certainly The Rotten Island is as rotten as advertised, and Shrek is a truly nasty character (as opposed to his merely crankily loveable film counterpart).

But that’s just hipster icing; the real heart of the books is a warm one. In fact, that’s what really drew me into them in the first place: their genuine warmth, which is rarer than you'd think in kids' books. Almost all of Steig's books have a deep throb of sentimentality that is truly earned. Husbands and wives truly love each other; parents are driven to distraction by the woes that befall their offspring; and when things turn out alright in the end, characters tend to dance around like idiots, though usually all that has happened is the restoration of the status quo. Even Shrek, the bastard, is a kind of model of self-esteem: at one point, after doing some awful thing, he is said to be "happier than ever to be exactly what he was."

As with the early Miyazaki films, the narratives of Steig’s books bob along like semi-deflated balloons in a light wind, moving at the speed of actual experience. Stories don't unfold – which would suggest they exist in some kind of pre-formed state – so much as write themselves from page to page. The characters seem genuinely surprised at what happens to them, and yet are active agents in correcting whatever bad fortune comes their way.

But before the restoration comes, characters are often put through some genuinely horrifying experiences. Dr DeSoto, the mouse dentist, must drag himself through a jungle with a broken leg, spurred on by the enraging thought that he might never again see his wife; the little (pig) girl in The Amazing Bone comes very close to being eaten, though any parent reading the story will instantly substitute a more realistic (and thus horrifying) fate for her at the hands of her gentleman abductor.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
contains the most effortlessly bleak scene in all of children's lit, I think: in the story, Sylvester, a donkey, has found a pebble that will grant him any wish as long as he is holding it. Carrying it home, he is cornered by a hungry lion. Instead of wishing the lion gone, he wishes he himself were a rock. And so he becomes a big rock, and because he's not holding the stone anymore, he's stuck that way, maybe for good. At one point, in the winter (when Sylvester has given up all hope of being turned back into a donkey and is mostly letting himself lapse into a coma-like sleep), a wolf with an empty stomach sits on the Sylvester-rock and howls out his grief.

Reading Steig's books to my younger kid now, I'm a lot less Steig-drunk than I was, but I still can't help but shudder a little whenever I come across that picture of the sleeping stone Sylvester and the cold and hungry wolf.

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