William Steig: Shrek & Co.

“For some reason, I’ve never felt grown up.”

“Shrek” (DreamWorks, 2001)

When asked his opinion about the movie based on his picture book Shrek, William Steig responded: “It’s vulgar, it’s disgusting — and I loved it.” Featuring Mike Meyer as the voice of the long suffering ogre, Eddie Murphy as the wisecracking Donkey, and Cameron Diaz as the feisty Princess Fiona, the movie is the best children’s film ever (an opinion I share with my niece and nephews). Two sequels have followed as well as a Broadway musical. And even though the book seems sketchy compared to the film, what the film gets right is the spirit of William Steig: his clever and hilarious ways of playing with other children’s stories, a wittiness which makes Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” seem like a walk in the park.

Exhibit at the Jewish Museum of San Francisco.

The conventional story about William Steig is that he was a grown-up and for thirty years a famed cartoonist for adult readers of the New Yorker. Then, at the age of 60, he suddenly decided to become a writer for children. That was the view on offer at a recent exhibit of his work in the Spring of 2008 when the Jewish Museum in New York mounted a retrospective (“From the New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig”) that later traveled to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (where I saw it). But I don’t agree. I think he was a kid all his life. As Steig himself insisted:

“For some reason, I’ve never felt grown up.”

He died in 2003 at the age of 95, but even late in his life Steig had remarkably detailed memories of his Bronx childhood — the names of his boyhood friends, the games they played, the parkland locales of their forts, their favorite movies. Middle-aged in the 1950s, he made use of those memories in drawings for his “Small Fry” series where his pint-sized wiseguys pretended to be Edward G. Robinson, thugs, and G-men. His “Dreams of Glory” series featured the fantasies of a boy hero, a juvenile Walter Mitty: thwarting a bank robber, piloting a fighter jet, hitting a winning home run, starring on a television comedy, and so forth.

So, there was no great change when, during the 1960's, Steig turned to children’s books and eventually published what may still be his most remarkable picture book: the award-winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. It’s a story easily retold: the young donkey Sylvester finds a pebble that grants all his wishes but then encounters a lion and, panic-stricken, hastily wishes he was a rock and becomes just that; frozen in stone, he cannot communicate with others and it is some time before his parents happen to find and rescue him. As Steig suggested in an interview with Jonathan Cott, there is more in that work than meets the eye: Steig was inspired by his long-term friendship with the therapist Wilhelm Reich and in this book pictured the latter’s notion of “defense mechanisms” and “body armor.”

After Sylvester, other interesting picture books would emerge. The Amazing Bone is a version of “Little Red Riding Hood” where a talking bone helps young Pearl (a pig) escape a villainous fox; but the book is also a tribute to sounds of every kind — sneezes, lullabies, whistling, “chilling” tones, conversation, the noise of knife-sharpening, music, and more. Another picture book, Doctor DeSoto, is a funny story about a mouse dentist who has to exercise ingenuity to work on much larger animals; fortunately, he, too, outfoxes a fox. Indeed, a familiar issue in Steig’s books is how we must exercise compassion even though a concern for others often puts us in jeopardy.

Another of my top Steig choices is his chapter book called Dominic, a story about a wandering dog who is also a Good Samaritan. Indeed, one of my favorite passages in all of children’s literature appears there and I hope, by way of conclusion, you won’t mind my quoting it at length. At the start of his journey, Dominic stands at a fork in the road and must choose between two paths. A witch-alligator gives him advice:

“That road there on the right goes nowhere. There’s not a bit of magic up that road, no adventure, no surprise, nothing to discover or wonder at. Even the scenery is humdrum. You’d soon grow much too introspective. You’d take to daydreaming and tail-twiddling, get absent-minded and lazy, forget where you are and what you’re about, sleep more than one should, and be wretchedly bored. Furthermore, after a while, you’d reach a dead end and you’d have to come all that dreary way back to right here where we’re standing now, only it wouldn’t be now, it would be woefully wasted time later.
“Now this road, the one on the left,” she said, her heavy eyes glowing, “this road keeps right on going, as far as anyone cares to go, and if you take it, believe me, you’ll never find yourself wondering what you might have missed by not taking the other. Up this road, which looks the same at the beginning, but is really ever so different, things will happen that you could never have guessed at — marvelous, unbelievable things. Up this way is where adventure is. I’m pretty sure I know which way you will go.”

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (October 2008). Jonathan Cott’s interview with Steig appears in his “Pipers at the Gates of Dawn,” which I talk about here.

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