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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

William Steig and Transmogrification

bk_sylvester_200pxJack­ie: After Phyl­lis and I read Amos and Boris for our last month’s arti­cle on boats we both won­dered why we hadn’t looked at the work of William Steig. He so often exe­cutes that very sat­is­fy­ing com­bi­na­tion of humor and heart. Steig’s lan­guage is fun­ny but his sto­ries reg­u­lar­ly involve wor­ri­some sep­a­ra­tion and then return to a lov­ing fam­i­ly.

William Steig was born to immi­grant Jew­ish par­ents from East­ern Europe in 1907. His father was a painter and dec­o­ra­tor and his moth­er was a seam­stress. When the Depres­sion came, Steig sup­port­ed the fam­i­ly by sell­ing car­toons to The New York­er mag­a­zine. At age six­ty he began to write children’s books and wrote more than two dozen before his death in 2003 at age 95.

Roger Angell, writ­ing in The New York­er, quot­ed a New York school teacher [his wife] speak­ing about Steig’s children’s books: “They’re touch­ing but not sen­ti­men­tal, and they bring young chil­dren ideas they’ve not expe­ri­enced before.”

Solomon the Rusty NailThey’re touch­ing and they are funny—sometimes they are down­right sil­ly. In Solomon The Rusty Nail (1985), Solomon the rab­bit fig­ures out that if he scratch­es his nose and wig­gles his toes at exact­ly the same time he becomes a rusty nail. Not to wor­ry, this is not Sylvester and the Mag­ic Peb­ble, not yet at least. Solomon also fig­ures out that if he says to him­self, “I’m no nail, I’m a rab­bit,” he will quick­ly become a rab­bit again.

Phyl­lis: I thought I knew most of Steig’s work but I didn’t know this book, and I love it, not least for Steig’s won­der­ful­ly play­ful lan­guage. When Solomon dis­cov­ers his abil­i­ty to trans­form, his first thought is to show his fam­i­ly what a “prize pazoo­zle of a rab­bit” he is but decides instead to keep his “secret secret.” When Solomon trans­forms into a rusty nail behind a tree to fool a cat who has cap­tured him, the cat is “dis­com­bob­u­lat­ed “and search­es for Solomon “clock­wise, counter clock­wise, and oth­er­wise.”

But for all their deli­cious lan­guage, Steig’s sto­ries have high stakes: when Solomon refus­es to turn back into a rab­bit so the cat and his wife can eat him, the irate cat pounds him into the wall of their cab­in where Solomon, unable to trans­form back into his true self, won­ders, “Do nails die?”

Doctor De SotoJack­ie: Steig’s Doc­tor DeS­o­to, (1982) the mouse den­tist has always been a favorite of mine. It is the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of humor and sen­si­tiv­i­ty, even com­pas­sion. Even though he has sworn not to treat fox­es and wolves, Doc­tor Des­o­to agrees to treat the suf­fer­ing fox. And the fox repays this kind­ness by won­der­ing if it would be “shab­by” to eat Dr. and Mrs. DeS­o­to. [Is “shab­by” not the per­fect, hilar­i­ous word here?] We root for Doc­tor DeS­o­to who says he always fin­ish­es what he starts and we love his remark­able prepa­ra­tion that allows him to fix the fox’s tooth and save the lives of him and his wife.

Per­haps every­one knows Sylvester and the Mag­ic Peb­ble (1969), Steig’s Calde­cott win­ner. Sylvester’s unfor­tu­nate wish turns him into a rock. His par­ents grieve. He sits and drows­es as a rock until a remark­able series of cir­cum­stances results in his return to his old don­key form. So sat­is­fy­ing.

Steig loved this theme of trans­for­ma­tion and clear­ly wasn’t done with it after Sylvester. He gave us the above-men­tioned Solomon the Rusty Nail, The Toy Broth­er (1996), Gorky Ris­es (1980), all of which involve some sort of mag­i­cal prepa­ra­tion or incan­ta­tion and some sort of “stuck­ness.”

Amazing BonePhyl­lis: Steig is a mas­ter at mak­ing us believe these seem­ing­ly inex­plic­a­ble vicis­si­tudes. In The Amaz­ing Bone Pearl the pig finds a bone that can talk in any lan­guage and imi­tate any sound—a trumpet’s call to arms, the wind blow­ing, the rain pat­ter­ing down, snor­ing, sneez­ing. When Pearl asks the bone how it can sneeze, it replies, “I don’t know. I didn’t make the world.” When a hun­gry fox cap­tures Pearl and the bone pleads for him to let her go, the fox replies, “I can’t help being the way I am. I didn’t make the world.”

Toy BrotherJack­ie: The Toy Broth­er (1996) is a won­der­ful turn­around book about two sib­lings who live with their parents—Magnus Bede, a famous alchemist, and his “hap­py-go-lucky wife” Euti­l­da. The old­er son, Yorick, “con­sid­ers lit­tle Charles a first-rate pain in the pants.” Yorick is his father’s appren­tice and hopes to turn don­key dung into gold. When the par­ents go off for a wed­ding Yorick sneaks into his father’s lab. Things don’t work out as he hoped and Yorick next appears the size of a mole. Charles enjoys his role as big broth­er and is actu­al­ly kind to Yorick, builds him a house, feeds him crumbs of cheese, tries to amuse him by cos­tum­ing him­self and the fam­i­ly ani­mals. But the two can­not get Yorick back to his orig­i­nal size, and nei­ther can Mag­nus. Until Yorick remem­bers one very impor­tant detail.

Once again, Steig’s lan­guage is such a joy. When they real­ize what is need­ed, Mag­nus says, “Gin­ger! That’s a fish from anoth­er pond. Is it any won­der there was no trans­mo­gri­fi­ca­tion?” What child is not going to love that? I almost feel trans­mo­gri­fied read­ing it.

Gorky RisesGorky the frog makes a potion, too, in a kitchen lab, with “a lit­tle of this and a lit­tle of that: a spoon each of chick­en soup, tea, and vine­gar, a sprin­kle of cof­fee grounds, one shake of tal­cum pow­der, two shakes of papri­ka, a dash of cin­na­mon, a splash of witch hazel, and final­ly a bit of his father’s clear cognac and a lot of attar of ros­es (!!).”… “This obvi­ous­ly was the mag­ic for­mu­la he had long been seek­ing.”

He doesn’t know what it will do but soon real­izes that it enables him to rise in the sky and float. He star­tles the groundlings, includ­ing a fox who looks like he just dropped by before his gig in Doc­tor DeS­o­to. Gorky endures a storm and longs for home…and even­tu­al­ly fig­ures out how to get there.

Amos & BorisPhyl­lis: In Amos and Boris, I was star­tled by the for­tu­itous appear­ance of two ele­phants who help Amos the mouse roll Boris the whale back into the sea when he is beached by a storm. I didn’t real­ize that more ele­phants wan­der through Steig’s stories—Elephant Rock where Gorky even­tu­al­ly lands real­ly is a trans­formed ele­phant, restored to his real self by the last drops of Gorky’s for­mu­la.

Brave IreneStorms are also recur­ring char­ac­ters in Steig’s books. Irene encoun­ters a storm in Brave Irene, an inim­itable one that yodels a warn­ing: “Go home….GO HO-WO-WOME,” as she attempts to deliv­er a dress her moth­er has made for the duchess. When the wind car­ries off the dress, Irene press­es on in the wors­en­ing storm to tell the duchess what hap­pened to her beau­ti­ful gown. Irene twists her ankle, she gets lost, night falls, she shiv­ers from the cold, and just when she final­ly spots the cas­tle below she is swal­lowed by a snow­drift up to her hat. In despair, she won­ders if she should give up and freeze to death, since she is already buried. But the mem­o­ry of her moth­er “who always smelled like fresh-baked bread” gives her the ener­gy to fight free of the snow­drift, find a way to the cas­tle (where the wind has plas­tered the gown to a tree) and even­tu­al­ly arrive home, dri­ven by the doc­tor who tells her moth­er “what a brave and lov­ing per­son Irene was. Which, of course, Mrs. Bob­bin knew. Bet­ter than the duchess.”

Back cover of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, illustration copyright William Steig

Back cov­er of Sylvester and the Mag­ic Peb­ble, illus­tra­tion copy­right William Steig

Jack­ie: These char­ac­ters are all sur­prised by cir­cum­stance. Storms fly in. The potions do not work exact­ly as planned. Deal­ing with these cir­cum­stances is not always easy. And so it is with the lives of chil­dren. Things do not go along as planned. They hear: “We are mov­ing. You’ll be going to a new school.” “Your father and I are sep­a­rat­ing.” “We’re hav­ing a new baby. You’ll need to share your room.” It’s hard to get back to the old life. That is true in Steig’s sto­ries. Sylvester’s par­ents grieve when they lose him. Gorky’s par­ents search for him all night and are tremen­dous­ly relieved to see him.

All of his char­ac­ters are returned to the lov­ing arms of fam­i­ly, changed per­haps by their adven­tures, but not alone. I would love to do a ses­sion with stu­dents in which we read these books and then wrote our own sto­ry of trans­mo­gri­fi­ca­tion. What a free­ing expe­ri­ence to change into something/someone else, to float, to talk to a bone—that talked back.

Phyl­lis: What a ter­rif­ic idea. I want to read all of his books aloud, savor­ing his deliri­ous­ly delec­table lan­guage in book after book after book. Steig is a prize pazoo­zle of a writer as well as an artist.

Jack­ie: Though he was not writ­ing tracts for chil­dren Steig was well aware of the pow­er of sto­ry. He said in his Calde­cott Accep­tance Speech:

Art, includ­ing juve­nile lit­er­a­ture, has the pow­er to make any spot on earth the liv­ing cen­ter of the uni­verse, and unlike sci­ence, which often gives us the illu­sion of under­stand­ing things we real­ly do not under­stand, it helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mys­tery of things. It enhances the sense of won­der. And won­der is respect for life. Art also stim­u­lates the adven­tur­ous­ness and the play­ful­ness that keep us mov­ing in a live­ly way and that lead us to use­ful dis­cov­ery.

Books for chil­dren are some­thing I take seri­ous­ly. I am hope­ful that more and more the work I do for chil­dren, as well as the work I do for adults, will approach the con­di­tion of art. I believe that what this award and this cer­e­mo­ny rep­re­sent is our mutu­al striv­ing in the same direc­tion, and I feel encour­aged by the faith you have expressed in me in hon­or­ing my book with the Calde­cott Medal. (Calde­cott Accep­tance Speech, June, 1970).

His sto­ries remind us that the “mys­tery of things … stimulate[s] adven­tur­ous­ness and play­ful­ness” in both theme and lan­guage. In Steig’s books we can share the fun of sound, the joy of adven­ture, and the sweet­ness of return.

Phyl­lis: And they remind us, too, that in the inex­plic­a­ble events of the uni­verse, our fam­i­lies love us, search for us when we are lost, and wel­come us home again with immea­sur­able delight.

See also: The Col­lec­tion of William Steig at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia.

2 Responses to William Steig and Transmogrification

  1. Georgia Beaverson November 4, 2016 at 3:09 pm #

    What a fan­tas­tic vis­it to Mr. Steig’s mag­i­cal worlds. His books exhib­it the adven­ture and dan­ger every child wants while nev­er deny­ing read­ers the kind­ness & secu­ri­ty every child needs. Bra­va!

  2. Kristi Romo November 5, 2016 at 7:50 am #

    I’m now des­per­ate to get to the library to learn about that rusty nail/rabbit. Thank you for illu­mi­nat­ing Steig’s work. His work should con­tin­ue to influ­ence writ­ing today.

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