William Steig is one of those classic names in children's literature, one that you know, but may overlook in the face of newer, splashier books. Which, let me tell you, would be a huge mistake. The man is sheer genius. Like several children's book authors and illustrators, he was a New Yorker illustrator, and was once dubbed "The King of Cartoons" by Newsweek. He has, alternately, won the Caldecott medal and Newbery honours for his children's books. And, the guy's got range. He has silly books (Pete's a Pizza is a favourite in heavy rotation at our house right now), books of alphabetical puns (CDB?), books of cartoons for adults (and a hilarious one for kids, Grownups Get To Do All The Driving), a whole host of lesser-known books (Shrek, anyone?), but best of all are his story books.
This master storyteller employs just the right mix of the magical, of dry wit, of unusual vocabulary used to perfect effect, of quick thinking and good character, and of good winning out in the end, yet without making a heavy point of it. Through it all, it's adventurous, it moves along and keeps you guessing, just as a story should, and his wonderful small-scale drawings add charm to the whole. His picture book stories were favourites of mine, but I have also just discovered the pure delight of his longer fiction novels, which are episodic in the way that makes them a nice read to share with an slightly older child, perhaps 4 or 5 years and up. This handful of titles are those of the wonderful story variety, the better-known classics, but I am finding (to my great joy) that he was incredibly prolific, so if you enjoy these, there is a great treasure awaiting you.
Young Irene's mother has fashioned the most gorgeous gown to be worn at a fine ball, but she falls ill the night it is to be delivered, and gives up hope. Irene, knowing that this gown is her mother's last chance, is determined to get it there. She tucks her mother in, leaves a note, and goes out into a blizzard, arriving as the ball is beginning. This story is about bravery, love, and being rewarded for your good character and hard work, though it does not feel preachy in the least (nothing will turn me off faster!). Instead, it is a cozy tale with a feel-good ending that could be shared with any child.
The Amazing Bone
Young Pearl is on the way home, reveling in a perfect spring day, when she happens upon a talking bone. As they wander through the woods chatting, she is accosted by robbers, and the bone scares them off, but when a fox finds the pair, he is not so easily fooled and Pearl and her bone must come up with a plan for her escape. I love this, like many of Steig's stories, for the appreciation of nature, for its fairy tale quality and inclusion of some magical elements, and for the likeable characters who outwit bad guys. (Zeke Pippin, about a pig and his magic harmonica treads much the same territory, with similarly excellent results.) Steig's language, too, makes my heart sing. This wonderful tale was awarded a Caldecott honour, so it seems I'm not alone.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
Sylvester loves collecting rocks and, finding a most unusual one, discovers it is magic. He accidentally turns himself into a rock, and despairs as he loses hope of someone finding him. Meanwhile, his parents search and mourn, until one day, by happy coincidence, they reverse his spell and are thrilled to have their son back in their arms. This lovely tale of magic, of loss and reunion, of love and family, has all the makings of a classic, including the illustrious Caldecott medal.
Doctor De Soto
What is a dentist mouse to do when a fox with a toothache begs for treatment? Kind-hearted Dr. De Soto decides to take him in and quickly finds that the fox is likely up to no good. The fox must return for the fitting of his false tooth, giving Dr. De Soto and his wife time to hatch a plan to save their tiny hides. This story has the perfect degree of suspense for kids, and is a great modern fairy tale, with its ingredients of good vs. bad, its clever hero, and its use of that archetypal bad guy, the fox. This Newbery honour book has a sequel, too, in Dr. De Soto Goes to Africa.
One of his few longer chapter books, along with the Newbery honouree Abel's Island, this book contains many of the same elements that make his picture books so magical, but allows for a number of episodes in Dominic the dog's adventures, making it perfect for a read-aloud with a child ready to move into longer stories with fewer illustrations. As Dominic goes into the world seeking his fortune, he takes great pleasure in the smells and semsations of the natural world around him, enjoys expressing himself by playing the piccolo, and gets into interesting situations one after another. Some of these are the makings of great friendships, while others are run-ins with the notorious Doomsday Gang, over whom he triumphs time and again. Dominic helps others along the way and is at hart a good guy, though he is not without self-interest, making him a very likable fellow. Steig claims to be influenced greatly by Pinnocchio, and here you can see that resemblance in the story's structure. This Christopher Award winner is also packed with wonderful and rich vocabulary, making the sharing of it a bit of an exercise in explanation (but a great way to do it!) as well as a true pleasure for anyone who really appreciates the use of language.
These and other fantastic tales can be found at your local library!
Originally posted on MommyBlogsToronto/Better Than a Playdate.