Article about William Steig

The Magical Creatures of William Steig
From Newsday, May 1984

New Yorker cartoonist William Steig knows a lot about screwed-up behavior. Take his famous "People Are No Damn Good" cartoon, for example. Drawn in 1942 and surviving on cocktail napkins and ashtrays well into the '50s, it shows a curmudgeonly creature seated in a box, a wicked scowl on his wrinkled face. One would think that the artist responsible for this baleful image must surely be as grim and misanthropic as his creation. And who would even consider exposing children to books authored by such a pessimist?

But in the children's stories he began writing and illustrating 15 years ago, at the age of 60, Steig was saying something quite different about humankind, something closer to what he really believes: that "people are basically good and beautiful, and that neurosis is the biggest obstacle to peace and happiness." In the best of his picture books the artist expresses this buoyant philosophy in limpid watercolors, with an accompanying prose that matches the art's grace and clarity. Steig's books talk a lot about magic, and they're filled with it too. 

"Were it not for him, and some others like him." writes Queens College professor James Higgins. "I'm afraid the great romantic tradition in children's literature . . . with an emphasis on narrative and a love for lovely words, would have by now passed from this scene." Higgins likens Steig -- who has just published his 15th book, Yellow & Pink (Farrar Straus Giroux, $10.95) -- to E. B. White and I. B. Singer, writers who reach beyond the scope of a school-age audience. 

"He doesn't write like an artist," says critic and author Karia Kuskin (The Philharmonic Gets Dressed) of Steig, "he writes like a writer, projecting his own voice, treasuring the rhythms of words and eccentric phrases." 

Take, for example. Rotten Island, first published in 1969 as The Bad Island, and being reissued next month by Godine. It is a gorgeously colored picture book, full of monsters, mayhem and a take-it-or-leave-it message that won't detract one whit from a young reader's delight.   Like many of Steig's books, Rotten Island is about the redeeming power of Nature in a world where too many are off on extended power trips. 

A sample from this book's prose shows why Steig's words come close to making his pictures superfluous: "The insects there could get as big as barracudas -- goggle-eyed with chopping mandibles, bug-eyed and hairy with stinging tails and clacking shells covered with grit and petrified sauerkraut. There was no shortage of anything ugly."

Steig began his career at The New Yorker some 50 years ago, and still submits several cartoons a week to the magazine. He began writing children's books at the suggestion of friend and fellow children's author Robert Kraus, as a way of leaving the advertising work that had been his lucrative -- and heartily disliked -- sideline for many years. 

After a childhood in the Bronx, and schooling at City College and the National Academy of Design, Steig lived for many years in Manhattan, moving 12 years ago to rural Connecticut. He lives there now in a house on a hill with his fourth wife, Jeanne Steig, a sculptor. Their numerous children and grandchildren from previous marriages don't live nearby, but two pets, a sweet red mongrel named Kasha and an orange cat named Allan, share their spacious, newly built home with them. Outside, goldfinches gather by the dozen at feeders on the back porch, and a family of Canada geese swim in a large pond at the foot of the property. 

Animals have always provided Steig with inspiration for his children's books: with the exception of Caleb & Kate and Yellow & Pink, none of his books features people. This once got him into trouble with the law. 

It was 1971, two years after Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a wonderful story about a donkey who turns into a stone, came out. At issue were the pig policemen whom Sylvester the donkey's parents consult when they find that their only child is missing. The International Conference of Police Associations charged that Steig's depicting the policemen as porkers constituted a slur; attempts were made in several states to remove copies of the book from libraries. In his defense, Steig wrote to The New York Times: "I am not the kind of man who would trouble children with political propaganda." 

With a little help from the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom, this ill wind blew away fast.  

Life today seems peaceful, if busy, for the Steigs. While Jeanne works in a large studio on the bottom floor of their three-story house, her husband writes and draws in a sunny room on the first floor. In one corner of his study stands a wooden closet that looks rather like a folk-art Frigidaire. It actually is an orgone box, a device invented by the author's former therapist, Wilhelm Reich, for capturing and transmitting the "orgone energy" he claimed permeates the universe. "I still sit in it once or twice a week," says Steig. 

Reich, author of The Function of the Orgasm and a fallen-away colleague of Freud's who emigrated to the U.S. in 1939, was a controversial character who eventually went to prison for violating the federal Food and Drug Act. In his fascinating book of interviews with children's book authors, Pipers at the Gates of Dawn (Random House, 1983), poet Jonathan Cott talks at length about the relationship between Steig and Reich, and how Steig's "intense and expressive" cartoons were expressing Reichian sentiments long before the two men ever met. 

"In this world of characterological distress, each of Steig's figures seems to be an almost allegorical representation of an unhappy body and consciousness -- the actual implication of these drawings being that a happy consciousness is a function of a happy body and incapable of existing independently of a fulfilled sense of life." 

In love with life and believing in miracles, Steig's joyous, sensual characters like Pearl the pig and Dominic the dog and Amos and Abel the mice are the healthy counterparts to the artist's "adult" cartoon neurotics. They have much to teach readers, of any age, about what it means to be fully alive. 

It's hard to play favorites with Steig's books -- which have won both a Caldecott Medal (for illustration) and a Newbery Award (for writing) -- but the first rank include Amos & Boris, (1971), Gorky Rises (1980), Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969), The Amazing Bone (1976) and Dominic (1972). Next in line are Doctor De Soto (1982), Caleb & Kate (1977) and Abel's Island (1976). 

Most of Steig's books for children have been variations on a theme of finding happiness through romantic love, friendship, creativity and a feeling of oneness with Nature. Yellow & Pink, Steig's latest book, is a departure from this, being less action-packed, more abstract -- but no less philosophical. In the book, two wooden puppets, looking like Pinocchios in the midst of mid-life crises, tackle some questions -- How did the world happen? How did we get here? -- that have troubled thinkers down through the ages. 

Steig doesn't pretend to know any more than his puppet creations do about all this. "I don't have any point to make," he says. "It would be presumptuous of me to say I know the answers to questions like that." He just thought it would be fun to play with the ideas: In no way, he says, is he trying to get involved in any creationism vs. evolutionism brouhaha. "It just bothers me, when the thought occurs to me sometimes that the world might be here by accident. I can't believe that it is."

It's no accident that children love the world that Steig creates for them, a world characterized by beautiful combinations of words, pretty pictures, old-fashioned virtues, exciting adventures and happy endings. Adults seeking to recapture that world -- and to counteract, perhaps, the feeling that people may be "no damn good"  - can start here.


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