5.07.2006

Reliving My Childhood

Hands down, my favorite class that I'm taking this semester is Children's Literature. We're in the last two weeks of school now, and we're spending those last two weeks studying picture books. I hadn't given much thought to what I wanted to do, so when the signup list came around I signed up to look at 5 picture books in the fantasy/sci-fi genre, thinking that would give me a broad range of possibilities.

When I got to the library, however, I realized that the possibilities were perhaps a bit too great; I had no idea where to start. There was a picture book display in the front of the children's section, with a banner stating "Super Books" in cut-out construction paper letters, so I started flipping through those. One caught my eye: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Now normally, I'm not interested in magic pebbles (or Sylvesters, for that matter) any more than the next man, but I remembered the title. I picked the book up, and sure enough, I immediately recognized the author's name: William Steig. I started flipping through the book, and swiftly memories of the story of the donkey who accidentally turns himself into a rock with a magic pebble started to flood my mind.

This obviously counted as a fantasy story (since it involves talking, anthropomorphic animals and magical transformation), so I was suddenly struck with an idea: I could do 5 William Steig picture books! With this idea of genius, I rushed to the computer and did a library catalog search for "William Steig" and was greeted with more than 60 results. I wrote down a few titles that I recognized, and trotted off to the picture book section marked "S."

There I sat and happily paged through books that I vividly remembered reading (and having read to me) as a child: Doctor De Soto, about a dentist mouse who treats a fox but outwits him in the end; Amos and Boris, an endearing story of a mouse and a whale who become best friends; Solomon the Rusty Nail, about a rabbit who can turn himself into a rusty nail at will but gets captured by a one-eyed cat and hammered into his wall (he escapes in the end when the cat's house burns down, and Solomon is reunited with his family at last).

And best of all, among so many treasures, I finally came across Yellow and Pink and almost jumped for joy. It was one of my favorite books as a kid. It's a picture book about two wooden figures painted yellow and pink (respectively) who suddenly come to awareness, and wonder where they've come from and what their purpose is. Yellow believes that they "just happened" through random processes of nature over millions of years, while Pink ridicules the idea as "preposterous." Yellow insists to the point of absurdity, when the two are interrupted by a mustached, crazy-haired man. He picks them up and inspects them, pronounces them "Nice and dry," and tucks them under his arm and carries them away. Yellow whispers in Pink's ear, "Who is this guy?" But Pink doesn't know. It's a brilliant book, which is simple enough for a 5 year old to understand but profound enough for me to still love it now that I'm 20.

Sitting there on the floor of the library, if I had seen a collection of "The Complete Works of William Steig" in a boxed set I would have bought it instantly with no questions asked. The simplicity of his storylines is disarming, but the stories are charming and the illustrations are direct and bold though simple. His writing style is easy for children to read and understand, but he's not afraid of using large words to expand their vocabulary and slips in a lot of tongue-in-cheek jokes which make the books entertaining for all ages. And the themes of family and friendship which run through them are instructive and touching without being preachy.

I've decided: My children are growing up on William Steig.

(P.S. I just received a postcard from Lynn in Mississippi. She wrote:
"Dear AJ, Thank you for all your help that you gave us and Ed and Lydia. It was great to meet all of you. Especially thanks for helping get the playhouse back on our property. What a day! Thanks again, Lynn and Larry Hughes.")

1 comment:

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