Welcome to Kidlit Greats! This is where I share the work of a picture book master with my daughters, then blog about our experience.
Last week I introduced my three little ladies to a wide range of titles from Kidlit Great William Steig (1907–2003).
If this name doesn’t ring a bell, the moniker of one of his famous characters surely will. Steig’s Shrek! inspired the popular DreamWorks Animation movies featuring the voices of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy.
As is true with most adaptations, the Shrek movie and its sequels (though loads of fun) don’t begin to capture the literary and illustrative genius of this highly respected creator.
While Steig’s picture books for very young readers are excellent, his longer narratives are absolutely spectacular. Just one sentence into these books, you are hit with a quality level so high that you simply sit back and allow yourself to be taken on a ride. You know you are in expert hands.
What I Iove – and watched my girls loving – about Steig’s books can be boiled down to these five things...
#1 - Command of character: Steig’s characters are all wildly different and immediately engaging. Each protagonist (animal, creature or human) is known not through description, but by what he or she elects to do in the midst of challenging circumstances: The epitome of SHOW, not TELL. (Example: Potch & Polly)
#2 - Plot, plot, plot: While his use of language is beautiful, Steig doesn’t write to weave admirable phrases. There’s no rambling. There are no wasted words. Sentence-by-perfect sentence, he introduces completely fresh visualizations and ideas, and powerfully drives story forward with action. (Example: Shrek!)
#3 - Intensity and anticipation: The stakes are high in Steig’s more verbose picture books. Good and evil forces are at work. Circumstances are life or death. There is an ever-present threat of missed opportunity or a diminished existence. Because you are so invested in his characters, you read on the edge of your seat... the best place for a reader to be! (Example: Doctor De Soto, a Newberry Honor Book)
#4 - Immersive illustration: Through vivid, sensory detail, Steig pulls you completely into the worlds he creates. You see, feel, hear, smell, taste EVERYTHING. It must be noted, too, his descriptions never underestimate a child’s intellect. Steig introduces kids to new words in a way that encourages curiosity and provides best-case-scenario context. (Example: Brave Irene)
#5 - Safe, dependable relationships: Children need to know who they can trust and what they can believe in. Steig fulfills this desire for constancy by providing strong interpersonal bonds – between parent and child, husband and wife, and dear friends. Even when the going gets tough, young readers can feel secure in the commitment demonstrated through his books’ core relationships. (Example: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, winner of The Caldecott Medal)
My daughters' favorite Steig book is Toby, Who Are You? This title (which has a far shorter word count than the books previously listed) epitomizes #5 on the "things to love" list. In this sweet story, Toby and his parents go on a picnic. Throughout their outing, they play an imaginative game of animal charades. The family's closeness and intimacy is both playful and soothing. The girls ADORE it. ("There's Toby!" they say, when they spot him in each spread.)
I hope you add a few of William Steig's exceptional books to your family's summer reading list, and that they bring you the joy that they've brought us. Happy reading!