For the first four, maybe five, years of Abby’s life, she would wake up at 5:45 in the morning, leap out of bed, throw her door open and sprint down the hall — bump, bump, bump, bump, bump — and into our bedroom. Depending on who was on Morning Duty that day, Jenny or I would hoist ourselves out of bed, take Abby by the hand, and stagger back to her room to (a) organize her Playmobil farm, (b) play Dora “Chutes and Ladders” while fighting off waves of despair, or (c) read a pile of books on the floor. In the winter months, when you had an hour and a half to fill before the sun came up, this was tough duty. I know how this will sound to all the early risers out there, but this was some existential stuff. Anyway, most of the time, I took Option C, books. The problem is, you can read a lot of kid books in an hour, and if you choose wrong — if you get pushed into the wrong groove — you can be in for a world of hurt. In particular, I remember struggling through Amelia Bedelia and a series of Backyardigans books — really, any TV show spinoff was a serious soul-killer. Cutesy books, with cutesy alliterative characters — Randy the Rooster, Francie the Fairything, Harry the… Holy Momma, those were some dark days. But they were also some good days. Because really, when you locked in on the good ones, and Abby would sit there in your lap for an hour, turning pages and listening to you read: you’d have to have a stone for a heart to complain about that. And as for what qualified as good, in the pitch dark, before coffee? The books that made us laugh (thank you, Paper Bag Princess), that were about things (The Red Balloon, which I will write about someday on this blog), books that gave kids credit for having a brain and being able to understand questions of longing and love and worry and beauty, books that explored what, even for adults, qualifies as mysterious or unknowable. And, to my mind, the writer that most consistently hit those marks? William Steig. I know, duh. We’re not breaking news here, but William Steig was one of those guys who could talk to adults and to kids at the same time, with one voice, which is a rare quality indeed. I literally wore Sylvester and the Magic Pebble out, read it so many times, it just fell apart. And, later, when the kids were in first and second grade, Steig was a favorite when we would go in and read to the class — the perfect length, a few good laughs along the way, a moment or two where a kid might think, Yup, the world is a lot bigger than I know. Anyway, here are a few of our favorites*, but I’m sure you have yours, too. I miss these books. I kind of miss the early mornings, too. — Andy
*You won’t find Shrek here, but that’s only because the movie ruined it for me.
CliffsNotes version: Mama’s boy donkey named Sylvester Duncan (how great is that name?) collects pebbles. One day, he finds a magic one: when you hold it and make a wish, the wish comes true. Not being dumb, he immediately sees the potential for good in this, wants to take it home to show his parents. Sees a lion on way home and, freaked and scared of being eaten alive, wishes he was a rock. Turns into rock. Unable to touch magic pebble and wish to be a donkey again, he sits there, inert: a rock. His distraught parents go looking for him. They look for him for a year. Parents eventually go for a walk and have a picnic on him. They find the pebble, place it on the rock, and Sylvester is reborn.
Favorite little moment: “The sun was shining as if rain had never existed.”
Favorite passage: “Mr. Duncan walked aimlessly about while Mrs. Duncan set out the picnic food on the rock — alfalfa sandwiches, pickled oats, sassafras salad, timothy compote. Suddenly Mr. Duncan saw the red pebble. ‘What a fantastic pebble!’ he exclaimed. ‘Sylvester would have loved it for his collection.’ He put the pebble on the rock. They sat down to eat. Sylvester was now as wide awake as a donkey that was a rock could possibly be.”
How I might describe it: A book, in some ways, about loss. But with a happy ending.
Gorky Rises (1980)
CliffsNotes version: A frog named Gorky mixes up a magic potion in his parents’ kitchen one day, as any boy frog would want to do. He drinks it, and begins floating up into the sky. Up through clouds, through a rainstorm, into the heavens, where he is suspended, “like a coat on a hanger.” Looks down on the world from whence he came, ponders life. Comes back down to earth, lands on 10 million year old Elephant Rock, which suddenly comes alive. Is reuinted with his loving family.
Favorite little moment: “What a magical, cloverous smell!”
Favorite passage: “He hung there a long, long time, wondering where he was — exactly what spot on the map he was over. There was nothing around him but the secret, silent night, the sea of blinking stars. Dreamily, he began asking himself questions he could not answer: Did anyone know where he was? Did God, for example, know? Did his parents? He wished he were home with them now, asleep in his feather bed. He was tired.”
How I might describe it: An exploration of our dreams of escape, of transcending our circumstances and striking out…only to take comfort in home. William Steig books always come home.
Tiffky Doofky (1978)
CliffsNotes version: Trash collector dog named Tiffky Doofky stops, on his daily rounds, to get his fortune told. On this day, the fortune teller tells him, he will meet the love of his life. He goes on to meet the love of his life. Endures several strange encounters, and is almost strangled to death by a large boa constrictor named Dolores, only to be saved by a white poodle and snake charmer named Estrella — who turns out, naturally, to be the love he’s been looking for. And the daughter of a garbage collector, as well.
Favorite little moment: “Why worry and get wrinkles? It would happen.”
Okay, another favorite little moment: “Madam Tarsal knew her onions after all.”
Favorite passage: “Tiffky Doofky jumped to his feet. He was wide awake and in the coils of a boa constrictor! He tugged at the powerful snake, but it only tightened its hold. ‘Help!’ he shouted. ‘Help!’ But soon he could shout no longer. The breath of life was being pressed out of him. He decided to face death with dignity. The sun was now on the rim of the earth, about to leave this gruesome scene. ‘Goodbye, dear world,’ said Tiffky in his mind. ‘Goodbye, great sun. And goodbye, love, whoever, wherever you are!'”
How I might describe it: Faith.
Amos and Boris (1971)
CliffsNotes version: Sea-loving mouse named Amos builds a boat and sets sail. Destination: the other side of the water. (Love that.) One night, admiring stars on deck, falls overboard. Endures a long night, abob in the “vast loneliness,” confronts death, and is rescued and befriended by a whale of “abounding friendliness” named, of course, Boris. Amos climbs aboard Boris’s back and, together, they journey home. Along way, become the best of friends. Years later, Boris is beached during a terrible storm. Amos finds him there, dying. Amos locates two elephants (just go with it) to help push Boris back into deep water and save his life.
Favorite little moment: “Morning came, as it always does.”
Favorite passage: “He began to wonder what it would be like to drown. Would it take very long? Would it feel just awful? Would his soul go to heaven? Would there be other mice there? As he was asking himself these awful questions, a huge head burst through the surface of the water and loomed up over him. It was a whale. ‘What sort of fish are you?’ the whale asked. ‘You must be one of a kind!’ ‘I’m not a fish,’ said Amos. ‘I’m a mouse, which is a mammal, the highest form of life. I live on land.’ ‘Holy clam and cuttlefish!’ said the whale. ‘I’m a mammal myself, though I live in the sea. Call me Boris.'”
How I might describe it: That, right there, is friendship.
Brave Irene (1986)
CliffsNotes version: A dressmaker is sewing a gown for a duchess to wear to some kind of royal ball. But the dressmaker becomes ill and it falls to her young daughter, Irene, to deliver the dress. Problem: there is an epic, driving snowstorm, Irene is little, and the dress is a large thing to lug across a dark and stormy forest. An “ill-tempered” wind batters Irene, tears into her, forces her to walk backwards, but Irene is determined. She can’t let her mother down. Then the dress is ripped form her hands, and flies away, stolen by the wind. She continues on, through the night, nearly freezing to death. She is lost. The dress, you’ll be glad to know, is magically delivered. Irene is hailed by royal types as a “brave and loving” person. And again (detecting some themes?) she is reuinted with her mother.
Favorite little moment: “How could anything so terribly wrong be allowed to happen?”
Favorite passage: “Soon night took over. She knew in the dark that the muffled snow was still falling — she could feel it. She was cold and alone in the middle of nowhere. Irene was lost. She had to keep moving. She was hoping she’d come to a house, any house at all, and be taken in. She badly needed to be in someone’s arms.”
How I might describe it: A parable about perseverance. And an argument for being nice to your mom when she’s not feeling so good.
CliffsNotes version: First off, this is a chapter book, probably more for 2-4th graders, 146 pages of pure joy. Dominic is a “lively one,” a dog who sets out on his own — with a righteous ensemble of hats and his trusty piccolo — to see the world. Along the way, he runs into a roving band of bad guys, known as the Doomsday Gang. They try to lure Dominic over to the dark side. This gang, it turns out, has been stirring up a lot of bad juju out in the larger animal world, and Dominic sets out to make things right. Includes an unbelievably beautiful moonlight serenade of mice carrying Japanese lanterns. That’s right.
Favorite little moment: “One could not be happy among the good ones unless one fought the bad ones.”
Favorite passage: “The peacock spread his gorgeous tail about him and listened. Dominic did not know how long he played. And when the music was over, there was no stopping him; he had to sit down on his haunches and yield to some deeply felt howling, not harsh, pent-up howls this time, but soft, yodeling ululations, expressive of feelings that affirmed his presence in an ancient yet young universe. The peacock attended respectfully till Dominic was done.”
How I might describe it: Life can be hard, but there’s a crazy amount of beauty in it, too.
Abel’s Island (1976)
CliffsNotes version: Another chapter book with a four-legged protagonist. Abel’s a mouse, a trust fund dandy, newly married to a girl mouse named Amanda. One day, while picnicing (Steig loved a picnic) on watercress, quail eggs, caviar and champagne (Steig loved food), a hurricane blows through (Steig loved storms) and snatched the scarf from Amanda’s neck, prompting Abel to leave her (you get the idea re: Steig’s obsessions) and rescue her scarf. He is, instead, swept away by the storm and washes up on a small island in a river, where a sweet and beautiful version of kid book Survivor unspools. Abel is forced, for the first time, to make his own way in life: to make new friends, to fend for himself, to find a new home and, at the same time, a way back to his love.
Favorite little moment: “The toasted each other, and everything else, with a bright champagne which was kept cool in a bucket of ice.”
Favorite thing about that little moment: The word “bright.”
Favorite passage: There are too many to say, and I’ve blabbered on too long.
How I might describe it: You are capable of so much more than you think. That, and it’s amazing what we’ll endure for love.