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.