A good friend who has a vast library of children’s books decided it might be time for Ruby to meet William Steig, one of the greats of US children’s literature. Shrek is his best known book, but wasn’t among the swag she lent us. The four books in our swag have been read many times by many children over the decades, and needed to be treated with great care. After we read them to Ruby, we decided to get hold of copies we could keep and manhandle. It turned out that none of the three public libraries I belong to have copies; I’ve ordered them from bookshops, but it will take months for them to arrive from ‘suppliers’.
William Steig, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (©1969, Simon & Schuster 2005)
Sylvester is a donkey who finds a pebble that grants his wishes. As you’d expect, one of his wishes goes terribly wrong. The wonder of this book is that the wrongness isn’t Sylvester’s fault: his wish is a clever response to a real threat, so the pickle it lands him in isn’t a punishment. All the same, the bulk of the book has poor Sylvester trapped and immobile, while his parents search for him desperately.
The suspense is terrible. All the more, because z– not to give anything away – the reader can see just how close Sylvester is to a solution to his problem. Yet the happy end, when it comes, is a huge relief.
We’ve only read this once, but it feels as if it will be part of Ruby’s repertoire for a while. We had to play a game based on it, but Ruby instructed us to make up our own wishes. So the appeal of th story so far seems to be in the idea of a tiny red stone with magic powers.
William Steig, The Amazing Bone (©1976, Puffin 1981)
Pearl is a pig who dresses in pink (always a winner with Ruby: ‘Did you know my favourite colour is pink, Poppa?’ ‘Yes, I had gathered that somehow’). One day, relaxing in the woods, she discovers and befriends a magical talking bone.
The bone is much more active than the pebble in the earlier book, and the dangers that Pearl faces are more dramatic: first some masked bandits, and then a suave and hungry fox. The bone scares the bandits off without breaking a sweat, but the fox is another matter.
Needless to say, Pearl and the bone escape the fox and, like Sylvester, Pearl returns to her parents. But whereas the pebble was locked in a safe out of harm’s way, the bone lives on in pride of place in Perl’s household.
I’d hesitated to read this to Ruby because she tends not to like scary stories. But she loved it
William Steig, Doctor De Soto (Farrar Straus & Giroux 1982)
Doctor De Soto is a mouse who is also an excellent dentist. For work health and safety reasons, dangerous animals such as cats are banned from his practice. One day, however, a dapper fox who is in extreme pain from toothache pleads for his help. Doctor De Soto and his wife, who is also his able assistant, reluctantly take pity on the wretched creature and remove the troublesome tooth. But they know, and we know, that the fox is still a fox and will eat them both once he is relieved of his pain. (Spoiler alert: Doctor de Soto and his wife outsmart the fox and stay safe.)
There are comic-terrifying images of the mouse-dentist actually going inside the fox’s mouth, with its huge sharp teeth. Ruby kept her hands at the ready to clamp over her ears each time this happened, but decided over and over to let the story continue: ‘I think they’ll escape,’ she said. I think she had the crocodile’s jaws in Jonny Lambert’s Let’s All Creep Through Crocodile Creek (see below) as a reference point, and so was prepared to trust the story teller not to hand her a steaming pile of tragedy.
As for me, I love Doctor and Mrs De Soto for their courage, compassion, and quick-wittedness. I also love the dapper and unscrupulous fox, who may actually be the same fox who troubled Pearl and the bone, now recovered from what they did to him.
William Steig, Brave Irene (©1986, Victor Gollancz Ltd 1987)
Irene is a young human. Her mother has made a dress for the Duchess, but is taken ill and can’t deliver it in time for the ball. When Irene offers to deliver it for her, the mother can see no other option and reluctantly agrees. So brave Irene struggles on through page after page of blizzard. She rides on the dress’s package like a sled, and when the wind snatches the beautiful dress from her, she struggles on anyway because it would be even harder to return home.
It all turns out well in the end.
I’m not sure Ruby quite got this book, but I’m hoping it will grow on her. Irene is no Disney princess, which is a plus from my point of view, but not so much from Ruby’s.
Jonny Lambert, Let’s All Creep Through Crocodile Creek (Little Tiger Press 2019)
I had to read this book to myself in order to understand what I had to do when Ruby said, ‘I’m the mouse, you’re the rabbit and Nanna is the turtle.’
Three animals take a short cut across a creek. The mouse is the leader who knows it’s safe because they have never seen a crocodile in this creek. The turtle is a little bit thick and has to have everything explained to her/him: ‘What does a crocodile look like?’ and so on. The rabbit is all too aware of the dangers and preaches caution.
As they cross the creek, the three adventurers keep seeing things that match up to the mouse’s description of crocodiles: from bumpy, scaly backs to big eyes and very sharp teeth. The mouse pooh poohs the similarities, the turtle asks more questions, and the rabbit understands the danger they are in all too well but her/his cries fall on deaf ears.
It’s a lot of fun. Thanks to the interplay of text and image, we understand what is going on so much better than the characters, so the pleasures of the unreliable narrator can begin at an early age. And in our case, the book is perfect for re-enactments if you have two willing collaborators. It would be odd to write about this in the same blog post as the William Steig books, but the link is there in the scary teeth.