William Steig & Talking Animals:
Learning From the Best
As I tell elementary students, if you want to be a great soccer player you study the best soccer players in addition to practicing a lot. The same is true if our goal is to write the best picture books. Soccer has Pele, Beckham and Ronaldo. Picture book writers have many models, including William Steig.
Before he began to write and illustrate children’s books William Steig had a long career as a cartoonist with THE NEW YORKER, and several thematic anthologies published. The 1961 cartoon (above) was an unknown preview of his forthcoming books for children. This NEW YORKER cartoon is especially interesting because it juxtaposes the human world with that of talking animals. Steig is best known for his books featuring talking animals. But he also created some engaging books featuring humans.
Steig is perhaps most famous for SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE which won the Caldecott Medal. Like SYLVESTER, THE AMAZING BONE (1976) shares a story that would be impossible to tell with human characters.
Pearl, a well-dressed and dreamy pig, is the protagonist. She lives in a parallel world where all animals are upright, dressed and articulate. Once that level of suspended disbelief is established, it is a small step to accept that Pearl has discovered a bone that talks. Editors would run screaming from a manuscript that had a human child kidnapped and threatened with cannibalism. But once you have talking pigs in frocks, all is possible and safe.
DOCTOR DE SOTO (1982) features talking animals in a parallel world, but a world where the basic instincts of animals remain in place. Dr. De Soto (mouse) and his client (fox) both wear tweed suits. They also know fox’s ultimate and natural objective is to devour the mouse. Some would call that destiny. Steig and Dr. De Soto call it bunk! Dr. De Soto prevails in a classic example of brains over brawn and nurture over nature. Once again, a story with this level of danger and darkness could not successfully be told with human characters.
When neither magic nor cruelty was involved, Steig was able to appropriately feature human characters in a way that made those stories more engaging. Irene in BRAVE IRENE certainly experiences some lucky turns of fate in her story. But, because the thrust of the story is a girl’s determination and accomplishment it is best cast with humans. Portraying Irene as a pig in a frock would have weakened the tension and emotional path of the story.
When asked what he thought of talking animals, author/editor James Cross Giblin said, “It depends on what they have to say.” As William Steig demonstrates, it also depends on the specific story we want to share.
Picture Books Discussed
THE AMAZING BONE by William Steig. Farrar, 1976.
ANIMALS: A COLLECTION OF GREAT ANIMAL CARTOONS edited by George Booth et al. Harper, 1979.
BRAVE IRENE by William Steig. Farrar, 1986.
DOCTOR DE SOTO by William Steig. Farrar, 1982.