Monday, March 1, 2021

Read Aloud Treasures: The Wit and Wisdom of William Steig

Most children these days are well versed in the adventures of  Shrek!  from the Dreamworks movie franchise and the Broadway musical, but Shrek!, of course, first lived in the very fertile, active, and definitely quirky mind of children's book author and illustrator, William Steig. Steig is a fascinating character himself. He did not write his first children's book until he was in his 60s, but by that time he was world famous as a cartoonist for The New Yorker. His books for children are witty, wacky, wonderful, and slightly off center. Here are some of my favorites for read aloud. Reading these books to children always spurred great follow-up conversations.

Steig's first picture book finds sweet voiced troubadour, Roland, traveling the country to share his songs and stories. A scheming fox named Sebastian fools the trusting Roland and almost roasts him over a fire, until he is rescued by the King. The fox is "put in the dungeon, where he lives the rest of his years on nothing but stale bread, sour grapes and water." Steig establishes his distinctive style with the animals in this story.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble may be Steig's most famous book. It won the Caldecott Medal for 1970 and shows Steig's  mastery of the personified animal cartoon format. Sylvester finds a magic pebble and in a panic makes a foolish wish and turns himself into a rock. After a long time and with growing loneliness, he is finally reunited with his family when his rock form self thinks, "I wish I were my real self again."

The warm and witty story of Doctor DeSoto  is a sure crowd pleaser. Dr. DeSoto, the mouse, is a dentist who is careful not to treat "dangerous animals, but one day a fox shows up. Children are delighted to find out how the dentist mouse outfoxes the hungry fox.

Plucky Irene braves a terrible snowstorm to deliver the dress her ill mother has made  for the duchess. Along the way Irene faces many hardships, particularly from the wicked wind, but she prevails to get the dress to its destination. It is impossible to read this book without cheering Brave Irene on.

Were there ever two more unlikely or more devoted friends than Amos, the mouse, and Boris, the whale?  The two friends meet when Amos goes off on an ocean adventure and is rescued by Boris. Soon Boris needs the help of his friend Amos, when he is in danger. Along with Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel, this is one of the great books about friendship and loyalty you will ever read.

Today would be a good day to share the special pleasures of a William Steig picture book with your students/children.

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