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A William Steig Weekend

Author John Cech
Air Date 11/14/2003

A William Steig Weekend Transcript

Brief sound clip

That’s the opening from the animated film version of Dr. Desoto, a children’s book by William Steig about a very principled, compassionate, and clever mouse dentist. Sadly, Steig passed away last month at the age of 95, but he remained an active presence on the children’s book scene almost until the very end. His most recent book, When Everybody Wore A Hat, just appeared this June.

Steig’s claim to present fame was as the creator of the story that would become the academy-award-winning animated film Shrek, which existed first in book form as a biting send-up of traditional fairy tale themes. Steig reverses all of our usual expectations and chooses as his hero an ugly, foul-smelling ogre who, we’re told, “could spit flame a full ninety-nine yards and vent smoke from either ear” — something Shrek takes great delight in doing, repeatedly.

Inversions like this are one of the major, continuing themes of Steig’s work — as a creator of covers and cartoons for The New Yorker, and as the author and illustrator of several dozen children’s books. The bad guys often turn out to be, well, some of the most interesting characters in his stories. At least you can’t take them for granted and dismiss them as mere stereotypes. They’ re intelligent, witty, articulate. If they weren’t up to no good, you’d probably want them as friends.

Another group of Steig’s heroes and heroines are often, quite simply, stuck — in situations they can’t seem to get out of. Sylvester has turned himself into a large stone and is unable to reach the magic pebble that will change him back to a donkey again; to escape a fox, Solomon, a rabbit, magically changes into a rusty nail; Spinky, a little boy, becomes so angry that he refuses to leave his hammock — for days. And then Steig gives us adventures of growth and change: spoiled, soft Able the mouse who is marooned on an island, manages to make the best of it. Dr. Desoto keeps his oath as a healer, treats the sly fox with a toothache, and still cleverly avoids being eaten. Steig’s funny, quirky, poignant fables help us to see the other side, to never forget what’s possible, and to never lose hope that transformation can take place.

Posted in Film, Literature