Called the “King of Cartoons” by Newsweek, William Steig is notably known for his work as a highly respected and entertaining cartoonist, and an award-winning, best-selling author of children’s picture books and novels. During his life Steig produced more than sixteen hundred drawings and one hundred and seventeen covers for The New Yorker and author and illustrated over twenty books for children. Of his children’s books Steig received a Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and the Caldecott honor for The Amazing Bone, also a National Book Award Finalist; and Abel’s Island and Doctor De Soto, both Newbery Honor books. Steig is also the creator of Shrek! which inspired the Dreamworks films. Steig also received the Christopher Award, the Irma Simonton Black Award, the William Allen White Children’s Book Award, the America Book Award, and Society of Illustrators Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also the US nominee for both of the biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Awards as an illustrator in 1982, and then as an author in 1988.
William Steig first became known for his illustrations in The New Yorker, the first of which was published in 1930. He went on to produce over one thousand drawings for the magazine, as well as more than one hundred covers. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1968, at the age of 60, that Steig published his first children’s book, Roland the Minstrel Pig. His style is instantly recognizable for its graphic simplicity, strong use of line, and light application of watercolor, often, incorporating stripes, polka dots, or floral patterns in the clothing of characters and backgrounds.
The author illustrated and wrote his own books, uncommon in a genre in which illustrators are more frequently hired to develop pictures based on an author’s text. Steig’s books are often peppered with complex words and unusual sentence structures, used both for rhythmic effect and to expand his young audience’s vocabulary. “He hadn’t emigrated from India just to be insulted by an ill-bred pachyderm with a preposterous schnozzola,” says the narrator of Dr. De Soto Goes to Africa. In the St. James Guide to Children’s Writers, Anita Moss notes, “The presiding voice in these works is urbane and witty, yet never condescending; rather it invites the young reader to participate in this humorous, sophisticated view of the world.”
The themes in Steig’s titles are often universal in nature, offering readers narratives that address childhood fears of separation from parents and the ever-present wish for transformation, such as in the stories Gorky Rises (1980) and Brave Irene (1986). Other Steig stories tap into children’s desire for heroic adventure or provide access to fantastic worlds, including Dominic (1972), Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride (1974), and Abel’s Island (1976). In the humorous Spinky Sulks (1988), a little boy goes into the world’s longest funk after being hurt by a parent’s stinging words.
Frequently animals stand in as the protagonists in Steig narratives, imbued with heroic qualities and character traits that grow more sophisticated over the course of the narrative. Steig’s animals give him great latitude in telling his tales and their anthropomorphic traits are of great amusement to children. Steig once commented, “I think using animals emphasizes the fact that the story is symbolical about human behavior. And kids get the idea right away that this is not just a story, but one that’s saying something about life on Earth.” A whole cast of animals makes an appearance in Dr. De Soto Goes to Africa (1992), including do-good mice and an evil monkey. On a fundamental level, these animals are philosophers in fur and scales. They encourage children, by example, to open themselves up to what Steig dubs in Amos & Boris “the beauty and mystery of everything.”
His wife, Jeanne Steig, a sculptor and writer, described it thus: “Bill… drew from an impulse that went straight from the heart to his moving hand—and he always watched that hand with delight, wanting to see what it was up to.” Perhaps that explains, in part, why Steig’s stuttery pen-and-ink line achieves both a feeling of spontaneity and grace. In his acceptance speech for the 1970 Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Steig said, “Art helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mystery of things. It enhances the sense of wonder. And wonder is respect for life.”
In his artwork, his characters often fight for their lives and emerge with that same sense of wonder. Shrek’s parents may have “kicked him goodbye,” but the ogre’s expression of glee, “at the edge of the woods,” attests to his eagerness to enter them—despite a warning sign of danger (Shrek). Nature poses the threat in other books: Abel steps out into a rainstorm to retrieve his beloved Amanda’s scarf and winds up marooned on an island (Abel’s Island), while Irene battles a snowstorm in order to deliver her ill mother’s handiwork to the duchess (Brave Irene). The canine hero of Dominic, on the other hand, chooses “the road to adventure,” indicated by an alligator witch at a fork in the path in the woods. Each journey brings the protagonists face to face with themselves, and each hero emerges with a greater appreciation of life’s mysteries and a feeling of compassion.
Steig did not care to talk about himself much. He preferred to ask about you instead—and to let his characters speak for him. His books convey his love of music (Roland the Minstrel Pig, Dominic with his piccolo, Zeke Pippin with his harmonica), flowers, laughter, and reconciliation.
Steig was 95 when he left quietly in 2003. He is survived by his wife Jeanne Steig and his four children.