"The Minstrel Steig" by Roger Angell was originally published in the February 20 & 27, 1995 issue of The New Yorker.
The rule about age is never to think about it, so let us instead pack "two suitcases, the first with food, the second mostly with food," and be on our way. The travel tip comes from Zeke, a gifted young pig who leaves home in the middle of the night, upset because his harmonica-playing invariably puts his family to sleep -- "out like a light, no matter how merry the music." The story is continued in Zeke Pippin, a book for children published on November 14th, the day its author and illustrator, William Steig, turned eighty-seven. It was his twenty-fifth children's book since he first took up the work, a quarter century ago; almost all of them remain exuberantly in print, with several still popping up here and there in new editions and surprising languages -- Hawaiian, say, or Xhosa -- and with sales, foreign and domestic, that now total close to two million. Steig, of course, is this magazine's own William Steig, who sold his first drawing to The New Yorker in 1930 and his most recent one last month, which makes him our longest running active contributor. The magazine has published sixteen hundred and fifty drawings of his and a hundred and seventeen covers, and there are more of each in the bank. He is probably still best known here for his extensive series "Small Fry," which concerned the rowdy doings and pleasures of inventive and pugnacious young boys and girls: street kids, for the most part, who all bore strong resemblance to one another -- stubby and snub-nosed, with bright eyes and tough, tipped-up chins -- and thus, inescapably, to Steig himself. His most celebrated cover, I imagine, is the one for May 9, 1953 -- a portrait of a five- or six-year-old boy artist, brush in hand, leaning against the sunny, color-bursting tree he has just painted, under a yellow-ray sun that would make van Gogh squint: Kid Steig forever.
Most of Steig's art, though, has been for and about adults, and it has not always been lighthearted. In some of the cartoons, men and women yell and quarrel, snap at their kids, glare inkily at each other from old armchairs. In one drawing, a sour-looking widow standing in front of a gravestone, her mouth open and her finger in the air, is continuing the argument. Other Steig people, alone and captionless, stare out at the reader from faces that are masks or Rorschach blobs or blotter lines; the style is hard to describe, because it keeps changing, sometimes almost from week to week. Courtship and love (and plenty of lust) turn up, mostly in classical guise: broad-hipped nymphs, tattered knights, satyrs, men as roosters, lions as kings. Everyone seems to have dressed up, in the child's sense of the word, perhaps in hope of more fun. Animals and flowers and masks abound, but almost sadly. The titles of some of Steig's collections sound like warnings: The Lonely Ones, Ruminations, Strutters and Fretters, Our Miserable Life. It's amazing how different, how direct and open Steig is when he turns to the difficulties and adventures of children.
Not children exactly. In most of the books, one notices, the dramatis personae are boys and girls in disguise -- junior pigs, mice, dogs, geese, donkeys, and frogs -- with parents (in coats and pants, hats and dresses) of the same breed; and before long the switch, which looks only charming at first, takes on a more useful purpose. "I realized that I could get crazier with animals and have them do stranger things," Steig said not long ago. "And I put them in clothes, as other writers have done."
Steig's heroes and heroines, young and innocent as they appear, keep running into appalling obstacles and troubles. Roland (of Roland the Minstrel Pig) is almost garroted, narrowly misses being crushed by a boulder, and then is strung up from a tree limb. Sylvester, a donkey, is turned into a rock. Amos (the mouse in Amos and Boris) falls overboard in mid-ocean, and Boris (a whale, ibid.) is stranded on a beach by a hurricane. Abel, the mouse hero of Abel's Island, is marooned for a year, and Pearl, a very young pig in The Amazing Bone, is nearly cooked and served (with a nice green salad) by a fox. So it goes, but these small critters remain valorous, and they come through in the end. Survival, we begin to understand, is the main event. These animals aren't just sweet, they're tough and active and optimistic. They love to get going. They're battlers.
Dominic, the eponymous dog hero of Steig's picaresque novel, carries a spear and routs the rascally Doomsday Gang again and again. When he's buried in a deep hole, with the foxy and ferrety gang members licking their chops up above, he starts to dig his way out at once. "Working away, he was happy he had gone out into the world to seek his fortune. So many interesting things to do! With four sets of claws and the spear, and a bountiful supply of energy, he burrowed a long tunnel away from the hole and under the crowded roots of a large tree. Then he worked his way upward to the surface."
I am a father of children who are widely separated in age, thanks to a second marriage, and when, in the mid-nineteen-seventies, my wife and I first took turns reading aloud Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Amos and Boris and Caleb & Kate and Farmer Palmer's Wagon Ride to our young son, I sometimes felt a brief pang for my daughters, who were by then well into their twenties, because they'd come along too early to get that firsthand, child's-eye view of such treasures. Is there a word for this phenomenon -- "postchronism," or some such? It's like being sorry for Sophocies' audiences because they missed out on The Tempest, or pitying the monks who first stared up at the freshly painted Giotto frescoes in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi because they never got to think about Cézanne. It is my own view that we dismiss children's literature too readily, perhaps because young readers are always poised to move along to the next stage, but also because we suspect that anything that appeals so strongly and pleasurably to us, as parents, is too easy to be taken seriously. How many of us do not still believe in our secret hearts that with a little luck we could have played major-league baseball or written a first-class children's book. Dream on.
Many friends of mine, I discovered, have kept the Steig books on a special shelf in their memories even after the prime consumers of the books have grown up. Mention a title or a hero to them, and their faces light up. "They're so clear!" is a common response, and the erstwhile reader-aloud sounds no different from a contemporary young parent in the midst of the same happy experience. "I think Elizabeth loved Gorky Rises best," a newspaper editor said to me the other day, speaking of her eight-year-old and an intrepid Steigian frog aviator. "All that floating and zooming around."
Other friends recalled Steig himself, along with the books; there seemed to be no dividing line. Warren Miller, a younger colleague of Steig's at the magazine, and himself the illustrator of two works for children, said, "I love his books. I remember him years and years ago, in the Village. I'd be playing my trumpet in some jazz cellar and I'd see him sitting over in the corner, listening intensely." Miller hunched over slightly and drew in his elbows. "You know, he's always paid such attention. And I like the writing in his books almost as much as the illustrations. There's one phrase I've never forgotten, from Amos and Boris, when the whale is stranded on the beach --"
"Breaded with sand," I said, breaking in.
"That's it!" he cried. "Breaded with sand -- what a writer!"
Frank Modell, a New Yorker artist and children's-book writer who is a little closer in age to Steig than the others I talked to, said, "He's always worn dark clothes and sneakers. Even among the artists, he was informal. I always felt that he stood aside from the rest of us and watched. He and I used to live near each other in the Village -- he had a place just off Sixth Avenue. I was there one day when he suddenly told me that he liked his apartment better than mine. I was living on Ninth Street then, in a ninth-and-tenth-floor apartment that had a terrace and a view, so I was surprised. Steig drew me to a window in his place and pointed, and then I realized that we were on the second floor and that what he saw, just below us was men and women and kids and dogs and traffic going by. It was as if he had a television set that brought in the whole world."
In Steig's books, clarity and comedy feel as easily conjoined as words and pictures, and a little magic sometimes helps as well. In The Amazing Bone, the garrulous object that Pearl puts in her pocket previously belonged to a witch, from whom it picked up almost more powers than it knows what to do with. After it has disposed of that gourmet fox, it stays on with her and her family: "Pearl always took it to bed when she retired, and the two chatter-boxes whispered together until late in the night. Sometimes the bone put Pearl to sleep by singing, or by imitating soft harp music . . . They all had music whenever they wanted it, and sometimes even when they didn't."
Foxes fare poorly in the Steig work, usually after a brief losing battle with their consciences. "I regret having to do this to you," the fox says to Pearl as he totes her toward the cook stove. "It's nothing personal." In Doctor De Soto, the fox is grateful to the tiny mouse-dentist who has pulled his bad tooth. (The deft, white-smocked D.D.S. does the extraction with a winch, working, with his wife-hygienist, from the top of a tall ladder.) "I really shouldn't eat them," he muses. "On the other hand, how can I resist?" Fortunately, De Soto is a top mouse in his field, and he requires only the magic of science to handle the situation. Dentists can do anything these days.
Steig's second book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which won the Caldecott Medal (the most prestigious prize for juvenile-book illustration) when it appeared, in 1969, is still his masterpiece. In the story, Sylvester, a young donkey, collects pebbles for a hobby and one day comes upon a strange red one, which has the power to grant him any wish. On the way home, he encounters a lion and saves himself by rashly wishing to turn into a rock. It happens, and then he is stuck -- a rock in a field, with no way to wish himself back or to call out for help. He is searched for everywhere, mourned by his parents, almost forgotten, but then one day . . . The inexorable quiet of the tale is deepened by the simplicity of the underpopulated landscape illustrations: the rock that is Sylvester seen under a blazing firmament of stars; the rock in a winter snowstorm; the rock in the springtime. The text is just as spare: "Night followed day and day followed night over and over again. Sylvester on the hill woke up less and less often . . . He felt he would be a rock forever and he tried to get used to it. He went into an endless sleep."
The book is about death, nothing less, but it is death in the way that young children first think about it. What can it be like to be still and not speak and never move again? Steig himself does not entirely agree with this interpretation. "I think Sylvester's being that rock has to do with his relations with his parents, too," he says. "Sylvester inside that rock is an armored creature, but when he realizes how loved he is, he can come back. Coming back to a family in the end is natural for kids. These things are symbolic, but never in a thought-out way."
Steig is an artist of sunlight (in contrast to Maurice Sendak, for instance, who is an artist of night), but he has a fondness for starry skies and the long thoughts of small creatures alone under the heavens. Amos, lying out on the deck of his sloop, the Rodent, thinks himself "a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe," and then, "overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of everything," rolls off his boat and into the sea. Dominic, off on his own adventures, is susceptible to moonlight, at one point forgetting his doggy day-time self to the point where he declares to the heavens, "Oh, Life, I am yours! Whatever it is you want of me, I am ready to give." It's all too much for him, and he falls into a good, long bout of howling.
Dominic, which was Steig's seventh book, was an achievement of a different order. Encouraged by Michael di Capua, his editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Steig set out to write a novel, rather than a book told largely through pictures, and he pulled it off with élan. It is illustrated with lively pen-and-ink instead of his customary watercolors, but the writing picks up the added burden without strain. It's a book for slightly older kids -- to be read, perhaps, rather than read aloud -- and part of why it works is that Steig never writes down, never patronizes his audience. The younger books are full of words ("discombobulated," "lunatic," "sinuous") that a parent may have to stop and explain; and in the books for, say, ten-year-olds, "palsied," "sequestration," "ensconced," "circumstantial," "rubescent," and the like show up, with no more than a trail of context to help out. Good writers and painters, I suspect, compliment their audiences by expecting only the best of them; the responding thrill of understanding is what art is all about.
It is clear that Steig's stories and small creatures speak for him. It's harder to say how his fine and his opalescent watercolors do the same thing. Perhaps because he puts colors and inks directly on paper, with no preliminary sketches or pencilings, his paintings always feel as if he had just placed them in your hands. The Steigian palette and medium, in any case, shift freely from book to book, in response to each new story. The Real Thief, his third -- and shortest -- novel, concerns a sentry goose wrongfully accused of stealing the royal jewels, and its darker tones, of injustice and suffering and forgiveness, are conveyed in ink and a gray watercolor wash. Pearl, of The Amazing Bone, is Steig's youngest ingénue, scarcely more than a baby; the world is new and fresh to her, and what she sees are springtime swards of yellow, lavender, and the palest green. When she is accosted by a band of small brigands, possibly cats and dogs, they are wearing brilliantly colored Japanese masks.
"He's such an observant artist," Frank Modell said to me. "Everybody thinks that people with artistic ability can draw anything, but that isn't true. You can't draw a dog unless you know dogs. His pictures are full of things that other artists avoid -- horses, dogs, rocks. He knows them all. Steig has never been afraid of being alone -- you can tell that."
Lee Lorenz, Steig's New Yorker art editor and longtime colleague (and fellow children's-book writer, as well), says, "I don't know how he does it. You're never conscious of the medium, but it has occurred to me that the only romantic thing about him may be his colors. He's not circumspect, and his approach is so personal that you can't learn or borrow from him. You can only admire. Along with Arno, Addams, and Steinberg, he's one of the heroes around here."
There was an echo in this -- a clang of considerable proportions. Just days before my conversation with Lee Lorenz, I had been talking with Mary Pope Osborne, who has written more than thirty books for children (she is also the president of the Authors Guild), and when I told her that I was writing a piece about Steig's children's works she said, "You know, he's been a hero for a whole generation of writers like me. Somehow, he managed to accomplish the feat of writing in a strange and different way that you instantly understood. I never knew how he did it. He helped me take chances with my own writing. For me, he's been like E. B. White and Arnold Lobel and James Marshall -- the band of young people's writers that I always put together in my mind. I wanted to be in their company."
Late in December, I pressed a call on Bill Steig and his wife, Jeanne, in their roomy, sun-filled apartment in the Back Bay section of Boston; they moved there in 1992, giving up what had been their home for many years in Kent, Connecticut, after they reached an age when they foresaw that driving would become difficult. Steig says he does not miss Kent or country life at all. Jeanne is an artist, too, busy at the moment with a collection of small panels containing elegantly detailed near-Romanesque figures which she assembles from street-found bits of wood and metal. (She has also been a writer, supplying light-verse texts for three books that she and Bill did together.) Their place feels stuffed with art, but there's not much Bill Steig on the walls. "He won't have it -- it makes him uneasy," Jeanne said. "He says his work is made to be reproduced." She did point out a couple of small, bright tapestries that have his unmistakable touch. "He had to have something to do while we were watching the Watergate hearings," she said. "He invented the stitching as he went along."
Bill Steig attended the National Academy of Design as a youth, but he claims not to have learned anything there. "I enjoyed playing touch football in the yard," he said. He is short and solid-looking, with blue eyes and a calm, workmanlike air. His hair, still in a boyish, upstanding brush, is gray now, but he doesn't look like a man in his eighties -- or a man of any particular age. He looks like a student. He speaks quietly, in tentative sentences, sometimes throwing in an unexpected question or a fresh idea that imparts a swervy, back-roads feeling to the conversation.
"I like change," he said at one point. "But I try not to do it deliberately. I'm trying to have fun. I used to use different materials a lot -- try thicker pens or brushes, or bamboo pens -- with the idea that that'd make me change. If the pen stutters on the page, that's a new thing." He said that finishing drawings for the children's books was sometimes daunting for him, because he had to put the same characters down on the page again and again.
He got into children's books in the mid-sixties, at the urging of a fellow New Yorker artist, Bob Kraus, whose entrepreneurial fervor also inspired juvenile books from colleagues like Addams, Whitney Darrow, and Lorenz. (Nowadays, New Yorker artists become children's-book authors in even greater numbers, and a stroll through the juvenile section of a bookstore can turn up works by the likes of Warren Miller, Ed Koren, Frank Modell, Roz Chast, and -- in brilliant profusion -- James Stevenson.) "Bob Kraus got me to write Roland, which was great for me, because it got me out of the advertising world," Steig said. "I was almost in my sixties and I was supporting a lot of people."
I said that family seemed to be a recurring chord in his books.
"I've always felt that family was a nuisance," he said. "My parents were very dependent -- in fact, I supported them all my life. When I started working, instead of going out in the world I had to be in supporting my family. But I did it with good will."
Steig, who grew up in the Bronx and still carries a whisper of it in his consonants, was the third of four brothers. His father was a housepainter. After Steig finished writing Dominic, it came to him one day that the spirit of its eager, adventurous hero was a portrait of his father. "I was never read to as a child," Steig told me, "but reading was big back then. We had no radio, no TV. The movies were big, too. We went to the Nickelettes -- so called because you could get in for a nickel. There was one of them that would let two of you in for a nickel if you sat in the same seat. We used to go to the library -- only we said 'liberry' -- on Tremont Avenue, where they allowed you to take out two novels and two nonfiction books on each visit. Sometimes you tried to find a novel that looked like nonfiction, so you could beat the rule."
"Were you a street kid?" I asked.
"Sure, I was, along with the other guys in the Claremont A.C.," he said. "My part of the Bronx was between Crotona Park and Claremont Park, but the gang was just the boys who lived in our building. We were very small kids. We admitted a couple of girls later on -- Sophie Kozanski and Pearl Bimlich -- and then we called it the Claremont Athletic and Social Club."
He seemed surprised when I said I felt that these kids seemed familiar to me, but then he brightened up and said, "Oh, yeah, sure -- Small Fry came from all that. And maybe Pearl, in The Amazing Bone, came from Pearl Bimlich. On the other hand, Jeanne and I had a dog named Pearl when we lived in Kent, a dog that died just before we moved up here." He paused, thinking it over. "Maybe the dog was named after Pearl Bimlich, too."
Steig, one notices, is never guarded in conversation but never loquacious; he seems unwilling to draw attention to himself by sounding wise or consequential. He said at one point that he had enjoyed writing The Real Thief, because it dealt with more difficult and more adult ideas -- his only book with a message. "Unfortunately, I made a mistake in it," he added at once. "The second half of it goes back in time and repeats the same events in a different context. It confuses things. I ran into the same thing once in a Conrad book I was reading -- as an adult, I mean. Then I had to go and give kids the same problem. As somebody once said, you've got to remember that you're writing for kids -- otherwise, you might end up writing War and Peace.
We had moved into the dining room by now, and the three of us were demolishing a luncheon salad, with beer and pickles and Italian bread on the side. Steig suddenly said, "Are you the kind of person who pays attention to birthdays and anniversaries?" It was one of his swerves.
I said yes, I was, and Jeanne, across from me, began to laugh. "Our anniversary was yesterday," she said. "I knew it was around the end of the year," Bill said cheerfully. Jeanne broke the piece of bread she was holding in half and handed a morsel to him. "Happy anniversary, Bill," she said.
"What are your feelings about Picasso?" he asked me, chewing.
I did a quick inventory and ventured that he was dearly the premier artist of my lifetime -- the right answer, I learned later on, because Picasso, another artist who thrived on change, has been Steig's artistic idol, his one and only. Steig once ended an extended friendship with a man who'd expressed some revisionist doubts about the Master.
I asked Steig about one or two other artists, including Ben Shahn, whose line seemed to me not unlike his own, but he dismissed them. "I'm a Stuart Davis lover," he said. "Did you know that he was one of the painters converted by the 1913 Armory Show? And Albert Ryder is a favorite. But I'm not so big on American painters, I guess."
"But we have artist friends," Jeanne said. She and Steig have been married since 1968, and their conversation, like that of many long-term couples, is full of comfortable continuations.
"Do you know Chuck Close?" Steig asked.
I said yes -- well, I'd met him.
"A wonderful man," he said.
"Most of our friends now are relatives," Jeanne said, and the two finished the sentence together: "But not all of our relatives are friends!"
My visit was flying away very quickly, and I did not want to overstay. Steig had told me that he suffers from emphysema, which saps his energy. "Some days, I go to my workroom and just do a crossword puzzle," he said. His attention, I noticed, did not weary, for our conversation had also ranged to sports (he misses the Giants -- the New York football Giants -- on television now that he's moved to Boston) and to his children: his son, Jeremy, a celebrated jazz flutist; and his daughters, Lucy, who is a psychologist and a painter, and Maggie, an actress now also employed as a party planner, who lives in Boston. Frank Modell had told me that he recalled Steig's talking about Jeremy one day, many years earlier, and saying, "My son is one of the nicest people I know." And Frank had said to me, "I wonder how many of us wish our fathers had ever thought something like that."
For Steig, apparently, the emotional and spiritual sectors of life were no farther away than the daily and offhand. I knew that he had been a patient of Wilhelm Reich, the Viennese radical psychologist, and he told me now that he still regularly climbed into his Orgone Accumulator, a metal-lined, telephone-booth-like container in his workroom, as part of the therapy to which he attributed his own long survival, as well as his mother's recovery, years before, from a serious cancer invasion. "I've been an ardent Reichean," he said. "Just the other day, I read somewhere that guys who think about the universe say that seventy-five per cent of it is still beyond their ken. Well, I think that seventy-five per cent is orgone, which, for some reason, we refuse to get in touch with."
The talk went back to his work. "Drawing is something I feel impelled to do, but I don't feel an undeniable urge to write these books," he said. "I've done more than I originally intended. It's not inspiration, but I take it seriously, writing for kids."
I asked the obligatory question. "Was writing the books perhaps a way for him to remain a child?
"I enjoyed my childhood," he said. "I think I like kids more than the average man does. I can relax with them, more than I can among adults. I'm what you call shy -- it's been a lifelong problem. Children are genuine, which is such a big problem with grownups. After we're about thirty, we have to give up being children. You can't try to stay young -- that would make you old in no time -- but I like to think I've kept a little innocence. Probably I'm too dumb to do anything else."
When I got home that evening, I looked through my little stack of Steig books, and noticed once again how many different dedicatees there were. Jeanne was there, and so was Michael di Capua, and so, of course, were Steig's children and his two granddaughters, but the list seemed to grow from year to year and from book to book. "To Maggie, Melinda, Francesca, and Nika" was the dedication in The Amazing Bone. The next book is "To Delia, Nika, Abigail, and Francesca," and the one after that "To Delia, Sidonie, Nika, Sylvain, and Estelle."
Jeanne had told me that she was part of a large, Chicago-based family that included a son and daughter of hers from an earlier marriage, four grandchildren, and also nieces and nephews and cousins in profusion, and she said that a number of these kids had been cited by Bill in his later books. The son of a woman who'd worked in a grocery store in Kent was in one of the books, and so was Chuck Close's daughter Maggie. Jeanne thinks that getting their names into Bill's books is almost a new fad or craze for kids. Bill, smiling, said that he'd begun to impose a visa system: three or four repeats and then you couldn't expect to find yourself in there anymore. But now, looking over the thin, different-shaped volumes, and the gatherings of names up at the front, I got the feeling that the message here was more complicated: real children climbing their way into books where they had so clearly and so often been made to feel interesting and important. "To Delia, Sidonie, Sylvain, Estelle, Kyle, Molly, Reid, Tina, Serena, Zachary, and Zoe," and "To Alicia, Charlotte, Curran, Evan, Geneva, Georgia, Kate, Maggie, and William." And others waiting.
© 1995. All rights reserved. Originally published in The New Yorker. Used with permission of the author.