Brave Irene By William Steig
William Steig is a name well known to readers of the New Yorker magazine - he produced 1600 drawings for the New Yorker and 120 cover illustrations from 1930 until his death at the age of 96 in 2003. I also know him as the author and illustrator of dozens of children's picture books. On a recent trip to New York, I made a beeline for the Jewish Museum to see the exhibit The Art of William Steig.
Along with the pleasure of viewing original illustrations I learned about William Steig himself. Steig was the son of Jewish immigrants to New York. He grew up on the Lower East Side, one of three brothers; his mother was a seamstress and his father was a painter and wallpaper hanger.
William Steig helped his father at this work throughout his teenage years. Steig attended art school, but in 1930 was forced to help support his family, as his father had few decorating jobs during the Depression. Fortunately William Steig found work as an illustrator - I hate to think what the world would have lost if he had given up his art in order to earn a living.
William Steig was already sixty years old when his first children's book was published in 1968. His children's books are - as with all of the best children's books - as much a treat for the adult reading the story as they are for the child listening, the language always a delight. William Steig wrote and illustrated dozens of children's book over his career - but I have a couple of favourites.
"Doctor DeSoto, the dentist, did very good work, so he had no end of patients. Those close to his own size - moles, chipmunks, et cetera - sat in the regular dentist's chair. Larger animals sat on the floor, while Doctor DeSoto stood on a ladder." The story goes on to tell of how the dentist - a very clever mouse, and his wife, outwit the sly fox. I think what makes a William Steig book succeed is his ability to tell the story simply but with such wisdom and humour that there is always so much more said. It is so much more than simply the words on paper- it is the magic of the storyteller combined with his brilliantly expressive illustrations that make his work so exceptional.
My very favourite Steig book is Brave Irene. I believe that this a book no little girl should be without, and I think it is the perseverance of the child Irene that makes it so. "Am I still going the right way, she wondered. There was no one around to advise her." I ask myself that question quite often! You might well question what age this book is for - all ages I think. Lost, cold, but in an "explosion of fury," Irene is determined to get to where she must go, and face the consequences whatever they may be. I knew I loved this story but what I didn't know was that William Steig's mother was a seamstress and he grew up observing her working. Many of his illustrations are taken from his life and given to us all.
In this generation Steig's most well known book may be Shrek. The film better known than the book on which it is based.
The word Shrek means fear in Yiddish, and the character Shrek feels fear himself as he looks for love, while his appearance causes others to fear him.
In this book as in all of his others, the characters reflect Steig's observation of the human condition - the body language and the expressions on the faces convey exactly what he wants to say.
Steig uses the themes of injustice - of doing the right thing - of how unfairness feels - always with a kindness, in his drawings.
Steig can make us laugh - as we all did as we wandered through the exhibit of his work - and he can make us weep. Steig is quoted as saying, "I often ask myself, 'what would be the ideal life?' I think an ideal life would be drawing."
Always drawing, always doodling, he captured scenes and situations from the life around him. One contemporary author, who I suspect owes a lot to William Steig, is Kate de Camillo - she also uses animals to tell tales that are very, very human.
Steig's stories ask the universal questions - the big questions that we all, perhaps especially kids - ask.
Questions about how to bear tough times, how to survive seriously difficult situations. "I think I feel a little differently than other people do." Steig has said. "For some reason I'd never felt grown up."
His wife Jeanne wrote "Children's books gave him the chance to deal with deep questions: loneliness, injustice, God, friendship, death and often terrible isolation.
They ended – so many of them – with the hero or heroine safe once more in the family's arms. They ended with kisses because they were written for children, and, Bill said, "Children must begin with hope."
I believe he is absolutely right and he has given the world a treasure.