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Thanks to the hit film, William Steig will likely always be known first of all as the author of Shrek. And his Sylvester and the Magic Pebble won the Caldecott and crops up on some lists of the best books ever for kids. But Dominic, his first children's book, is every bit as good as those two and perhaps better.
In the tradition of the great picaresques, like Don Quixote, and of the kind of quests that Arthurian knights set out on, Dominic the dog leaves home one day in search of adventure. He immediately meets an alligator-witch, but refuses to let her tell him his future, but who lets set him on the right road; a catfish, who gives him a spear that will make him invincible; a fox, a ferret, and a weasel who turn out to be members of the Doomsday Gang, with which he will do battle for the rest of the book; and a hundred year old pig, Bartholomew Badger, whose dying days Dominic makes more comfortable, and who in turn leaves him a fortune. Thus equipped, Dominic utilizes his spear, his endowment, his courage, his great good nature, and his marvelous nose to help those in need, particularly those confronted by the ubiquitous Doomsday Gang.
Dominic is a wonderful hero. His journey is thrilling and perilous but joy-filled. The characters he encounters are amusing and interesting in their own rights. Taken just as a fairy tale adventure the book is quite marvelous.
But there's also a spiritual depth to the tale that the previously mentioned books hinted at but never really plumbed. The passages following the death of Bartholomew Badger are especially lovely :
Dominic went out for a long walk and did a lot of
thinking. He was still walking when the stars came out. Mournful,
he lay down on the ground
Somehow this kind of thinking made Dominic feel more
religious than usual. He fell asleep under the vast dome of quivering
stars, and just
I can't think of any meditations on loss that are any better than that one in "adult books".
There's also a terrific defense of realism in art. When Dominic walks into a landscape painting so real that he couldn't tell it from its surroundings he asks the mouse artist :
'[E]verywhere I look I see beauty. If I can
see a lovely landscape, just as lovely as one painted by Manfred Lyon,
only by looking out
'I've considered that,' said the mouse, 'and this
is my answer: When the landscape is covered with snow, can you see leaves?
In the midst
There's Tom Wolfe's argument in The Painted Word captured in a brief exchange between two animals. Not bad.
And throughout, Mr. Steig addresses questions of the purpose of life, and again and again the characters return to the idea that they do have a purpose and that by being who they are they fulfill it. Matilda Fox, who's actually a widowed duck, has a nice soliloquy in response to Dominic's question about whether she likes walking, swimming or flying best. She describes the value of all three and why she can't choose amongst them. It reads in part :
'Flying is pure delight,' said Mrs. Fox, 'unless
you are being chased by birds of prey. There's a rhythm to flying
and it's the rhythm of the
Likewise, late in the book, Dominic himself determines :
The alligator-witch had certainly been right,
Life wasn't dull along this road. Fighting the bad ones in the world
was a necessary and gratifying
Beyond that purpose, Dominic fulfills another, even more useful. He entertains us splendidly and infects us with the great joy he takes in life. It may lack the reknown of some of his later works, but Dominic may be his best.
-ESSAY: What My Husband Saw (JEANNE STEIG, October 11, 2003, NY Times)
Book-related and General Links:
-BOOK SITE : Dominic (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)
-AUTHOR SITE : William Steig, Children's Book author
-William Steig - HarperChildrens
-Author William Steig (SimonSays.com)
-Kidsreads.com - William Steig
-INTERVIEW : The Children's Canon : Kids' book authors pick their all-time favorites Ý: William Steig (Salon, 12/16/95)
-LETTER : Letter from William Steig to Paul Heins (Hornbook Virtual History Exhibit)
-STEIG, WILLIAM November 14, 1907- , Author and Illustrator (Educational Paperback Association)
-William Steig (Mei-Yu Lu, Reference Specialist, ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication )
-INTERVIEW : William Steig : One of the most prolific New Yorker cover illustrators and cartoonists for more than 65 years, William
Steig has also created some 30 children's books. He is 89 and lives in Back Bay. (John Koch, 6/22/97, Boston Globe Magazine)
-ESSAY : Let 'er Play : Classic and iconoclastic books shake up the alphabet and take kids on a trip through the Dictionopolis of the
written word. (POLLY SHULMAN, Salon)
-LESSON PLAN : Teacher CyberGuide :Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig (CyberGuide by Carol Burr, Valerie McAnally, Shannon Taylor, San Diego County Office of Education)
-LESSON PLAN : Sylvester and the Magic Pebble Written and illustrated by William Steig
-Yahoo! Directory : Home > Arts > Humanities > Literature > Authors > Children's > Steig, William (1907- )
-REVIEW : of A GIFT FROM ZEUS : Sixteen Favorite Myths. By Jeanne Steig. Illustrated by William Steig (Wendy Doniger, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of PETE'S A PIZZA Written and illustrated by William Steig (Signe Wilkinson, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : THE TOY BROTHER Written and illustrated by William Steig (Ellen Handler Spitz , NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Abel's Island by William Steig (Lela Olszewski, SF Site)
-BOOK LIST : 100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know : SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE by William Steig (NY Public
-AWARDS : Caldecott 1970 : Steig, William. ÝSylvester and the Magic Pebble