Four years ago today, New Yorker cartoonist William Steig — one of the greatest American illustrators and children’s book authors — passed away at the age of 95.
Most famous today as the creator of Shrek, Steig published dozens of children’s books during his lifetime, including Amos and Boris, (1971), Brave Irene (1986), and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969). His first Caldecott Award winner, Sylvester was banned from numerous school districts throughout the American South for depicting police officers as uniformed pigs. Inveterately sentimental about childhood, Steig was equally capable of astonishing misanthropic expositions, as the first two pages of the magnificent Rotten Island (1969) suggest:
There once was a very unbeautiful, very rocky, rotten island. It had acres of sharp gravel and volcanoes that belched fire and smoke, spewed hot lava, and spat poison arrows and double-headed toads.
The spiny, thorny, twisted plants that grew there had never a flower of any kind.
There was an earthquake an hour, black tornadoes, lightning sprees with racking thunder, sqalls, cyclones, and dust storms.
The vile creatures who inhabit Rotten Island descend over the course of the story into a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes, provoked by the mysterious, infuriating appearance of a single flower whose beauty drives the creatures to lunacy. It all ends quite well, though I suppose that depends on whether one empathizes with the creatures or not.
I didn’t actually discover Rotten Island until college; after reading it, I was amazed my parents hadn’t dropped it into the regular rotation bin when I was a kid. Audrey hasn’t been quite as absorbed in the book as I had hoped; I’m pleased to report, however, that she’s a great fan of Drummer Hoff, and her favorite Sesame Street character (at the moment) is Oscar the Grouch. Best I can tell, she’s already well prepared for the rest of the century.