“How deeply one felt when alone,” wrote William Steig of his protagonist, Abelard Hassam di Chirico Flint, from the Newberry Honors book Abel’s Island. I had grown up loving Steig’s books (everything from Sylvester and the Magic Pebble to Dr. DeSoto to Pete’s A Pizza, this was my older son’s favorite and we had to make him into a pizza just the way Pete’s parents did).
Somehow, despite my admiration and love for his work, I never read Abel’s Island. Since it was a dreary, rainy Sunday afternoon yesterday, I took the book down from the shelf and became lost within its wonderful pages.
Steig’s use of language (I love when children’s authors use words that a child might be unfamiliar with, such as verdure, so that the child can learn and add new words to their vocabularies. It was always one of my favorite ways to learn new words as a kid. I used to write the words down in a notebook and then go and look them up later in a dictionary), along with his glorious illustrations, drew me in to the story in a way that far surpasses his other books I read. It did not take me long to realize this was the perfect tonic to a rainy afternoon. It tells the story of Abel, a mouse who’s lived a safe and secure life. He and his wife Amanda decide to have a picnic when they’re caught in a rain storm and, when he attempts to rescue his wife’s scarf, poor Abel is washed away in flood waters where he ends up on an uninhabited island.
This book is part rodent Robinson Crusoe, as well as being an odyssey no less than Homer’s. As we watch this once pampered mouse learn to adapt and survive on the island, we are also given these wonderfully introspective passages:
“Somewhere out there, in the night sky-and it could only be night-were the glittering stars, and among them his, the one he had always known. This star, his, millions of miles away, was yet closer than Amanda, because if he had the will and the strength to get up, uncover his window, and look out, he could see it. He knew, therefore, that it existed. But as for Amanda, father, mother, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and the rest of society and the animal kingdom, he had to believe they were there, and it was hard to have this faith. As far as he really knew, he himself was the only, lonely, living thing that existed, and in his coma of coldness, he was not so sure of that.”
It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of writing. Like any great writer, Steig does not write down to his reader, even his young readers. He offers them more than just a survival and adventure story, but one that reveals the inner life of this mouse. Anthrophormism is nothing new to children’s literature (in fact, many of my favorite children’s books such as those by E.B. White, Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, and Kenneth Grahame use this technique to give animals human qualities) and Abel is a deeply and wonderfully written example of this at its best. The reader sees him go through a gamut of emotions and feelings: from loneliness to fear to curiosity to pondering about not only his exterior landscape but his interior one as well, often connected.
In one passage, Steig writes:
“Rain caused one to reflect on the shadowed, more poignant parts of life—the inescapable sorrows, the speechless longings, the disappointments, the regrets, the cold miseries. It also allowed one the leisure to ponder questions unasked in the bustle of brighter days; and if one were snug under a sound roof, as Abel was, one felt somehow mothered, though mothers were nowhere around, and absolved of responsibilities.”
What I love about this book is that not only does if offer the reader a character who ponders and wonders, thinks and questions, but it allows the reader to do so as well. Steig invites the reader to do more than simply follow a story from beginning to end, but to meditate on nature and identity. In solitude, this mouse begins to build a new understanding about the world around him and his connection to it. How many children’s books offer up such a reexamination of the meaning of one’s life?
Abel’s Island is a thoughtful, philosophical book as well as an adventure story and it manages to do both well. At one point Abel even finds a copy of the novel Sons and Daughters. His heart races at finding such a discovery because it meant that there were civilized creatures somewhere on the island. Thrilled by this finding, he immediately sets to reading it and discovers that this is an epic tale of bears. After reading a chapter about the war that has broken out between bears, Abel begins to reflect not only on the book but about his own life and his relationship to an owl on the island:
“It made Abel wonder about civilization. But, come to think of it, the owl, who was not civilized, was pretty warlike too. The hero, Captain Burin, was writing home from the battlefield to the one he had waltzed with in the first chapter, the one he loved. It was also winter in the story, and a drunken sergeant was saying things that were foolish and wise and funny – he wished he were hibernating instead of warring.”
William Steig was a man who felt differently from other people because he never grew up and he continued to see that the world was all magic. In his book The Real Thief, there’s a passage that illustrates this view he held, “Why did the world go on being so beautiful in spite of the ugliness he had experienced? The lake was beautiful, serenely beautiful. The forest was beautiful, greenly beautiful. Lake and forest, the whole shimmering world was painfully beautiful. He loved this world, but he was too hurt to enjoy it.”
Growing up in the Bronx, Steig spoke of his childhood being filled with books, comic books and movies called “Nickelettes.” He once said in an interview, ” Among the things that affected me most profoundly as a child – and consequently as an adult – were certain works of art: Grimm’s fairy tales, Charlie Chaplin movies, Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, the Katzenjammer Kids, Pinocchio. Pinocchio especially. I can still remember after this long stretch of time the turmoil of emotions, the excitement, the fears, the delights, and the wonder with which I followed Pinocchio’s adventures.”
After years of being a famous cartoonist and illustrator, he would not embark on writing and illustrating children’s books until late in life. But he had his own approach to creating children’s books. As he once told an interviewer, “Art, including juvenile literature, has the power to make any spot on earth the living center of the universe, and unlike science, which often gives us the illusion of understanding things we really do not understand, it 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. Art also stimulates the adventurousness and the playfulness that keep us moving in a lively way and that lead us to useful discovery.”
Later, in an interview with The Paris Review, he said, “Draw what you love and what interests you. Draw it how you want to draw it. When we are children we do this instinctively. But somewhere in our passage from childhood to adulthood, the ability to be truly and fearlessly creative is often lost.” He never lost that ability to be “truly and fearlessly creative.” His children’s books would go on to win numerous awards including: William Allen White Children’s Book Award, Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, the Reading Magic award, the Newbery Honor for Abel’s Island and Doctor De Soto, several notable designations from the American Library Association, and American Book Award and three National Book Award finalists.
William Steig was described as a curious man, who was fascinated by people and how they interacted with each other, with his natural surroundings, and continued to embrace his childhood and a child-like sense of seeing the world. All of this translated into the worlds he created in his books.
When he was once asked what his ideal life would be, he replied, “I often ask myself, ‘What would be an ideal life?’ I think an ideal life would be just drawing.” He paused before adding, “”I’m lucky, I’ve been able to do something I loved all my life.”
And we are lucky that William Steig was able to do what he loved to do and we got to benefit from being able to enter the books he created, especially Abel’s Island, which offers us both grit and grace. If you haven’t read this delightful masterpiece, then I highly recommend that you rush out to your local library (especially on a rainy day) and curl up in your favorite chair and cherish the time it takes to read this splendid, slender volume either to yourself or to a child. You won’t regret it.