A mouse dentist who treats a fox’s toothache, a pig who outwits a fox with the help of a talking bone, and a girl who braves a snowstorm to deliver a gown to a duchess are among the memorable William Steig characters that young readers can now encounter on their tablets. Doctor De Soto, The Amazing Bone, and Brave Irene are three of 14 Steig titles that Farrar, Straus and Giroux recently released in e-book editions, making the author’s work available in this format for the first time. And due out in early 2014 are new Square Fish paperback reissues of Steig’s Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride, Tiffky Doofky, Yellow & Pink, and Solomon the Rusty Nail.
Steig (1907–2003) was born in New York City and attended City College and the National Academy of Design. In 1930, he began publishing his cartoons in the New Yorker, over the years producing several thousand drawings and 120 covers for the magazine. During his long career, Steig published 13 collections of drawings for adults and more than 30 children’s books, beginning with Roland the Minstrel Pig in 1968. His illustrative talent was soon recognized: in 1970, he received the Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Additional accolades include two Newbery Honors (for Doctor De Soto and Abel’s Island) and a Caldecott Honor for The Amazing Bone.
A lifelong fan of Steig’s work is Maggie Steig, the youngest of his three children. Her parents divorced when she was four, and after spending summers and many weekends with him, she went to live with him in Connecticut fulltime when she was in her early teens. “I used to watch him draw all the time,” she recalled. “He had a wonderful wooden drawing table in the middle of his studio that was always covered in paper. I was particularly interested in his work when he was illustrating children’s books. He’d ask me, my stepmother, or whoever was around for our opinions about colors or characters’ clothing. He always cared about doing his very best.”
Curiously, Steig wasn’t enamored of the illustrative process. “He didn’t like illustrating as much as doing free drawings,” said Maggie. “He didn’t like the repetition of the same characters and the continuity issues. He grumbled about it, but in the end was quite happy with the product. Actually, he had wanted to be a writer from the time he was young, but made the decision to be a humorous artist when the stock market crashed in 1929. His father, who had been a house painter, told my father, ‘Now it’s all up to you.’ Since all he knew how to do was draw, that’s what he did.”
New Life for Old Favorites
Simon Boughton, publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, is a longtime admirer of Steig, who published his first book with FSG, Amos and Boris, in 1971. “He is a personal favorite of mine, and I’m always delighted to be associated with him in any way,” he said. “Steig has a sensibility absolutely unique to himself. He has a delightful sense of whimsy and a wonderful sense of what makes language fun. It is always a joy to read Steig – and that’s before one even gets to the illustrations, which are so hilarious.”
Boughton noted that the time seemed right to bring some of Steig’s FSG backlist out in e-book format. “Since the marketplace for picture-book e-books has become viable, and we had an opportunity to promote the books through retailers – Apple, Nook, and Kindle – we decided this was a good time to publish these titles as e-books. We thought it made sense to bring the books out as a group rather than piecemeal, so we came up with a comprehensive plan to make a Steig moment.”
The Steig picture books now available as e-books are Abel’s Island, The Amazing Bone, Amos & Boris, Brave Irene, Caleb & Kate, Doctor De Soto, Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride, Gorky Rises, The Real Thief, Shrek!, Solomon the Rusty Nail, Spinky Sulks, Tiffky Doofky, and Yellow & Pink.
Six of the e-books (The Amazing Bone, Brave Irene, Doctor De Soto, Caleb & Kate, Shrek!, and Spinky Sulks) are audio-enabled for Nook and Apple platforms, and are narrated by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci. Jean Feiwel, publisher of Square Fish, explained that the actors recorded the texts of these books in 2007, when Mary Beth Roche, who heads up Macmillan Audio, decided to create a CD of Square Fish’s The One and Only Shrek!, an omnibus containing these six picture books. “It was Mary Beth’s idea to approach Streep and Tucci – we wanted quality readings for these quality stories,” Feiwel recalled. “The actors brought gravitas and humor to their readings.”
Feiwel welcomes the paperback reissues of Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride, Tiffky Doofky, Yellow & Pink, and Solomon the Rusty Nail to the Square Fish list. “The books will be folded into Square Fish as their previous [FSG] editions run out of print, most likely in early 2014,” she said. “The more Steig on Square Fish the better.”
Maggie Steig, who in partnership with her brother and sister makes decisions about their father’s intellectual property, expressed enthusiasm about the new e-books. “We try to make decisions that he would have wanted, and that will keep his work alive for generations to come,” she said. “The whole family is excited that these e-books will make the stories more accessible to a wider audience and to those who might not be able to afford a hard copy. I love the look of my father’s artwork on the page, but illuminated on the screen, it becomes something else, and the vibrancy of it is beautiful in a different way. And kids who don’t have the opportunity to have a grownup read aloud to them can listen to the audio on the e-books, which is pretty great.”
And does she imagine her father would be pleased that young readers can now enjoy his books on a tablet screen? “I think he would find it magical that a book could be compressed into this little machine,” she said. “So much of his work in children’s books was about transformation, and the idea that you could transform a book’s format this way, and that you turn the page with a button – I think he’d find that fascinating.”