Saturday, July 21, 2007
William Steig - Psychology of Children
One of my favorite children's book authors is William Steig. After reading Sylvester and the Magic Pebble to Elliot several times, I realized how soothing the language felt to me compared to other children's books. His sentences are spare and crisp but ornamented with eccentric and complicated words like "perplexed" and "discombobulated." His stories are direct and darkly humorous; intuitive but strange at the same time. They're psychologically rich and his insights are unexpected.
Because his tone is so matter of fact and lacks condescension or smirky irony or cutesiness, it feels intimate in a way children's books rarely do, "You can imagine the scene that followed - the embraces, the kisses, the questions, the answers, the loving looks and the fond exclamations." In all of the books we've read, the characters are in danger at some point, but they adapt, survive and remain optimistic. They map to a child's sense of wonder, fears of a strange world, struggle for self reliance. His books reinforce survival and seeking out well being. Very healthy. Although he married four times.
I thought it was interesting that his parents who were working class raised him with socialist bohemian values, they felt business was unethical exploiting and to be an exploited worker wasn't shrewd. So they produced offspring who were artistic and self reliant. And Steig advised his own three children never to take a nine to five job.
Here is Steig talking about summer in Publishers Weekly:
The summer is not a time for art activity or anything related. The summer is for lemonade, flowers, walking barefoot by the ocean, lying on lawns, deck chairs, on hammocks, on porches, listening to birds and crickets and bull-frogs.
From his 1970 Caldecott Award Acceptance Speech for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
I am well aware not only of the importance of children -- whom we naturally cherish and who we also embody our hopes for the future -- but also of the importance of what we provide for them in the way of art; and I realize that we are competing with a lot of other cultural influences, some of which beguile them in false directions.
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.