William Steig: Shrek & Co.

“For some reason, I’ve never felt grown up.”

Jerry Griswold

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“Shrek” (DreamWorks, 2001)

When asked his opinion about the movie based on his picture book Shrek, William Steig responded: “It’s vulgar, it’s disgusting — and I loved it.” Featuring Mike Meyer as the voice of the long suffering ogre, Eddie Murphy as the wisecracking Donkey, and Cameron Diaz as the feisty Princess Fiona, the movie may be the best children’s film ever (an opinion I share with my niece and nephews). Two sequels have followed as well as a Broadway musical. And even though the book seems sketchy compared to the film, what the film gets right is the spirit of William Steig: his clever and hilarious ways of playing with other children’s stories, a wittiness which makes Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” seem like a walk in the park.

Exhibit at the Jewish Museum of San Francisco.

The conventional story about William Steig is that he was a grown-up and for thirty years a famed cartoonist for adult readers of the New Yorker. Then, at the age of 60, he suddenly decided to become a writer for children. That was the view on offer at a recent exhibit of his work in the Spring of 2008 when the Jewish Museum in New York mounted a retrospective (“From the New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig”) that later traveled to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (where I saw it). But I don’t agree. I think he was a kid all his life. As Steig himself insisted:

“For some reason, I’ve never felt grown up.”

He died in 2003 at the age of 95, but even late in his life Steig had remarkably detailed memories of his Bronx childhood — the names of his boyhood friends, the games they played, the parkland locales of their forts, their favorite movies. Middle-aged in the 1950s, he made use of those memories in drawings for his “Small Fry” series where his pint-sized wiseguys pretended to be Edward G. Robinson, thugs, and G-men. His “Dreams of Glory” series featured the fantasies of a boy hero, a juvenile Walter Mitty: thwarting a bank robber, piloting a fighter jet, hitting a winning home run, starring on a television comedy, and so forth.

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Jerry Griswold

Writer/critic/professor/journalist: children’s literature, culture, film, travel. Seven books, 100's of essays in NY&LA Times.