10.05.2012

Abel's Island by William Steig 128pp RL3



The Newbery Honor Award winning Abel's Island by William Steig is one of my top 10 favorite children's books. It is philosophical, thoughtful and humanistic (even though the main character is a mouse) and all in such an elegantly simple way, making it a story that can be read over and over, by children of all ages, with something different to be gleaned each time. If you don't know the picture books of William Steig, including the Caldecott winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, you can find a brief overview of his fantastic body of work after my review of Abel's Island. I think I can safely say that there is not another picture book author out there, present or past, who uses the rich vocabulary that Steig employs in his books. And, Steig achieves the infinitely rare feat of writing books that never talk down to children and are consistently appealing to adults and children alike. I never tire of reading his picture books, no matter how many times and I hope you will consider exploring them as well. On last note, while there are color illustrations from the book in this review, the actual illustrations inside the book are not in color.



Abelard Hassam di Chirico Flint (Steig always comes up with the most amazing names for his characters) is a well-to-do mouse out on a picnic with his beautiful new wife, Amanda. As the weather turns foul, Abel makes a rash decision that leaves him stranded on an island, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The book follows Abel through the seasons as he learns to feed and shelter himself as well as entertain and enrich himself. Abel is hunted by an owl and, after hiding in fear for days finds a way to reclaim his sense of self and the island that he is making his home. When Abel finds an enormous pocket watch and a book that belonged to large creatures, he hopes this means that these civilized creatures might return to the island. The watch means nothing to him, but Abel begins reading the book, standing on it to do so. Delighting in his discovery, Abel is swept up by the story Sons and Daughters, which begins with a masquerade ball and proves to be the epic tale of a family of bears. In Chapter XIX of the book, a war has broken out between bears. Steig writes,

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.

Somehow, I imagine the bears as being Russian and Abel reading the anthropomorphised bear version of a Tolstoy novel. I love that Steig thinks highly enough of the intellects of children to include something like this in his book. Abel also meets a slow moving and slow thinking frog, Gower Glacken, whom he hopes will help him off the island, despite his problem remembering things. Abel's time on the island gives him a new understanding of the world he has been separated from and, confronted with the daily challenge of a solitary and sometimes hostile environment Abel is moved to reexamine the easy life he had and learn new skills and talents that hold the promise of a more meaningful life - if he ever returns to Amanda again.

There is quite a bit of introspection and and evolution in the character of Abel in this brief book and the chance that it might be lost on children who read this book on their own. For that reason, I highly recommend this as a read aloud. While introspective, Abel's Island is also filled with adventure and action and is sure to hold a listener's attention. For more information about William Steig's cannon of magnificent picture books check out my article The Importance of Picture Books.














Steig's other children's novels include Dominic and The Real Thief.
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Probably one of the best read-out-loud books ever, Pete's a Pizza is the story of how, when Pete can't go out to play on a rainy day his parents pretend to make him into a pizza. When Everybody Wore a Hat is told from a child's perspective and examies what life was like growing up in New York City in the early 1900's. A sort of memoir for Steig, who was born in 1907 and spent his life there. Grown-ups Get to Do All the Driving is a very funny look, from a child's perspective, at the absurdities of adulthood.
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Many of Steig's picture books are centered around a journey and exploration of the self or trial that brings the protagonist back home to the waiting, loving arms of his or her family.

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Steig also has a strong command of the magical in his picture books. Talking bones, husbands who turn into dogs, the ability to turn from a rabbit to a rusty nail and a potion that shrinks a boy to the size of a toy all make up plots of some of his magnificent stories.

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Steig is a master at stories where one creature helps another overcome a sticky situation, or worse. Amos & Boris is sort of an "Ant and the Elephant" story told with a whale and a mouse.
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Did you know that William Steig wrote the picture book that became the movie Shrek? While they both share a rude, foul, disgusting ogre, a talking donkey and a princess, the similarities end there...
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Sadly, these books by Stieg are out of print. As a sulky child, I definitely related to Spinky Sulks in which a boy becomes irrationally upset and can't give it up for anything, even crullers and clowns.
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2 comments:

Karen Dunham said...

We all love William Steig in our family. I hadn't thought of reading Abel's Island aloud, but I will now. Karen

kaida said...

Our family has loved William Steig for years, it's nice to see him mentioned.