I do love me some William Steig.
One of my very favorite books as a child was Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Sylvester finds himself in the possession of a magic pebble – it’s drawn as a perfectly round, red stone, and when Sylvester is touching it his wishes come true. It is nearly impossible as a child to read about such a pebble without thinking about all of the wondrous possibilities that might unfold with that little red stone. Sylvester toys a bit with his day, the weather… but then he finds himself in a dangerous predicament and, in a flustered moment of panic, he wishes to become a rock to avoid being noticed (or worse, eaten) by a passing lion.
The problem with this wish is that (as a rock) he can no longer hold the magic pebble to wish himself back to Sylvester again. Time goes by and he berates himself for his hastiness. He could have wished the lion away, he could have wished himself back home with his family. But turning himself into a rock? He’s trapped, and he has to watch the seasons (and his poor, distraught parents) go by. I can remember a childhood full of books of lost children – there are so many of them – but I don’t recall another story where the lost child isn’t wandering, and where you see the joy and the light sucked right out of his parents’ very existence when the center of their universe is gone and they have no answers.
Steig doesn’t shy away from this pain and despair, even in a children’s book. I can never read this book to my children without them snuggling in tighter, closer to me, and I always catch my breath a bit when I watch those poor parents trying to go outside once again after seasons and seasons of grief. (Thank goodness they do – what an ending!)
This is why I love books, and why we read them like crazy in our house. Because three year old’s can name dolls after plucky heroines and start to recognize traits of bravery, intuitiveness, compassion and silliness – and know when to pull those traits out to meet the challenges that life is sure to throw our way.