Picture Book Review - William Steig- Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
By Ty Hulse
In Children's Literature their are few illustrators so skilled at creating picture books that impact adult emotions as William Steig. His book "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble" is a book that is will loved by children, as a fun and fascinating tale, and it is this. For many parents however it is an emotionally heart wrenching story, a year lost that can never be regained. This is what is meant when it is said that children's books at least high quality ones can speak to both parents and children.
In this book Sylvester lives with his mother and father, in a closed and tight picture, with warm pink backdrop. Sylvester in the first scene is looking at a rock collection. This opens us up for the transition to him searching for rocks, and finding a flaming red shiny, and perfectly round rock. The pebble as it turns out is magical giving him whatever he wishes for. Within the realm of literature wishes are dangerous things, for what we want or what we do by accident in such situations is the catalyst for many problems. And so it is that Sylvester later confronted by a lion wishes he where a rock, so that the lion would not get him.
Now Sylvester is left alone as a giant rock, with his pebble sitting but inches from him, in a giant double spread picture. One can see how lonely Sylvester is in this picture, though not cold it is wide open. Most artists would have drawn this picture as cold, Steig however needs to keep the picture somewhat bright for the story and his keeping the initial pictures fairly warm shows his genius for foreshadowing with pictures, for this scene is what will prompt Sylvester's parents to stop here a year later.
In the home Mr. and Mrs. Duncan are seen to stair out the window as parents would when their young child did not come home, they are crying. They do not know what has happened but they know it is bad. Their heartache can and should be used to explain why people who love each other tell each other where they will be. For their search is futile, as is the search of all their neighbors. Steig is careful not to show Sylvester's location, for they did not know where he was. Of course being a rock he is not findable, or one would presume.
For within a year the parents go off to eat in the beautiful scene where Sylvester was transformed, and it is here that they find the pebble and put it on the rock, for this rock being beautiful reminds them of their son. Allowing Sylvester to transform and once again sit on his parents laps at home.
This book is one of the better picture books and is a perhaps a must read for children, I will however note two things. For the feminist critics one can see in the opening picture that while the mother is sweeping the father is reading a paper. One can overcome the problems such pictures might present by making a note of this, as perhaps the father started and the mother finished. Remember children's books are read to children by parents often times, at least in the case of picture books such as this. Parents therefore have a certain amount of control over the message they give.
Equally worthy of note is the lack of tears in the father's eyes, for as Sylvester's mother cries at the loss of her son he stands sadly. Should the loss be any less painful for him? It is a sad factor that while most of the attention has gone to women's rolls and feelings in literature, the portrayal of men has often been ignored. The father should be just as sad, just as able to express this sorrow, but he is not.
Ty Hulse has degree's in art and psychology with both with a children's and a cross-cultural focus. He is currently working to create the site http://www.zeluna.netwhich discusses Children's Literature and Picture Books, as will as Fairy Tales.
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