William Steig – Author Study and Focus Mini-lesson by Suzette Erninger

William Steig

 William Steig was born to Polish–Jewish immigrants Joseph and Laura Ebel Steig in Brooklyn on November 14, 1907. Born into a creative family with a love for the fine arts, Steig unsurprisingly became an artist himself.  He received his first art lessons from his older brother, Irwin, who was a professional artist. Steig continued his artistic pursuits and would later spend his high school years creating cartoons for the high school newspaper. After graduating from high school, Steig spent two years at City College, three years at the National Academy, and five days at the Yale School of Fine Arts before dropping out.

During the Depression, Steig had to support his family as his father went broke. Due to his older brothers being married and his younger brother being only seventeen, it was up to Steig to bear the burden. Since his talent lay in drawing, Steig began selling his pictures and cartoons around New York City. He eventually became one of the main cartoonists for the magazine The New Yorker, where he spent seven decades as a cartoonist. His artistic talents were not just limited to drawings. He also became famous for carving wood figurines, working in advertising and creating the idea of the contemporary greeting card.

Later in his life as he entered his 60’s, a fellow cartoonist at The New Yorker asked Steig, to write a children’s book, which became the letter-puzzle book entitled C D B!, published in 1968. Steig then turned to writing and illustrating children’s books, publishing more than 25. His books often featured animals as heroes and the characters of his stories as he felt that it allowed him more freedom as a writer, as well as the idea that children would be amused at seeing animals act like humans.  Honors include the Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1970), a Caledecott Honor for The Amazing Bone, National Book Award finalist for Amos & Boris, Newberry Honor for Abel’s Island and Doctor Se Soto. His books have also received the Christopher Award, the Irma Simonton Black Award, the William Allen White Children’s Book Award and the American Book Award.  He also received European awards: the Premio di Letteratur per l’infanzia (Italy), the Silver Pencil Award (Netherlands), and the Prix de la Fondation de France.  Furthermore, Steig was selected as the U.S. candidate for the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Illustration (1982) and the U.S. candidate for Writing based on his entire body of work.


References for Biography

“William Steig.” (n.d.) Retrieved March 30, 2017, from


Frick, L. (2004). William Steig Biography. In Encyclopedia of World Biography. Retrieved

March 30, 2017, from http://www.notablebiographies.com/newsmakers2/2004-Q-Z/Steig-William.html.


Books read for the author study:

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble







Doctor De Soto                                                             

Tiffky Doofky       







Brave Irene

The Toy Brother.jpg


Some literary moves/strategies that Steig uses in his works are: playful word inventions, expressive italics, snapshot lists, the elaborative semi-colon and hyphen/dash, and asking a question.

  • Playful Word Inventions

Steig was quite adept with his use of language. His works show a creativity with words that I think children really appreciate, as Steig plays with the sound of words and new ways to say words.  I would incorporate this in my writing to help show my students the fun one can have with language and its generative nature.

From Sylvester and the Magic Pebble:

He had no voice. He was stone-dumb.

From Doctor De Soto:

All he could do was say, “Frank oo berry mush” through his clenched teeth, and get up and leave.

From Tiffky Doofky:

Tiffky Doofky’s name: Tiffky Doofky

 “Are we anywhere near Nocknagel Road, town of Popville?” “Never heard of either,” said the cat. “Then I’m loster than I thought I was,” said Tiffkey.

 He waited a few moments, then, “Oom, ba-ba-loom, he said, “your truck is on the far side of that ridge.”

 “At the dump when I was ungoading the larbage today,” Tiffky heard himself say. His mind had stopped working. He was entranced.

 From Shrek:

Otchky-potchky, itchky-pitch,

Pay attention to this witch.

From Toy Brother:

He hoped that now, at last, they would get to be palsy-walsy, perhaps even do some chicken chasing together.

 But when I tasted it, za-zing!

 “Brotherkins,” Charles said, “it’s dinnertime!”

 He fed the mixture to Yorick, reciting these words: “Orknis-borknis, foofle-kerdoofle, kefiffle-kefoffle-kefraffle-kafroom.”

 From Brave Irene:

Irene pushed forward with all her strength and – sloosh! thwump! – she plunged downwards and was buried.


  • Expressive Italics (the author’s use of italics is bolded in the italicized quotes)

It is interesting how Steig italicizes some of the words of his characters to draw attention and emphasize the way a characters feels or thinks. I might use italics a little differently in my writing. Perhaps I might use it to show when a character is thinking to him/herself. It would still draw attention to the words and still emphasize a thought or feeling, but reserved for more of a monologue.

From Doctor De Soto:

I beg you, do something! My tooth is killing me.”

No one will see you again,” said the fox to himself.”

 From Tiffky Doofky:

And he vanished before Tiffky’s astounded eyes.

 From Toy Brother:

One night Yorick shook his brother awake and said, “What if I never get big again?”

 From Brave Irene:

“It is nice,” her mother admitted.

“But I love snow,” Irene insisted.

The gown had to get to the duchess!

Irene pushed forward with all her strength and – sloosh! thwump! – she plunged downwards and was buried.

 Why not freeze to death [] And never see her mother’s face again?

 Her dear mother’s hard work, all those days of measuring, cutting, pinning, stitching…for this?

 You’ve spoiled everything! Everything!


  • Snapshot Lists

Steig uses lists to give the reader a quick snapshot of a setting or to capture a general feeling in a scene or setting. Similarly, I would use lists in my writing to create a quick snapshot of a setting without going into too much detail about each item.  The idea is for the items add to the overall picture or background of a scenario or setting.

From Sylvester and the Magic Pebble:

The drops vanished on the way down, the clouds disappeared, everything was dry, and the sun was shining as if rain had never existed.

 But when he said the same thing holding the pebble in his hoof, the sky turned black, there was lightning and a clap of thunder, and the rain came shooting down.

 They talked to all the children – the puppies, the kittens, the colts, the piglets.

 They sniffed behind every rock and tree and blade of grass, into every nook and gully of the neighborhood and beyond, but found not a scent of him.

 Mr. Duncan walked aimlessly about while Mrs. Duncan set out the picnic food on the rock – alfalfa sandwiches, pickled oats, sassafras salad, timothy compote.

 You can imagine the scene that followed – the embraces, the kisses, the questions, the answers, the loving looks, and the fond exclamations!

From Doctor De Soto:

Those close to his own size – moles, chipmunks, et cetera – sat in the regular dentist’s chair.

From Tiffky Doofky:

He had already collected a truckload of stuff: muck, slops, dirt, rags, cinders, corncobs, bones, bottles, cans, paper, fur and feathers from the barbershop, all sorts of junk and gimcracks, and the rubbish from the carnival that had just come to town.

 The furniture in his home, the bed he slept on, the dishes he ate from, his footstool, his lamp, his umbrella, the pictures on the walls, all came out of the garbage.

 Some cows ambled by, nodding, chewing and mooing.

 From Toy Brother:

Eutilda Bede cheerfully started making tiny clothes for her tiny son, a tiny bed with a tiny bedspread, a tiny chair with a cute little cushion.

 They hugged and kissed, wept, laughed, sang, yodeled, then raced around like a bunch of maniacs.

 From Brave Irene:

Now the wind drove Irene along so rudely she had to hop, skip, and go helter-skeltering over the knobby ground.

It ripped branches from the trees and flung them about, swept up and scattered the fallen snow, got in front of Irene to keep her from moving ahead.

 Her dear mother’s hard work, all those days of measuring, cutting, pinning, stitching…for this?


  • The Elaborative Semi-colon and Hyphen/Dash

The semi-colon is not an oft-used punctuation, and especially not in children’s picture books. Steig uses the semi-colon in a few of his works as shown below.  As in Steig’s examples, I would use hyphens and semi-colons to set off a fragment or sentence which provides further explanation or elaboration of the preceding words or sentence.

From Doctor De Soto:

Doctor De Soto was especially popular with the big animals. He was able to work inside their mouths, wearing rubbers to keep his feet dry; and his fingers were so delicate, and his drill so dainty, they could hardly feel any pain.

 From Tiffky Doofky:

He was already dreaming of his love-to-be; she put him in mind of rosebuds, dewdrops, starlight, chocolate pudding.

The clothes he wore came out of the garbage – a patch here, a stitch there, and he was even a bit of a dude, with arm garters and spats in season.

 He was not worried about what he would say; the right words always came when he needed them.

 From Brave Irene:

Then she asked to be taken right back to her sick mother. But it was out of the question, they said; the road that ran around the mountain wouldn’t be cleared till morning.


  • Ask a Question

Steig often incorporates questions into his writing. It gives the reader a feeling of inclusion as we get a glimpse of a character’s inner thoughts, as well as being engaged as if the question was being directly asked of the reader.  I would also use the same technique in my writing, especially when I want the readers to simulate what the character is feeling. Additionally, a question can create suspense in the story as the reader pauses and reflects on the situation.

From Sylvester and the Magic Pebble:

Some day they might want to use it, but really, for now, what more could they wish for?

From Brave Irene:

How could anything so terribly wrong be allowed to happen?

From Shrek:

He was wondering if he’d ever meet his princess, when he saw a donkey grazing. Was this the donkey the witch had foretold?

From Toy Brother:

Yes, it was rotten to be thinking this way, but how could he tell his brains how to operate?


Works Cited

Steig, W. (2004). Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Steig, W. (2007). Doctor De Soto. New York: Macmillan Young listeners.

Steig, W. (2014). Tiffky Doofky. New York: Square Fish.

Steig, W. (2012). Shrek! London: Particular Books.

Steig, W. (1994). Brave Irene. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Steig, W. (2016). The Toy Brother. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.



Focus Mini-Lesson on Steig’s Literary Craft “Ask a Question”



“Boys and girls, today we are going to put ourselves in the writer’s shoes to see why a writer might write something in a certain way. We are going to use the books we have been reading by William Steig and look at what he does in his writing to make his stories interesting for the readers. Now, there are many different tools a writer can choose from to make a story interesting, but for today we are going to focus on just one of those tools.

So, yesterday we were talking about William Steig’s book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.  Today, we are going to take a closer look at the story and how Steig wrote the story. Let’s take a look at this…”


His thoughts began to race like mad. He was scared and worried. Being helpless, he felt hopeless. He imagined all the possibilities, and eventually he realized that his only chance of becoming himself again was for someone to find the red pebble and to wish that the rock next to it would be a donkey. Someone would surely find the red pebble – it was so bright and shiny – but what on earth would make them wish that a rock were a donkey? The chance was one in a billion at best.


“In this part of the story, we read how panicked Sylvester gets now that he has been turned into a rock. We see there is a question being asked here. When I read the question, I get the feeling of how panicked Sylvester might feel as he asks himself this question. Like I am in his mind thinking these thoughts. Also, it makes me feel like I want to find out what will happen next. So, I think that Steig puts the question here for a couple reasons: 1) we get to feel what the character is feeling, and 2) to create suspense by making us stop and think about the situation and what might happen next.”

Teaching Point:

“I would call this tool or writing strategy simply…Ask a Question. Some authors like to pose questions in their stories for various reasons.

– It might be to make the readers reflect by making them pause in the story to think about the question and situation.

– Maybe the question might make readers anticipate what might come next or make them wonder how the story could be resolved as it builds suspense.

– Sometimes, when I read a question, I might think about the character that is asking the question and what that character might possibly be feeling when he or she are asking a question. And when I do this pausing and thinking, it makes me feel more included in the story. I’m not just reading the story any more. It’s almost as if I am having a conversation with the character. This is a way for an author to engage the reader, to make them feel more part of the story they are reading.”


“Okay, now let’s take a look at another book we read by William Steig: Tiffky Doofky. In this part of the story, Tiffky experiences some magical events…”

And he [the lunatic] vanished before Tiffky’s astounded eyes. The cliff, the whole scene, melted and was gone, and Tiffky was back on Nocknagel Rod! (How the devil did this happen?…)

 “Here, Tiffky is asking how this could have happened, much as we would probably ask ourselves if the same thing happened to us.  We would also feel very shocked like Tiffky.

 “We’ve read another author who sometimes poses questions in his stories – Jon Scieszka.  Let’s take a look at how Jon Scieszka poses a question in the story The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs…”

So, I (the wolf) walked down the street to ask my neighbor for a cup of sugar.

Now this neighbor was a pig.

And he wasn’t too bright, either.

He had built his whole house out of straw.

Can you believe it? I mean who in his right mind would build a house of straw?

“Here, in Scieszka’s story, the wolf asks the reader the question directly like in a conversation and we, as the reader, understand how ridiculous the wolf thinks the pig is for building the house made of straw.


Guided Practice:

(The students would use their tablets that they use for their writing assignments and journals. I would ask them to upload the short sample paragraph written by a former student about a time the student was really scared but everything worked out fine.)

“So, working with the person sitting across from you, take a look at the sample paragraph and think and imagine what questions might be running through the character’s mind. Talk about the questions you might ask.  After you have inserted your question in your paragraph, take turns reading it aloud to your partner and see if it makes sense. Ask each other: Does it make the paragraph more interesting? Does it feel like the person telling the story is asking you the question directly? Does it make you pause and think?”

 (I would go around to each group and listen to their discussions to see if they understood the craft and if they understood how to apply it.  After about 5 minutes, I would bring the class together to share the question their groups came up with and where they decided to insert this question.)


“Now, I would like you all to upload your own paragraph you were writing about a time you were scared and see where in your paragraph you could possibly include a question to make it more interesting.  When you have inserted your question, come to my desk so we can take a look at your paragraph together.”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s