Amos & Boris

 

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Amos & Boris by William Steig

1971

Illustrated by William Steig

For seven decades, William Steig was instrumental in defining the visual landscape of The New Yorker. At the age of 23, during the Depression, he sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker for $40. By the time of his death at 96, he had contributed over 1,600 cartoons and 200 covers to the magazine. At an age when most people are winding down, he launched his second career. He was around 60 when he published his first children’s book. His fortieth was published several months before his death. For productive longevity, he was unparalleled. He was also unmatched for his combined brilliance as an illustrator and writer.

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The most lyrical and poetic of his books is Amos & Boris, an ode to the transcendent friendship between a mouse and a whale. Amos, enterprising and adventurous, builds a boat and takes to the sea (fulfilling a boyhood longing that Steig harbored). One night, feeling at one with the universe, he rolls off his boat and it goes sailing on without him. After a night of loneliness and despair, alone in the vast ocean, he is rescued by Boris, and in their ensuing week together, an abiding friendship grows. Years later, Boris is beached during a violent storm and Amos is able to effect his rescue in turn.

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In this book, as in many of his, Steig quietly alludes to the ineffable questions that perplex us all. What are we doing here? What is it all about? What is our role in the scheme of things? And in Amos’s case, would there be other mice in heaven? Steig’s worldview is not angst-ridden, far from it. His tonal palette is playful, humorous, life-affirming, passionate and mysterious. His answers revolve around friendship, love, and family.

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Steig’s illustrations, supple India ink lines and watercolor washes, were created with a childlike spontaneity and pleasure. His prose is startling in its complexity, elegance, and sheer joy. Steig delighted in word play (“’Pheasant, peasant? What a pleasant present!’”) and archaic vocabulary (“churlish knave”, “fusty fens”). He had a precise verbal eye, as when Boris is rolled “breaded with sand” into the sea or when Amos listens to the surf sounds, “the bursting breakers, the backwashes with rolling pebbles”. Who else has ever written like this for children?

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Aside: “One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all. Overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of everything, he rolled over and over and right off the deck of his boat and into the sea.”

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gorky rises

Gorky Rises

Gorky Rises by William Steig

1980

Illustrated by William Steig

The story begins with Gorky, a green frog, concocting a magic potion at the kitchen sink.  After decanting it into a glass-stoppered bottle, he says an incantation (“Auga-looga, onga-ouga”), communes with nature, and falls asleep in a meadow.  “Whatever had kept him fastened to the earth let go its hold, and Gorky’s slumbering body rose in the air, like a bubble rising in water, and moved off in an easterly direction.”  Floating high above the earth, he encounters two fearsome kites, a hot air balloon, migrating geese, a lightning storm.  He performs aerial acrobatics for the earthbound creatures who gawk up at him in amazement.  “What the doodad was keeping him up there?” they wonder.  Night falls and he ponders the imponderables, realizes his loneliness.  As dawn breaks, he pours out his potion drop by drop and descends jerkily to earth.  His distraught parents are overjoyed to see him again.gorky rises

William Steig was intrigued by transformation and by journeys of self-discovery, and it should come as no surprise that Pinocchio was his favorite children’s book.  In Steig’s Caldecott Medal winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a young donkey is transformed by a magic red pebble into a boulder.  He is locked in his isolation, through the changing of the seasons, until he is able to undo the charm.  The book ends, as most Steig books do, with a joyous reunion with family.  In Abel’s Island, a beautifully crafted chapter book, a newlywed mouse is separated from his beloved Amanda by a freak storm which deposits him upon an island.  He spends a year in solitude, devising methods of escape, battling his nemesis – the resident owl, and discovering his talent as a sculptor.

Steig grew up in a tenement neighborhood in the Bronx, son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, in a household bubbling with creative intent.  His parents, a housepainter and a seamstress, were Socialists and their politics gave him a sympathy for the underdog that never faded.  His art and his children’s books portray his belief in the fundamental goodness of people along with a kind of pragmatic optimism.  His characters are free spirits who approach the world with an innocent sense of wonder and a delight in the strangeness of it all.  They marvel at the beauty of the universe, whether it be Gorky reveling in the scent of roses or Shrek infatuated with his stunningly ugly princess.

Steig was a patient and disciple of Wilhelm Reich, the radical Austrian psychoanalyst whose practice revolved around orgone, the universal energy source.  Viewed by some as a visionary and by others as a charlatan, Reich ultimately died in a penitentiary on a charge involving interstate commerce of his orgone energy accumulators.  Steig never lost his belief, and he spent a daily half hour in his orgone box for fifty some years.  If this contributed to the unique sophistication, beauty, and joy of his books, it was time well spent.