WILLIAM STEIG, WHO IS 72, did not attempt his first children's book until relatively late in his career, after having worked nearly 50 years as one of The New Yorker's leading cartoonists. But children were always an important subject for his comic drawings. The frustrations of his "small fry," his streetwise brats, anticiapted the anxieties of Charlie Brown and of Max who visited the Wild Things. In his 1953 adult book, Dreams of Glory and Other Drawings, Steig explained that to him children were "the bearers of the makings of a beautiful human destiny -- another tide of life flowing against the wall of social stupidity." So his transition to children's books was relatively easy.
Q. You grew up in a household of artists?
A. Yes, right, people who wrote or played instruments.
Q. You've said that your parents did not approve when you brother said he wanted to become a dentist.
A. Yes, they disapproved if they found out anyone was becoming anything but an artist because the other choices were professions -- like lawyer, dentist or business, you know, or manual labor.
Q. Your parents were socialists. You mentioned that they felt being an artist was the only work that one could do and still feel clean.
A. Yeah, right -- no! Work is clean, ditch-digging is clean, but it's not so much fun. Now I love physical work. I love the summertime when I can work around the place [in Connecticut], cut grass, work in the garden . . . .
Q. Did you study painting?
A. I went to art school, because I was given my choice either to get to work or go to school. and I hated college, so I chose art school. What I had in mind at the time was to go to sea when I got the chance -- at least for a while. But my father went broke in the crash of '29. My two older brothers were married, and my younger brother was about 16, and so it devolved on me to find some way to support my family.
Q. And the cartooning came naturally?
A. Well, I had setteled on cartooning, because I had done some on the high school paper -- just fooling around. But I never thought of myself as being a cartoonist. It was a way to make some money.
Q. What was your first New Yorker cartoon?
A. June 1930 -- What was it? It showed two guys in prison and one was complaining that his kid was incorrigible and that he couldn't keep him in line.
Q. What books did you read as a child? Robinson Crusoe ?
A. That was one of my favorite books in childhood. I read Howard Pyle's Robin Hood and all the King Arthur stories -- it was great stuff. They're not so popular now, are they? They were big stuff in my childhood . . . Pinocchio was good; that was one of my favorites. The comic strips were a big thing in my childhood. There were the Katzenjammer Kids and Happy Hooligan, Mutt and Jeff, Buster Brown. I loved that kind of stuff -- especially on Sunday, in color. But we didn't have comic books. They came out later.
Q. Many of your early cartoons, and collections such as Small Fry and Dreams of Glory , deal with child psychology --
A. I wasn't aware of it. I was just making drawings, you know. But I have done drawings that are psychological, like my symbolic drawings.
Q. Did you study kids?
A. I was a child. And I remember my childhood.
Q. Why did you decide to do children's books?
A. Because Robert Kraus [founder and publisher of Windmill Books], who was a colleague of mine, said "Steig, do you want to make some easy money?" And I said, "No -- WHAT? how?" He said, "The government is giving a lot of money to libraries to buy children's books, and I'm going to become a publisher, and I'd like you to do a book for me." So I said, "Fine." It was marvelous for me, because I had been doing advertising and I had as many as four households at one time to support: ex-wives, and parents. I always felt rotten about advertising, because I felt if a guy's an artist he should be a good example for society and not do that kind of stuff. So I was happy to try something new.
Q. You were nearly 60 years old when your first children's book came out. Did you feel at all intimidated by beginning a new profession so late in life? d
A. No, no, why should I have felt at all intimidated? I felt I could do one -- I think everybody thinks he can write a book for kids, no? It didn't seem like it ought to be a hard thing. It wasn't, either.
Q. Did you find an important difference between cartooning and illustrating?
A. Yes, a very important distinction: one I feel free and creative in, the other I feel is a chore. In cartooning I just sit down and draw, and if it's no good, I tear it up, and, you know, start again. I draw whatever wants to get drawn. But in illustrating, I feel hemmed in by all these considerations: of space, telling the story, repeating the character, remembering what time of year it is, and making the costume always the right color -- all those things. So it doesn't seem to me like being an artist but like hack work.
I can't stand constraint. I can't stand not having fun at what I'm doing, because I went through all that with advertising, which I hated. I used to get cramps, muscular cramps, from the feeling of resentment of what I went through.
The writing is fun. I really enjoy that. I think writing's a good career. If you write, you discover things about yourself in the process of writing.
Q. How do you begin?
A. I'm ashamed to tell you how I begin. I begin in a very inartistic way. I begin by deciding it's time to write a book. And then I think about what animal I will use this time. It's just as mechanical as that. It takes a while before things start happening. I can't truly say that I am ever inspired to write a book. It's the last thing in the world I think of until I have to do it. And then I count, you know, on my imagination; to make things happen.
Q. Why do your picture books seem so loose and free?
A. That's because I try to do them as quickly as possible. I make a dummy in half-an-hour, or an hour, or something. But what I do in a dummy is essentially what I do when I paint: I look at the dummy, and I do the same, but more carefully. I feel impatient; I want to get it out of the way.
I always have to force myself to do this. I like coloring -- once I have got it started. I use an assembly-line system. I do all the ink first, and then I do all the shirts the same color, the same pattern -- that's why I don't feel it's so hard. I mix a batch of color in order for it to be the same always. I have to mix it all at once, because I can't remember how I mixed it before.
Q. Have you ever considered illustrating a story by someone other than yourself?
A. No! Perish the thought! I've never been asked to, but no, I can hardly illustrate my own, so why would I do somebody else's?
Q. One of your first children's books, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble , won the Caldecott Award for the most distinguished picture book of the year. That must have pleased you.
A. Sure, not because it was an honor book, but because it paid off. Sure, if you get a Caldecott you become important. It sold well before that, actually -- it was doing very well. The kids cottoned to it right away. tThere was some trouble about it. You know the trouble about it?
Q. Adults objected to the use of pigs in depicting the policemen? Were you referring to anything political?
A. No! Of course not! Only an idiot would do something like that, bother kids with that kind of stuff.
Q. Any particular reason why you really use animals as your characters?
A. I choose animals because it's easier to -- I'll give you a couple of reasons. One reason I choose animals is because using an animal emphasizes the fact that what you are doing is of a symbolic nature. The other reason is that it's easier to repeat an animal that it is to repeat a human being. I have only one way of drawing a pig, one way of drawing a mouse, so there's no problem in repeating. But a human being, I have to remember how he looks each time.
Q. Each of your stories seems to be a study in ethics. For example, The Real Thief concerns a palace guard, a duck, who is wrongly accused of stealing from the royal treasury.
A. The Real Thief is the only time I ever dealt with an idea consciously. I said, "Kids are often treated unjustly. Let's show someone who's been treated unjustly. Let's show someone who's been treated unjustly, and where the people who've treated him unjustly recognize that they've done so" I said, "This would be very gratifying to a kid."
Q. Your stories tend to be concerned with love, affection, friendship. They seem to be the only eternals in your work.
A. I'm glad to hear that. I think when you fall in love with somebody it's for something like the sound of their voice. You fall in love with little things, a whole bunch of little things.
Selma Lanes (the critic) said -- I forget how she put it -- that I sound as if life were worth living, something like that. Well, if it could be better than it is . . . I was born in a much better time than this. I was born before the First World War. Ever since the First World War, things have been so rotten. So I think I remember a better world.
Q. Your children's books are touched with hope, your adult work with despair. Is it possible that you agree with Dickens that adults are merely failed children?
A. Failed children? Yeah, yeah, that's true. You mean that they haven't lived up to their promise? Sure, that's certainly true. I think really that we are capable of having a beautiful world, and that people are capable of doing whatever they do much better than they do it. The problem seems to be that everybody is a little whacky. But I don't think it's a natural state. Something's happened in history to get people this way. It's been going on for thousands of years.
Q. One of the most touching chapters of Abel's Island describes the awakening of the mouse's faith. Are you religious?
A. Not in any conventional sense. I am religious in the sense that I recognize that something's going on out there that we don't understand.
Q. Do you laugh a lot?
A. I think you laugh less when you get older. I used to get the giggles in public. I couldn't attend a lecture, because I would break up and embarrass myself. I couldn't attend weddings. I couldn't attend any solemn occasion.
Q. Where do you get your names, such as Witch Yedida of Caleb and Kate ?
A. Yedida is the name of a niece of my wife's who lives in Israel, and she said, "Would you put my name in a book?" And I said, "What do you want to be?" And she said, "I want to be a witch."
Q. You were born and raised in New York and now you live in Connecticut, where all your children's books were done.
A. But I work best in the city. In the country I don't feel like working. In the country, I feel like sitting by the fireplace, or raking the lawn, or taking a ride and looking in antique shops, you know, stuff like that -- doing the crossword puzzles, watching the birds at the feeder, that kind of stuff. I hate, I really hate, to work. But I don't work very hard. I worked hard for a long time, for about 50 years, and now I like to enjoy myself. SOME WILLIAM STEIG BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS Abel's Island. Farrar, Straus, Giroux; Paperback, Bantam. (Ages 6-up) The Amazing Bone. Farrar, Straus, Giroux; Paperback, Penguin, Penguin/Puffin. (Ages 3-up) Amos & Boris. Farrar, Straus, Giroux; Paperback, Penguin/Puffin. (Ages 3-up) CDB! Simon & Schuster; Paperback, Windmill. (Ages 6-10) Caleb & Kate. Farrar, Straus, Giroux. (Ages 3-up) Dominic. Farrar, Straus, Giroux. (Ages 7-up) Farmer Palmer's Wagon Ride. Farrar, Straus, Giroux; Paperback, Penguin/Puffin. (Ages 3-up) The Real Thief. Farrar, Straus, Giroux. (Ages 4-up) Roland the Minstrel Pig. Harper & Row; Paperback, Windmill (Ages 6-10) Sylvester & the Magic Pebble. Simon & Schuster; Paperback Windmill (Ages 6-10) Tiffky Doofky. Farrar, Straus, Giroux. (Ages 6-10) Forthcoming: Gorky Rises. Farrar, Straus, Giroux. (Ages 3-up)