Undercurrents No.5: The Steig Connection

Because my wife works in children’s book publishing, it’s never a surprise to find children’s books piled around the apartment. But it was a surprise to find one titled Shrek! written by someone named William Steig.

I’d heard of the movie, of course, but I knew nothing about the book or its author. I later learned that the book came before the movie – more than 10 years before the movie, in fact – and, now that I’ve finally seen that fine film, I can also say that the book is far superior. The book rules the world. And William Steig? He’s the greatest writer in the history of children’s literature.

I am an audiophile, which means I exhibit certain tendencies that might be considered compulsive. I can purchase one, three, five, or even 11 records at a time, but never two or four or 12, for instance.

I am particular about the way my bookshelves look. I know when someone has moved a coaster or a vase by a half-inch. I build collections of things. I obsess over things. After reading the first glorious sentence of Shrek!, which goes, “His mother was ugly and his father was ugly, but Shrek was uglier than the two of them put together,” I knew I was in for it. I would have to learn everything I could possibly learn about this William Steig and then acquire as many of his books as possible.

A book that's better than the movie.

When Veronica was just a few months old, I read her all of Steig’s 128-page novel, Abel’s Island. We’d place her on her back atop a colorful play mat and I’d lie down beside her and read. I’d hold the book in the air above us and she’d look up at its pages and listen quietly, happily – behavior that struck me then as marks of sure genius. I sent proud, delirious text messages to my mom and sisters, cheering, “She just listened to me read for thirty minutes straight!” And though the memories of these special times together will always bring me immense joy, I now at least know that she listened closely and still because she pretty much couldn’t do anything else. She hadn’t yet learned to roll, or to clap her hands, or blow magnificent raspberries, or point and say “kitty cat!” It’ll probably be a while before we read any chapter books together again. For now, it’s chunky board books and any others (mostly of the pull-tab touch-and-feel pop-up variety) upon which she can freely slobber. 

Incidentally, at around the same time that we discovered William Steig, we also discovered a jazz musician whose name rang a shiny new bell: Jeremy Steig. I have TIDAL to thank for this. Because I had listened to (and liked) The Three Sounds’ Soul Symphony, TIDAL suspected that I would also enjoy a compilation of music called Howlin’ For Judy. As you might have guessed, I had never heard of Jeremy Steig or what I now know to be his most famous piece, the aforementioned “Howlin,’” but its psychedelic cover art was more than enough to get me to listen. Ten seconds into the title track, I realized that I was in fact very familiar with the flute riff that twists and turns throughout the song: It – not Steig, but the flute riff – had been made famous by the Beastie Boys. They sampled it liberally for their song “Sure Shot,” the opening track from their critically acclaimed 1994 album, Ill Communication, which was a pretty big part of my junior year in high school. 

Veronica almost never cries, but she does get more than a bit impatient in the time between lifting her from the bathtub and sticking the day’s last bottle in her mouth. Keeping her happily occupied during those five or 10 minutes is a fine balancing act that my wife, the cats, and I haven’t completely perfected. That which works today is almost sure to fail tomorrow. However, for an unprecedented stretch of three whole days, that opening flute riff did the trick better than anything else before or since. 

 As Veronica’s simmering impatience would threaten to soon boil over, I would launch into a vague rendition of “Howlin’ For Judy,” foolishly performing that familiar flute riff – with my mouth, without flute – to the best of my limited abilities. I don’t know how to type the sounds that Steig’s flute makes – it’s something sort of like “doo-doo-da-doo-toot dootle-dootle-do doo-doo-da-doo-toot dootle-dootle-do – but, if that’s mere nonsense to you, I guess you can imagine a sparrow zipping over and under power lines and through the highest branches of maple trees. Does that help? Now imagine me making that sound while jumping up and down like a monkey. Whatever it takes to stop the baby from crying, am I right?

Sleep deprived as I was, it took me the whole week to: 1. Even consider the possibility that William Steig might be somehow related to Jeremy Steig; and 2. Google it to discover that William was in fact Jeremy’s dad.

Now, as you might imagine, I was really excited. Our collection of William Steig books would have to be complemented by one of his son’s records. And so it was. 

If you’re a fan of children’s literature, or literature in general, I urge you to explore the work of William Steig. Interestingly, he didn’t begin publishing children’s books until 1968, when he was 61 years old – so you know he had something to say. (Before that, he was a cartoonist for The New Yorker.) Unlike so many children’s books that are fine for kids but a bore for adults, Steig’s are magic for all. Like his son’s flute, they are silly, wonderful music. You don’t read them as much as perform them. The words dance across the page and into your life. Children can grow with these books, their stories becoming increasingly meaningful and powerful over time. In addition to Shrek!, a few of my (I mean, our) favorites include Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Amos and Boris, Doctor De Soto, and, above all others, Rotten Island, which seems especially perfect for today’s world.

Meanwhile, I might’ve nudged Joe Harley to add Howlin’ For Judy to his Tone Poet Series of audiophile reissues for Blue Note Records, and he might’ve hinted that he has. We’ll see. If it comes to fruition, maybe I’ll get Joe to sign a copy for Veronica and me. For now, you can find a nice used copy on eBay (as I did) or, you know, stream it. 

JimDukey's picture

I used to have the Bill Evans/Jeremy Steig Album, which I loved.
I will see if I can find it on re-issue!
Jeremy had some kind of Mouth Problem that affected his Flute Emboucher,
giving him that unique sound.
He was a great Improviser.
I don't know whatever happened to him.
Thanks for reminding me of him!
Best, Jim Dukey- Oakland Ca

audx's picture

Well, Howlin' for Judy, perhaps too flutey, left me moody, well.

I was enjoying it and un-enjoying it usually in the same track.

I suppose one begins with shush and eventually makes it to STFU or it's anger equivalent. Whatever it takes to tame the children :)

Does audiophile equal compulsive? I would suggest that being audiophile is one way in which one could exercise a compulsion. So compulsive > audiophile.

peterdlederer's picture

First off, let me give you the name of another great writer of lovely children's books who started on that career fairly late in life, Gyo Fujikawa. Her path to that involved everything from early Disney cartoons to designing windows for Tiffany. She was a charming and classy lady.

As to Steig, if you haven't yet RUN -- do not walk -- to his work as a cartoonist!! For decades his little boys were one of the joys of The New Yorker magazine.