William Steig

William Steig

(1907-2003)

DJ Name: Ol’ Billy Boi

Partly because Yom Kippur (the holiest day for Jewish people) is today, and partly because we just love a good cartoon, this week’s Shuffler is Jewish author and illustrator William Steig, whose name you might not recognize at first but we guarantee you you’re familiar with his work. Hint: one of his character’s lived in a swamp and befriended a donkey. 

Ol’ Billy Steig is in fact the man behind Shrek! as well as numerous children’s books and countless cartoons for The New Yorker. Because William Steig had a long and prosperous life, we’re not gonna spend any more time yammering on in an intro, but we will say that you will feel nostalgic because we sure did. It went a little something like this: 

Emmy: *reads Wikipedia page and looks at Google images* “Ok now that I’m actually reading about this guy and what he wrote/drew, I 100% had many many of his books growing up.” 

Camille: *reads Wikipedia page and looks at Google images* Omg I had tons of William’s books too *teary-eyed emoji*.”

Ol’ Billy Boi did have a certain favorite few songs that he shuffled up as he slipped his Beats By Dre over his ears and went to work with his number two pencil, which he allegedly compiled in this Spotify playlist:

William Steig was born on November 14, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in the Bronx (his fam wanted to move closer to the Yankees, we guess). His parents were Polish-Jewish socialist immigrants from Austria, and they instilled these socialist values in their children from an early age (we stan). His dad, Joseph, painted homes, and his mom, Laura, was a seamstress. Both encouraged their kids to pursue their artistic interests, rather than focus on any kind of career that would sell them out in the capitalistic system. “My parents didn’t want their sons to become laborers, because then we’d be exploited by businessmen,” William wrote in the Horn Book Magazine. “And they didn’t want us to become businessmen, because we’d exploit the laborers.” So from the art Will and his siblings did not part.

As he grew up, William took an interest in reading and painting, and was an especially big fan of Pablo Picasso, and thus his facial features became gradually cubist because that’s what happens when you pore over Picasso paintings for long periods of time, we think. William also took part in sports because yes, ladies, you can have a man who does both. He graduated from high school at 15, and was also a member of the All-American Water Polo team, so he decided to take his talents to college. However, the college life was not the life for Billiam. He spent just five days at the Yale School of Art, two years at City College of New York and three years at the National Academy of Design before the Great Depression depleted his family’s funds and he had to drop out. 

But college is dumb and unnecessary, although don’t tell student loans that, so William picked himself up and tried again. He said, “I will dust myself off and try again,” because he is in fact a big Aaliyah fan, and he put pen to paper and drew himself some funnies. And, funny that, he had a taste of success in 1930 when he sold his very first cartoon to the New Yorker. 

He then continued on this fruitful artist career, creating over 2,600 comics and 117 covers for the magazine (Emmy, being The New Yorker stan she is, usually just skips to the crossword section in the magazine, so she has no idea what the covers usually look like, but whatever). One of the characters he created for his comics, Poor Pitiful Pearl, even got her own spinoff and she was adapted into a series of popular dolls in the 1950s. Better than a Barbie, if you ask us. During these initial years of cartooning for The New Yorker, William raked in about $4,500 for his creations, which equates to about $70,000 today (cartoons and covers? In this economy??) And, thanks to his success, he was able to provide well for himself and his family. 

Riding on his success, Billy Boi decided to take his talents in a new direction. He turned away from single panel cartoon creations and began to sketch ~artsy~ symbolic drawings that weren’t necessarily the preferred sugar and spice (and everything nice) of The New Yorker. Described as unique, his new drawings weren’t featured because they were too personal and not funny enough. However, the cartoon editor for The New Yorker, after seeing William’s art said, ”the next generation of artists felt a freedom they never had before.” It was evident: Billiam obviously belonged in MOMA, but apparently said “nah” to the MOMA curator and took his drawings to books instead. 

One of his cartoonist pals at The New Yorker, Bob Kraus, launched Windmill Books, a publishing offshoot of Harper & Row, and William decided to try his hand in kiddie lit. In 1968, at the age of 61, he wrote his first children’s book, which he titled “CDB!” — which translates to “See the Bee!,” duh, obviously, y’all are dumb for not getting that one immediately. But William really hit it big with his third book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (which Emmy and Camille are 100% sure they owned a copy of growing up), which would go on to win the Caldecott Medal and was a National Book Award finalist (and would live on to be a top seller at Scholastic Book Fairs along with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and The Hunger Games). 

William was in particular a fan of drawing animals, believing he could do more weird things with them (Sylvester was a donkey; another popular story, Doctor De Soto, features a mouse dentist and a fox with a toothache). William liked to specifically make mice the heroes and sheroes of his kid lit stories because kiddos, like mice, are small so he taught many a kid through his tales that though they may be little they may also be fierce.

Eventually William Steig added a green-skinned ogre named Shrek into the mix. You may or may not know him, but he was a grumpy grouch who lived in a swamp, left, explored the world with a donkey (who liked waffles — wait, that’s the movie donkey) and married an ugly princess so they could live, “horribly ever after, scaring the socks off all who fell afoul of them (and listen to Smash Mouth for eternity).” DreamWorks Pictures acquired the rights for the movie, which was released in 2001 (but lives on in infamy as a fantastic film for all to enjoy). 

Suffice to say, hey now William Steig was an all-star. By the latter years of his life, he had written and published 30 children’s books. The King of Cartoons, as he came to be known, passed away on October 3, 2003 (it’s October 3rd!) at the age of 95. Steig’s stories about brave mice, stubborn pigs and grouchy ogres as well as his satirical sketches of cranky old men, inmates and politicians have delighted generations of readers who, to this day, still can’t resist the tale of an ogre falling in love or a mouse sewing a fox’s mouth shut. The brave and the bold were prevalent in the tales of William Steig, which is all one would expect from the bold man himself.

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