William Steig's Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
When I began reading Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, I quickly checked back for the copyright date. 1969.
That's because I noticed immediately that it didn't read like a contemporary picture book. There were more words. Modern picture books have about 1000. I haven't counted, but I'd guess this one has more like 3000.
I'm pleased to report that the number of words is the least of what sets Sylvester apart from more recent books. The most remarkable aspect of this book is where Steig takes us with those words.
The nature of fiction is that it enables us (and our children) to experience another character's highs and lows. A book with a happy ending is sure to have had a less happy middle.
For whatever reason, the lows in picture books have been getting less low over time. The old fairy tales featured children being eaten by wolves! These days a story's low might be that a child doesn't get his favorite toy...until the end.
I find it ironic. As TV and the internet expose our kids to ever more disturbing information at ever earlier ages, our inclination is to shield them more and more in the material we present to them.
I think it lessens our credibility. As they graduate from a world in which we control their information flow to a life in which they (and their peers) do, we must seem sadly out of the loop. No wonder it's they who end up shielding us from what's really going on!
That's why Sylvester and the Magic Pebble so refreshed me. There is very real, very pronounced sadness in this book. It still has a happy ending though!
Sylvester is an only child. He likes to collect unusual pebbles. But talk about unusual; the one he finds this day grants wishes, so long as you're holding it. It's all great fun...until a hungry lion appears. Sylvester wishes he could become a rock. Lions, after all, don't eat rocks.
Unfortunately, rocks don't hold pebbles. Sylvester can't wish himself back.
As a rock, he's still sentient, just not animate, and Steig does a brilliant job of conveying the abject sadness of that - one aspect being how badly he misses his parents.
His parents become incredibly sad too as they start to realize Sylvester isn't returning home. Steig doesn't hold back here. Mom and Dad are as bereft as you would expect real parents to be whose child has mysteriously disappeared, and whom the police hold out no hope of finding.
(A crazy aside here. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was banned in some schools and libraries when it was first published, because the police were depicted as pigs. Absurd. Sylvester and his parents are donkeys - that is, asses - and their next door neighbor is a female pig - clearly not a policeman. The police are depicted as sympathetic, not buffonish. I refuse to believe Steig was trying to make any kind of political statement.)
Now, I don't want to give away the clever ending, but it is nearly miraculous and - here's the important part - more joyous as a result of the depths of sadness that preceded it.
Steig won the Caldecott Medal for illustration for Sylvester, but 40 years on it's the story that stands out.
It seems every day there's a missing child case blaring from the TV. Parents, eventually some of that slips through (and then, later on, all of it is going to slip through). Instead of pretending you can hide your kids from the real world, it might be better to simply try to moderate the dosage.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is the picture book version of a missing child case, with the elation of a picture book ending. When the real world starts slipping through and reaching your child, I'll think you'll be glad you had this one on your shelf.
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