How the Creator of Doctor De Soto Became the King of Cartoons
by Alexie Basil with Tatiana Florival and Alana Pedalino
If you take a walk through New York City’s Greenwich Village Historic District, you could blink and miss the three-story redbrick Millay House.
At just 8 feet 7 inches wide (and only 2 feet across at its smallest), 75 ½ Bedford Street is considered to be the narrowest town house in all of New York City.
But within those tight quarters lived American literary giants, including Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay; bestselling author of Stone Soup Ann McGovern; and renowned cartoonist and children’s book creator—also known as the “King of Cartoons”—William Steig.
William Steig was born in Brooklyn just after the turn of the 20th century to two immigrants from Austria. His father, Joseph, was a housepainter, and his mother, Laura Ebel, was a seamstress. They encouraged William and his three brothers to follow their love of the arts.
“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.” To Steig’s parents, the arts were the best option for their four sons to pursue.
(“When my brother Henry declared that he wanted to become a dentist, we just laughed him out of it,” William recalled.)
After graduating high school at 15, William did stints at three colleges, spending just five days at the Yale School of Fine Arts, two years at the City College of New York, and finally, three years at the National Academy of Design before the Great Depression wiped out his family’s savings and forced him to drop out.
Fortunately, his aptitude for pen and ink was enough to keep food on the table for himself, his parents, and his younger brother, Arthur: in 1930, he sold his first comic to the New Yorker.
The wry cartoon depicted one prison inmate telling a fellow inmate about his incorrigible son. Initially, editor Harold Ross wanted another artist to redraw it—but at the advice of his mother, William refused.
And she was right—the New Yorker ultimately bought his cartoon.
Soon, William would generate $4,500 annually through his art (which is just shy of $70,000 by today’s standards, and was a comfortable amount for a family of four at the time). He would go on to sell the New Yorker 1,600 more cartoons and 117 magazine covers.
William’s upbringing, reverence for Picasso, and sharp wit gave his work a unique sensibility that immediately set him apart from other artists.
John Updike, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and fellow contributor to the New Yorker, once said, “Steig’s cartoons do not only deliver a joke but make us reflect upon the nature of reality. There is a psychological and philosophical resonance in Steig that has long set him apart in the New Yorker.”
By the mid-1930s, William would push his talent even further and move on to “symbolic drawings”—what the New York Times’ Sarah Boxer described as “unconscious excursions rendered on paper,” like the poems of his contemporary, E. E. Cummings.
New Yorker editor Harold Ross said that while the symbolic drawings were very interesting and that someday people would hail Steig as a genius, the drawings were “too personal and not funny enough” for the New Yorker.
And so William took his symbols to books.
Over the years, he published several titles—About People, The Lonely Ones, All Embarrassed, and Small Fry among them.
Notably, despite his love of symbolism, William refused to ascribe meaning to his own work. In a 2009 interview, his wife, Jeanne Steig, said, “If you tried to find the underlying meaning of a book Bill had written, he would just smile politely and immediately forget whatever you said.”
It wasn’t until 1967 that one of his fellow New Yorker cartoonists, Bob Kraus, launched Windmill Books, a children’s imprint for Harper & Row. He convinced William—then 61 years old—to write his first picture book, CDB!, which stands for “See the Bee!”
William hit his stride with book three, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which won the Caldecott Medal and was a National Book Award Finalist, and secured his place in children’s lit history.
His work for children features many animals (he thought he “could get crazier with animals and have them do stranger things”) and even an ogre or two—like in his mega-bestselling picture book Shrek!, which DreamWorks Pictures would later turn into an animated movie by the same name (William loved the film, by the way). But he was picky about the roles the animals played. His wife, Jeanne, recalled that he liked to make mice the heroes of his stories since “children like mice, because children—like mice—are small.”
But William was hesitant to make a different small creature his protagonist. “I once asked him to write a book with a cat hero,” Jeanne recounted. “But he said ‘in books, cats can only be villains.’”
In his Newbery Honor–winning picture book from 1982, Doctor De Soto, William reaffirmed his belief that some animals just can’t be the hero—in the story, a fox with a toothache can’t overcome his natural instinct to eat his mouse dentist. (Fortunately, the wise Doctor De Soto prepares for this and glues Mr. Fox’s mouth shut after extracting the painful tooth!)
By the time William passed in 2003, he had written and illustrated nearly three dozen books for children, 16 books for adults, and hundreds of cartoons and covers for the New Yorker. Through this incredible body of work and his contribution to children’s literature, his legacy lives on.
William Steig carved out dual careers as both a highly respected and entertaining cartoonist and an award-winning, bestselling author of children’s picture books and novels. He won the prestigious Randolph Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the Caldecott Honor for The Amazing Bone, the Christopher Award for Dominic, and the John Newbery Honor for both Abel’s Island and Doctor De Soto.
Photo credit: © Anne Hall
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