Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Amazing Bone by William Steig / Review


The Amazing Bone: Scrabboonit!

The Amazing Bone
William Steig
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976

Helen Duthie
22 September 2013

The text
A book that gets away with featuring a small bone (look inside the piggy's handbag on the cover) as not just a character but a hero deserves attention just for the gall of it. But then we are talking of the same author with a story where the main character turns into a rock (yes, a rock) and remains a rock for a large part of the story (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble), the same author who wrote a story about a rabbit who can turn into a rusty nail at will, and includes the angst-ridden question 'Do nails die?' (Solomon the Rusty Nail), the guy who wrote a story about a man becoming a dog and not being able to communicate to his wife who he really was (Caleb and Kate), the very same man who introduced young readers to the art of abbreviation well before mobile phone texting was invented (CDB!) and the same dude who manages to conjure up a nightmare scene in which the nightmarishness of it all is the sickly niceness of some disgustingly loving children (Shrek!).

So when dreamy Pearl, the charming little pink riding bonnet on the front cover above, decides to dawdle on the way home from school, stopping 'to watch the grownups in town at their grownup work, things she might someday be doing', and then sits on the ground in the forest half way home to take in the beautiful arrival of spring ('the warm air touched her so tenderly, she could almost feel herself changing into a flower') and hears herself say 'I love everything', we are hardly surprised that a bone lying nearby should reply 'So do I'. 'You talk?' asks Pearl. 'In any language' says the bone, 'and I can imitate any sound there is'. The bone and Pearl hit it off straight away and Pearl decides to take the bone home. But on the way, they first have to deal with three highway robbers with pistols and daggers and a fox who is set on Pearl becoming his dinner for the evening. Luckily, the bone has other powers, learnt passively and unknowingly from his previous owner -a witch. One is left wondering how on earth it is possible to combine humour, tenderness, loyalty and friendship with the absurd quite so incredibly naturally. This 1977 Caldecott Honor Book is a big favourite at the moment. In fact, most of William Steig's work is, really.

As always, Steig's language is gorgeously rich and entirely unafraid of 'big words' and poetic prose. On her way home from school, Pearl stops at a barn and stands "gawking as the old gaffers pitch their ringing horseshoes". After announcing that Pearl will be his main course at dinner that night, the fox didn't just grab her; "he seized Pearl in a tight embrace", to which the bone reacts by screaming "Unhand her, you villain", leaving its fiercest insult for a little later: "You worm, you odorifeous wretch!". I see lots of reviews of Steig's work saying readers sometimes feel the need to simplify the language when they read the stories out loud, 'especially for younger children'. Here's a little piece of advice: don't do it! don't do it! don't do it! Steig was not only unafraid of using language interestingly, he was extraordinarily good and using 'difficult' language in context in such a manner that even the youngest of children will understand perfectly well what most of it means. What's more, the 'big words' he often chooses are marvellously sonorous and children are immediately attracted to them - and love learning them. Ultimately, 'odoriferous wretch' sounds one hell of a lot more intriguing and funny as an insult than smelly old miserable fox, whatever your age.

The illustrations
In The Amazing Bone, William Steig's immediately recognisable pen, ink and watercolour illustrations bring us the arrival of spring in its full glory and optimistic abandon, complementing the textual descriptions. "Spring was so bright and beautiful... her light dress felt like petals." "The spring green sparkled in the spring light. Tree toads were trilling. It's the kind of wonderful day," said Pearl, "when wonderful things happen-like my finding you." "Like my finding you!" the bone answered. And it began to whistle a walking tune that made the going very pleasant".
'I love everything,' she heard herself say. 'So do I,' a voice answered.
Pearl straightened up and looked around. No one was there.
'Where are you?' she asked.
Steig is also wonderful at portraying and provoking emotions in his readers. Look below and feel Pearl's fear, pride and despair.
'You can't have my purse,' she said, surprised at her own boldness.

'He wore a spring of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane and he
 was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp white teeth'. 

'Pushing Pearl along, the fox set out for his hideaway'. 

'I'm only just beginning to live', Pearl whispered [...]. 'I don't want it to end'.
'I know,' said the bone. 

'I regret having to do this to you', said the fox. 'It's nothing personal'. 
Frightening stuff, you'll agree! But then look below and feel the exhilarating joy of the reunion. "Where on earth have you been?", ask Pearl's parents. "We were frazzled with worry". And then the bliss of sleeping safely in the warmth of her own house with the lovely company of her friend the bone.
'The moment the door swung open, she was in her
mother's arms, and right after that in her father's.  
'Sometimes the bone put Pearl to sleep by singing,
or by imitating soft harp music'. 

Reading it out loud

All of Steig's books are a delight to read out loud. Most of his texts are quite a lot longer than today's picture-book standard, but not too long to read in one sitting from a young age.

In The Amazing Bone, the emotional rollercoaster we are taken through is guaranteed to keep ears pricked and eyes peeled for what's coming next. We feel the carefree joy of spring, then the amazement at the magic bone, the fear of being shot and the exhilaration of escaping death, the fear of being eaten, and the final relief of escaping death for the second time that day, followed by the comfort of arriving home to some very worried parents and snuggling down to sleep with the new friend the bone.

Besides the vocabulary, which we already talked about above, with interesting sounding words that serve to perk up little listeners and sometimes give them a giggle too, Steig also intersperses interesting questions and explicit comments which tend not to go unnoticed when reading his books aloud. He gives kids things to think about, all the time. They might think about them then and there or the questions might hang around ringing in their ears for later. A few examples of this in The Amazing Bone are:

"She watched the grownups in town at their grownup work, things she might someday be doing."

"How come you can sneeze?", asks Pearl. "I don't know", replies the bone. "I didn't make the world".

Later, the bone says to the fox: "You must let this beautiful young creature go on living. Have you no shame, sir!" The fox laughed. "Why should I be ashamed? I can't help being the way I am. I didn't make the world."

My son (aged 4.5) likes going back to these and pointing out that the fox says the same phrase as the bone before and wondering why.

At the fox's hideaway, the bone whispers to Pearl: "I know how you feel". "I'm only just beginning to live,", Pearl whispers back. "I don't want it to end". "I know", says the bone.

Another wonderful thing about reading The Amazing Bone out loud of course are the wonderful spell words the bone utters to get rid of the fox: Yibbam! Yibbam sibbible! Jibrakken sibbible digray! Alabam chinook beboppit gebozzle! And our favourite, Scrabboonit!

Reading Steig's books aloud guarantees laughter, concern, delight at magic or supernatural phenomena and children who are never ever talked down to. And boy, do they appreciate it.

Other things we like about The Amazing Bone and Steig in general
First off, we love the idea that a bone can have personality. A clearly defined, engaging personality too!

The first book of Steig's we got was Pete's a Pizza (a wonderful little story pizza boy and a pizza-maker father showing how play can be a very effective way of exiting a bad mood). My son would have been around two years old when we got Pete's a Pizza and he was captivated from the word go. Then we got Shrek! which he also loved, followed closely by Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which was a very very very big hit with him and us alike. This story of a donkey who finds a magic pebble, by mistake wishes he was a rock and becomes one, was the beginning of our addiction to a number of Steig books about things turning into others and becoming trapped in a way that renders the original identity meaningless and the original identity-holder hopeless (check out Solomon and the Rusty NailCaleb and Katie). The Amazing Bone is also 'one of those', even though there is no transformation as such in the book. I like that my son is able to identify it as 'one of those', like Gorky Rises, the story about a frog who concocts a magic liquid that makes him fly and ends with a rock known as Elephant Rock turning into a real elephant. My son often asks, when we read The Amazing Bone, what we think the bone was before. I love that he recognises and has developed a Steig logic in his head.

Many of these books also have other things in common. William Steig makes his characters go through real horror, pain and anguish, but often compensates them with exhilaratingly happy reunion endings. Check out a few here: 

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble 

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, whole family
cuddling up on the sofa after a bit of a rough experience. .  

Solomon and the Rusty Nail

Brave Irene

Caleb and Kate. Rather nice to find out the dog you took in
around the time your husband went missing...
was in fact your husband all along!

Caleb and Kate

Spinky stops sulking, in Spinky Sulks
Spinky sits on his father's knee. Sometimes he might not be that bad after all.
From Spinky Sulks

A related recurring theme in many of Steig's books is separation (either due to physical impossibility -like Sylvester or Solomon in their rock and nail form- or in coming of age adventures of sorts -Zeke PippinGorky Rises or The Amazing Bone itself-. I love the way that what in most authors would reduce to portraying the fear of not being with your parents, in Steig becomes something so much more layered, where the fear alternates with an almost exhilarating fantasy at the thought they are all out there looking for you. It's a bit like wishing to know how everyone would react if you died, and getting to see for yourself. Reaffirming your loved ones' love for you.

In Spinky Sulks, "Spinky's family was worried. They couldn't stand to see him feeling so wretched".

In Gorky Rises, we are told "Gorky's parents had been out all night searching for him. By now, they were so worried they were ready to kill themselves just to end their misery."

In Caleb and Kate, "Kate longed for her missing husband; she couldn't understand why he'd left her. And how Caleb wished he could speak and explain! He would sprawl by her feet, gnawing a bone, while she worked at her weaving. Often a tear would hang from her lashes, or she would stare through the window and sigh, and Caleb would put his paws in her lap and lick her sad face."

In Solomon the Rusty Nail, Solomon thinks "How his poor parents must be suffering, not knowing what had become of him. How miserable they must be without their child.  

In Zeke Pippin, the pig protagonist slides into dreamland. "There he found his poor mother and father, and his poor brother and sister, all crying their hearts out, showering their clothes and the carpet with hot tears, asking how they could possibly go on without their oh-so-beloved Ezequiel. "If I don't see my angel again soon", his mother wailed, "I'll shoot myself!".

In child readers, I think many of Steig's stories have an effect a bit like the equivalent of the adult fantasy of going to your own funeral and taking comfort in how much everyone misses you. Giving children an idea of how much they might be missed if they go missing is a comforting fantasy. "We were frazzled with worry", say Pearl's parents. "Really? You were?", we can almost hear Pearl thinking.

In two words: Read Steig! 

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, William Steig, 1976.
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie. Copy it or reproduce it, but please be nice and cite your source (author and blog).


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