• Happy birthday Nancy Tafuri (Have You Seen My Duckling?).
  • It’s the birth date of Miska Miles, the pen name of Patricia Miles Martin (1899–1986), Annie and the Old One and William H. Hooks (1922–2008), Pioneer Cat, Moss Gown.
  • Happy birthday Moby Dick by Herman Melville, published in 1851.
  • Bon voyage! Journalist Nellie Bly starts her "Around the World in 80 Days" trip in 1889. Read Nellie Bly’s Book edited by Ira Peck, Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly by Sue Macy, and It Can’t Be Done, Nellie Bly! by Nancy Butcher and illustrated by Jen L. Singh.

While I was vacationing in the Rangeley Lakes area of Maine in October a sign caught my eye: “Wilhelm Reich Museum.” Although I could not get in, I was intrigued to see the location of the laboratory of the radical psychoanalyst who worked with Sigmund Freud. While there I thanked him silently for his little-known contribution to children’s literature: He treated and inspired William Steig.

William Steig was born on November 14, 1907. As a young man Steig sought out Wilhem Reich for psychological treatment and, like other devotees, spent time in Reich’s boxes, the orgone energy accumulators. When I interviewed Steig, then in his eighties, he spoke fondly about his experiences in the orgone box and expressed the wish that I might be able to sit in one some day. He had found the experience liberating.

Although I didn’t get to visit the Wilhelm Reich Museum or sit in an orgone box (much to my dismay),  I did reread Sylvester and the Magic Pebble in Steig’s honor. Sylvester, the donkey, finds a magic pebble, which grants his wishes. Unfortunately, while he is holding it he makes the wrong request and turns into a rock. Then Sylvester has to go through days and nights as a rock, until his father puts the magic pebble on the rock, and Sylvester, wishing to become his real self again, turns back into a donkey.

Steig’s first book for children, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was created at the insistence of a New Yorker colleague, Robert Krauss. Krauss had started his own publishing company and thought Steig’s sensibility was just right for children. After the book won the Caldecott Medal, Steig himself began to believe that he could create books for children and did so until his death in 2003. Even the books written and illustrated in his eighties, like Pete’s a Pizza, show a remarkable youthful spirit.

During the politically charged seventies, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble got into some hot water. In the book Steig portrays the police as pigs, and some people took offense. Steig always liked to point out, however, that his main protagonists were donkeys! Even in his eighties he felt badly that as a newcomer to the field, not accustomed to public speaking, he gave a very brief Caldecott acceptance speech, which offended some member of ALA. Now, of course, all has been forgiven and forgotten. William Steig gave children of the world some of the freshest, funniest, most original picture books ever created. I like to believe that when working in this form he became his true self—the person he was always meant to be.

To become one’s real self is, of course, the goal of all patients in psychotherapy. Maybe this book, and all of Steig’s work, owe far more to Wilhelm Reich than I have ever realized.

Here’s a page from Sylvester and the Magic Pebble:


Originally posted November 14, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Animals, Award Winning, Caldecott, Magic
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
One year ago: Pippi Longstocking


  1. My children loved reading books for William Steig’s birthday this month. My son’s favorite was The Amazing Bone and my daughter’s was Solomon and the Rusty Nail. They both loved CDB! which inspired us to make our own CDB! t-shirts.

  2. Anita says:

    Eric: Thanks for sharing this. I think a CDB t-shirt sounds sublime.

  3. leda says:

    Many many years ago when I ran a preschool, SYLVESTER was just about everyone’s favorite read-aloud. (As soon as I say that, though, I can think of others we all loved…) The story and art resonate so strongly with young children. Steig was an absolute genius, and perhaps we should all try orgone boxes. Thanks for this, Anita.

  4. Eliza says:

    The Wilhelm Reich Museum is definitely worth a stop next time you’re in Rangeley. It was so fascinating and he had such an amazing library that is still perfectly preserved.

  5. anne rockwell says:

    Thanks for this particularly delightful post, Anita. The background on SYLVESTER was new to me and I found it fascinating.

  6. Nathalie Foy says:

    Oh, my three boys and I love William Steig! Pete’s a Pizza is a weekly staple. He’s so good at being true to the darker emotions.

    Another wonderful book about growing up to be exactly what one is meant to be is The Bee Man of Orn, by Frank Stockton and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. I think it should be one of those books that are given as graduation gifts and sold at university book stores alongside Oh, The Thinks You Can Think.

  7. Rachel G says:

    I love William Steig and especially Sylvester and the Magic Pebble! I still love to pick up Steig’s books on occasion and reminisce when I work in the children’s room at the library.

  8. Meg says:

    It’s taken until day 318 of the year to reach The. Best. Children’s Book. Ever. In my humble opinion, of course. Always my favorite, and when I read it in story time, children are rapt. The discovery of something magical. The horror of not being understood. The grief of loss. The power of love to transform. The security of family. I am enthralled each time I return to this story with such powerful themes.

  9. Anita says:

    Meg: Thanks for your enthusiasm for Sylvester. You do realize that my selections are not in order of importance. I am simply linking them to a day of the year — in this case Steig’s birthday.

  10. I’m so sorry that I missed reading this yesterday, but here I am now! Thank you for sharing the insights about William Steig and his life. My favorite titles are: ABEL’S ISLAND; Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride; and Brave Irene.

  11. Mariel says:

    Sylvester and the Magic Pebble moved me to tears the first time I read it! My 3 year old daughter and I had so much fun reading this book and making it the jumping point of our conversations and activities – http://www.thelearningbasket.com/2011/08/sylvester-and-magic-pebble.html

    It’s a treasure!

  12. Trisha says:

    I used to read this to my son who is now 23 years old. He absolutely loved it as much as I do! Thank you for showcasing it.

  13. Ruthie Weil says:

    THIS IS A GREAT BOOK! I love all of William Steig’s books. They have rich vocabulary and are very appropriate for older readers as well as young. I used several with a fourth grade student I was tutoring last year. She loved them, and really enjoyed watching videos of them produced by Weston Woods (now Scholastic) after reading them. There is also a “Getting to Know William Steig” video which is really fun to watch. It’s interesting to see the personality behind all of his great books. My other favorites of his are: Dr. DeSoto and Brave Irene. I’ve also used CDB! to get my fifth grade students thinking as they try to figure them out. Good warm-up in the morning!

Leave a Comment

Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey.

Discover the stories behind the children’s book classics . . .

The new books on their way to becoming classics . . .

And events from the world of children’s books—and the world at large.