Steig, Tehon, and the magic of making children’s books

A dash of Picasso, a dose of William Blake, a formative boyhood in the Bronx, and a never-ending imagination stirred with artistic vigor formed William Steig, one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed cartoonists and children’s book authors.

Born in 1907 in New York City, Steig, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, made his name as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, where he drew more than 100 covers and 1,600 drawings during his 70-plus years at the magazine.

At the behest of a colleague at The New Yorker, Steig began writing and illustrating children’s books in the late 1960s and became a booming success with more than two dozen publications. Contemporary audiences perhaps know him best as the author of “Shrek!,” which was published in 1990 and later adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie franchise by DreamWorks Animation.

A treasure trove of Steig’s work has been donated to Penn’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books & Manuscripts at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, and forms the basis for its new exhibition, “As the Ink Flows: Works from the Pen of William Steig.”

The exhibit, which opened Aug. 22 in the Goldstein Family Gallery on the sixth floor, highlights more than 2,500 of Steig’s original drawings, along with scrapbooks, notebooks, posters, correspondences, books, and other items given to Penn by Steig’s widow, Jeanne.

Lynne Farrington, curator of printed books at the Kislak Center, says the exhibit explores the range of Steig’s career, beginning with his family.

“He was from a very artistic family so we’re highlighting that in the first case,” she says.

Illustrations and hard copies of Steig’s children’s books—some with personal annotations—are on display and his framed works of art drape the gallery walls. Six hundred and fifty of his original drawings were digitized, and many of them are being showcased on an interactive screen outside the gallery.

Farrington says the Center was interested in acquiring the collection because it is an “absolutely wonderful resource” for studying the evolution of Steig and his work as an artist.

“He was far more than just a New Yorker artist, and far more than just a children’s author,” she says. “He was doing all kinds of things and he lived a very long life.”

Steig attended New York’s City College and the National Academy of Design before his academic pursuits were derailed by the stock market crash of 1929. He took to drawing cartoons to support his parents and younger brother, and his first cartoon was published in The New Yorker in 1930.

Common throughout Steig’s children’s books is an interest in human character and psychology—although his characters do not always take a human form.

“Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” for which Steig was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1970, was controversial in its time for its depiction of police officers as pigs—a derogatory term for police used by 1960s anti-establishment types—which caused the book to be banned in some parts of the country. Yet Steig meant no harm; many of the heroes and main characters in his stories were pigs or mice or other animals.

Andrea Gottschalk, exhibition designer and coordinator at the Kislak Center, says part of her fascination with Steig’s drawings is the extent to which his life is, in some cases, directly represented in his work. Some of his early cartoons show innocent but street-smart kids coming of age in New York City, much like his own Bronx upbringing.

Gottschalk viewed thousands of Steig’s illustrations in preparation for the exhibit and says she came away with the impression that “this man knew how to draw, and could be so evocative with such simple brushstrokes.

“That’s a master draftsman, to make something look so simple and so unrefined, but be so expressive,” she says. “That’s someone who really knew his art.” Steig passed away in 2003 at age 95.

“As the Ink Flows,” on display through Dec. 22, is one of two concurrent exhibits at Van Pelt that pay tribute to creators of children’s books. The other, “The School of Atha: Collaboration in the Making of Children’s Books,” celebrates the life of book designer/art director Atha Tehon.

Tehon designed many of Steig’s books, and those of other celebrated children’s authors such as Maurice Sendak, creator of “Where the Wild Things Are.” A collection of Tehon’s books and papers was recently donated to the Kislak Center.

On Oct. 17 and 18, the symposium “Creating Children’s Books: Collaboration and Change” will be held in conjunction with both exhibits, and star notable children’s authors and illustrators, including Jerry Pinkney, Rosemary Wells, Harry Bliss, and Robert Sabuda. Children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus will deliver the keynote address.

“The School of Atha” is on display in the Kamin Gallery on the first floor of Van Pelt through March 27, 2015. The symposium will be held in the Kislak Center’s Class of 1978 Pavilion.

William Steig