Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

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Bibliographic Info:
Steig, William. 1969. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Ill. William Steig. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-66154-X

Review:

This picture book classic tells the story of a young donkey named Sylvester Duncan. Sylvester lives with his parents in Oatsdale and spends his time collecting interesting rocks and stones. When Sylvester finds a shiny, red pebble in the woods one day, he discovers that it has the ability to make his wishes come true as long as he is holding onto the pebble. In his haste to return home and share the magic with his family, he is surprised by a hungry lion who appears ready to pounce. Sylvester is so startled that all he can think to do is wish to be turned into a rock. His wish comes true and, sadly, he realizes that without the ability to pick up the rock, he cannot wish to turn back into a donkey. Mr. and Mrs. Duncan are left to wonder what happened to their son and Sylvester soons becomes more rock than donkey. For worried readers, rest assured that this tale has a happy ending!
This Caldecott Award-winning book is illustrated with pen, ink, and watercolor on paper. Steig’s illustrations are brightly colored and whimsical in detail. Steig worked as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, and his ability to create an entire story in one illustration is evident within the pages of Sylvester (The Jewish Museum 2007). His attention to detail gives his anthropomorphic animal characters delicate but emotionally expressive faces. On pages 16 and 17, the grief visible on the faces of Mrs. and Mr. Duncan are evident without reading the text. It is interesting to imagine how the story might or might not hold up if there were no text. The scenes where Sylvester figures out the rock’s power and then turns into a rock himself might come across as slightly difficult to follow without accompanying text, but the detail and emotion in each illustration prove powerful enough.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is a fable that, due to its vagueness of time period, is a work that has remained well-known and perhaps easy for many to approach since its 1969 publication. There is an interesting juxtaposition between animals such as the Duncans who live in houses and read the newspaper, and animals who live in the wild and are seen as dangerous. Tension builds as Mr. and Mrs. Duncan search for their son while their despair grows and as Sylvester slowly gives up hope of being himself again.
The book has the potential to act as a powerful catalyst for discussion. My first thought after Sylvester wished himself turned into a rock was of the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs. While Jacobs’s story for adults ends with despair, Steig’s picture book stirs fear but ends with much happiness and hope. Children may be dismayed by Sylvester’s predicament, but this is a great opportunity to ask what suggestions they have for Sylvester. Other points of discussion for children may range from the topic of being careful what you wish for to the prominent themes of loss, sadness, hope, and faith.  Elizabeth Allen of Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database writes, “It is so easy to identify with Sylvester. His childlike expression and his faith in the magical stone touch the believer in all of us” (2005). Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is recommended for ages 4 to 8, but the many talking points also make it a great book for older children.
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Nemo agrees that you should be careful what you wish for.


References:

Allen, Elizabeth. 2005. Children’s Literature Database Comprehensive. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/bookdetail/index?page=1&pos=8&isbn=9781416902065#reviews. Accessed September 7, 2013.

Jewish Museum, The. June 2007. “From the New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig.” http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/site/pages/pdfs/TJM_Steig_Travel-Desc_6-07.pdf. Accessed September 7, 2013.

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One thought on “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

  1. Pingback: Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock retold by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Janet Stevens | Miss Amy Reads

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